BLOOMINGTON - They call him Brother Ben.
His real name is Ben Gramm of Normal who turns his truck into Santa's sleigh year-round to deliver beds and other furniture for Recycling for Families. He's one of about 100 volunteers who help the Christian-based ministry at 515 N. Center St., Bloomington, donate household goods and about 1,000 pieces of furniture to about 70 families each month.
"Ben is a jewel," said Recycling for Families executive director Doug Poag. "He is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's the real deal."
"He's like an angel," added Alicia Girard, who's had Gramm save more than one client involved in her transitional living program at the Bloomington Housing Authority from losing their possessions after they were put on the curb during an eviction. Gramm swept in, loaded his truck up and took the few sticks of furniture to storage until an apartment opened in public housing, Girard said.
"And, he finds beds, and he takes them to people," she said.
Gramm, 51, a Gridley native, began doing volunteer service through the Apostolic Christian Church. Among other programs, the church sends clothes to the needy living overseas. Through the church, he met Gridley resident Ralph Schlif, who was independently distributing donated beds and furniture to people for years. Gramm, a contract driver with a rural route for the U.S. Post Office, had a back-up truck that he pressed into service to help.
Gramm would hear about someone who needed a bed and locate a donated one.
"I saw people sleeping on hard floors," said Gramm, a member of the New Life Fellowship in Bloomington and who still teaches Sunday School at Sunnyside public housing complex for the Apostolic Church.
Many of the people he helps are looking for a new start in Bloomington-Normal, often from the Chicago area. "They hear something and hope to better themselves and their kids away from that environment," he said.
Gramm started volunteering at Recycling for Families about a year ago. He goes every week, often driving to communities outside the Twin Cities to pick up donations. He also helps deliver furniture when needed.
Gramm also gets called by The Baby Fold and the McLean County Health Department. People he has helped refer their friends. Whether they're unemployed, a member of the working poor or recovering alcoholics and addicts trying to get off the streets, Gramm knows helping them set up their own place transforms what was once just a roof over their heads to a home.
"They have more of a sense of belonging when they own something, especially if it's nice," Gramm said. "It means more."
Gramm does other volunteer work, too. On Sundays, he starts early in the morning at the Twin Cities' two truck stops, where he hands out free Bibles to fellow truck drivers. Then, he often heads to a nursing home to visit with residents. After attending church, he visits inmates at McLean County Jail before heading to Sunnyside to do the Sunday School program.
"It keeps me young," he said, laughing.
Nearly everyone he comes in contact with receives a Bible and a few words of encouragement. If they show an interest, he refers them to one of the area's many churches. He thinks maybe that's why people he's helped began calling him Brother Ben. He likes the nickname because it lets people know that what he does, he does for his faith.
When asked why he works so hard for people he doesn't know, Gramm refers to something Jesus told his followers - when they help the least of his brothers, they help him.
Gramm said his work also has taught him the truth of another lesson Jesus taught.
"It really is more blessed to give than receive," he said.