Standing on the frozen pavement, surrounded by cold so severe it stung their faces, Mike and Jessica Kovac welcomed a sprawling crowd of dinner guests with warm smiles last Wednesday.
The meal setting was the ground floor of an I-90 overpass with concrete for a roof and windowless views of downtown Spokane. The menu for the evening featured hot chili and sides. Many went back through the line for seconds – and thirds. Temperatures hovered near the single digits.
“It was bitterly cold,” said Mike, who bundled up in his warmest winter gear to serve food. “It’s heart-wrenching to think that people are out dealing with this kind of weather.”
While some shelters in the area provide warming stations when temperatures drop below a certain point, not everyone avoids spending the night on the street. Some seek respite under cardboard shanties, others curl up in the hollow wedge of a bridge. The hands of those who cope with such elements often reach a red and chafed state that becomes permanent.
“Socks are like gold to them,” Jessica said. “The main thing is just trying to keep their head and feet as warm as possible.”
Every Wednesday, Mike and Jessica – co-founders of a local nonprofit called Blessings Under the Bridge – coordinate a communal meal for the homeless. There is always a hot dinner served. On the second and third Wednesdays, visitors can stop by seven stations that include groceries, clothes, blankets, haircuts and more.
“This is about the respect we have for the homeless,” said Jessica. “We want to treat them with dignity.”
The Kovacs are joined by an enthusiastic volunteer crew of around 30 each week with the food donated by local restaurants and food outlets. On a typical Wednesday, around 200 to 250 show up to eat, talk and gather basic supplies.
More than simply food, Jessica says the gathering is about making sure all who attend know they matter.
“If you just give people the time of day, it makes a difference,” she said. “There are so many negative and unfair stereotypes of the homeless.”
The Kovacs point to their Christian faith and scriptures like Matthew 25:35-36 as the basis for their tireless work helping those often forgotten:
“For I was an hungered and ye fed me; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.”
Blessings Under the Bridge began one Saturday morning in 2007 when Jessica drove downtown from Liberty Lake with 40 brown bag lunches and a case of bottled water. Using the tip money from waiting tables at Hay J’s Bistro in Liberty Lake, Jessica began making the pilgrimage each Saturday.
“Everyone wants to do something good in life,” she said. “I felt called to serve the homeless.”
Mike was skeptical at first but eventually joined his wife hauling the brown bags, blankets, clothes and other items to people who soon become friends. After suffering a back injury and losing his job at Costco, Mike had drifted into a state of depression and resentment. His role as emissary to the homeless brought him newfound purpose.
“I went from $75,000 a year to $1,800 a month,” Mike said. “I had been very materialistic. This gave me a sense of hope.”
The effort also provided new stability for Mike and Jessica’s marriage. After 17 years, the couple had been on the verge of divorce.
“Together, we became a team,” Jessica said.
The shifting of priorities and perspective was also connected to a book Jessica discovered around the time of her first delivery downtown. “Driven by Eternity – Making Your Life Count Today and Forever” by John Bevere draws upon Chapter 5 of Second Corinthians in creating an eternal frame of reference for life on earth. In the scripture, the Apostle Paul offers a reminder that while worldly existence is fleeting, there is a spiritual dwelling beyond that includes standing accountable before God.
As they continued their service, the Kovacs developed what Jessica describes as “a heart for the homeless.” In the first year of Blessings Under the Bridge, over 400 people received food, supplies and encouragement.
“My life had new meaning,” Jessica said. “These people became our friends.”
The Kovacs also came to the realization that those who received help often had a more positive outlook than many in mainstream society.
“We learn from them,” Jessica said. “They are kind, grateful, humble, forgiving. We get asked all the time ‘How are you going to fix these people?’ Well, they’re fixing us.”
Earlier this year, a homeless man came up to Mike and apologized for harsh words he had spoken the week before.
“He didn’t have to do that, but he did,” Jessica said. “And here we have people who put up walls for years because they are too prideful and stubborn.”
When traveling outside Spokane, the Kovacs can often be found serving the homeless in other areas. A recent trip to Southern California found them helping with meal distribution on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“This is our life – it’s who we are,” said Mike. “We just hope that people will see it and want to make a difference in some way. Help your neighbor, try to have an impact.”
From its beginnings, Blessings Under the Bridge has made it a priority to serve food that never cuts corners. Top-quality bread and sliced meat comprise the sandwiches in the brown bag lunches. Hot meals feature selections like fettuccini alfredo and tacos with all the fixings. The bags themselves are always folded in a certain way, never rolled. If a donated clothing has a tear or blemish, it is not given out.
“It’s important to treat these people like we would want to be treated,” Mike said.
Blessings Under the Bridge holds a large-scale event each summer and winter that includes food, music, haircuts, distribution of clothing and more. The gathering in 2011 drew over 1,000 people. This year’s Winter Event is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 14 from noon to 2:30 p.m.
Moving into the future, Blessings Under the Bridge will be looking for a new home of its own. The lease on the building in northwest Spokane that serves as the nonprofit’s headquarters will run out in March.
“We know the right place is out there,” Jessica said. “It’s all good. We’ve never gone backwards since we started. We know it will all work out.”
Future projects for the organization include the purchase of 35 folding tables that can be arranged under the overpass during meals. As they have for the past seven years, Mike and Jessica say they are simply looking out for their friends.
“When the homeless eat, they usually don’t have a place to sit,” Jessica said. “It all goes back to treating everyone with respect and dignity.”
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