At 56, John Regan is starting over - again. Next week he'll begin another job as a truck driver for a commercial outfit in Bend.
For now he's living in the back of his van. An electrician by trade, Regan hasn't done any electrical work since the housing market flamed out four years ago. Like other some unemployed workers in Bend, Regan isn't sure when he'll have a proper roof over his head again.
What he does know is that he has a place to go almost every day for a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup and hot sandwich at Family Kitchen, a non-profit meal provider that has stepped up over the past year to meet Bend's growing need for such services.
Regan has been going there regularly since he moved back to Bend from Salt Lake City two months ago when work dried up there. Like others who have long run out of unemployment, Regan has no source of income. But on this particular Monday Regan enjoyed a homecooked meal, consisting of a salad and a ham and cheese sandwich that he washed down with a glass of milk.
Among the homeless and economically disenfranchised, the Family Kitchen is a well-known quantity. It's one of the few, if not only, places where they can go for a hot meal served cafeteria style that arrives with the predictability of frost in February. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the staff of all-volunteer workers shows up at 9 a.m. and begins churning out soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts and more for the dozens of guests who walk through Family Kitchen's signature red doors.
Tucked just a stone's throw off Wall Street south of the library, the Family Kitchen also offers a sit-down dinner on Tuesday and Thursday as well as a dinner on the last Friday of the month, a time when most of Family Kitchen's clients have typically exhausted what little income they have, said board member Pete Lovering.
"A lot of people are here on a daily basis. This is how they survive," said Lovering, who volunteers as a dishwasher at least once a month, typically in conjunction with meatloaf day, which I'm assured is marked on everyone's calendar.
Family Kitchen, of course, didn't invent the concept of charity meals. Churches and other civic-oriented organizations have offered free meals to the poor for centuries. In fact, there are other charity meal providers right here in town. What makes Family Kitchen unique is that the organization's sole mission is offering free meals - no strings attached. The only requirement is that customers treat each other with respect, said Kitchen Coordinator Cindy Tidball, a gravelly voiced former office manager who acts as a sort of head mother around Family Kitchen. Tidball develops the menu, gathers ingredients (largely through donated food from grocery stores), cooks, cleans and coordinates the more than 200 volunteers who donate their time.
Thanks to the ongoing recession and the region's persistently high unemployment, which remains over 11 percent, demand for the Family Kitchen's services has ballooned over the last three years as the ranks of the unemployed have swelled. Recognizing the increasing demand, Family Kitchen's board decided to redouble its efforts to combat hunger. Roughly three years ago, the board charted a strategy to move the meal services from the longtime home in Trinity Episcopal Church's second story community room to a location across the street in a former Lutheran church. According to Lovering, Trinity had acquired the building five years earlier, but had yet to find a permanent use for the space. The proposal was a win-win for Family Kitchen, which for the first time in its roughly 25-year history would have a dedicated space for its work, and for Trinity, whose board and staff would no longer have to worry about scheduling conflicts with Family Kitchen.
But there was much work to be done to bring the idea to fruition. For starters, there was the matter of cash. The modestly funded Trinity, which operates on an annual budget of under $130,000 didn't have the capital to remodel and furnish the space. According to Lovering, 80 percent of that funding comes from individual donors, which means that Family Kitchen didn't have a long list of corporate benefactors to target for donations. Undeterred, the board rolled out an ambitious fundraising campaign that raised $180,000 in less than two years. The successful fundraising effort allowed Family Kitchen to install a new commercial grade kitchen and address other deficiencies, including the lack of wheelchair access at its former home in Trinity Episcopal. It also allowed the organization to increase its overall capacity to help meet the growing demand for meal services.
"The family kitchen has done a great job with their meal service. A lot of the kids that we work with wouldn't have anything if it weren't being provided there. It's a huge help," said Kenny LaPoint, who founded a teen homeless outreach organization in Bend and co-chairs the tri-county Homeless Leadership Coalition.
Tidball said it's not unusual for Trinity to serve as many as 4,000 or more meals in a month. The organization hit a monthly high in August when it recorded roughly 4,700 meals. That's more than double the previous average of 2,200 meals. While demand typically tapers off in the winter when the town's transient population shrinks, the need has remained relatively consistent this winter. In fact, the nonprofit recorded its biggest single day in terms of meals served on the last Friday in January.
But to really appreciate the growth in demand, you have to go back a little further to the early 2000s when Family Kitchen was doing 40 or so meals three times per week.
"We went from 500 to 600 meals to 4,000 in the last eight years," Lovering said.
He attributes the growth to the recession and persistent joblessness, but also to the increased awareness of Family Kitchen in the community.
That awareness has spread primarily by word of mouth.
Dan Williams first heard about weekday and Saturday meals from a friend and has been going there off and on for the past five years. A laborer who has experience painting, siding and roofing, the 46-year-old Williams has been unable to find work in Bend's down economy. Like Regan, he went to Salt Lake City for work and found some, temporarily, loading and unloading trucks. When that job ended, Williams came back to Bend. But it's been a struggle since he returned four months ago. He lives in a tent north of town that he shares with a friend. Nights are cold and days are long. Recently, he started taking classes at COCC with the hope that more education will open a door.
"I'm looking for work, but there isn't much with the economy the way it is," Williams said.
It's a familiar refrain around these parts where many of the daily clientele are folks who have lost jobs or fallen behind on bills. One of the most common misperceptions is that Family Kitchen and places like it are just for the homeless, Lovering said. For every chronically homeless person, there is someone like Alex, a mill worker who lost his job at the local Jeld-Wen plant and hasn't been able to find work since. In the meantime, Alex, who declined to give his last name, is staying with relatives until he can get back on his feet. He stopped in for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake on a recent Monday morning. Wearing a button-down casual dress shirt and loosely tousled brown hair, Alex wouldn't look out of place in most Bend workplaces. There are many more like him - people for whom a seemingly temporary setback has turned into a daily struggle for survival.
It's their stories that keep the volunteers coming back day after day.
Tidball, who's charged with keeping order and cheer around the lunchroom, started about two and a half years ago at Family Kitchen. What began as a part-time job and a way out of her office career has turned into a passion. Her enthusiasm is evident as she talks about the scores of volunteers and partners who make the Family Kitchen work. But it's the clients, the people who are counting on her to help them make it through the day, that have ignited Tidball's passion for community service. A passion that just a few years ago, Tidball didn't even know she possessed.
"I think it helps me to be the person that I always wanted to be," she said about her work.
The experience has also changed her perspective on what it means to be hungry and in need.
"When you're on the street you can make a snap judgment, but when you're close up and personal it changes things," she said.
That's one of the amazing things about Family Kitchen. And it doesn't have anything to do with how many gallons of soup are served or how many hundreds of sandwiches get made. It's that Family Kitchen, at least for a few hours everyday, takes a population that too often shows up only as a statistic and turns them into human beings.