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Blessings under the Bridges blesses both volunteers and homeless people

Sr. Sue Orlowski, SP

Ministry of mercy brings Mike and Jessica Kovac closer.

What started for Jessica Kovac as a one-day ministry with 40 brown bag meals prepared in her kitchen with $50 in tips she made at a high-end restaurant, has evolved into a ministry that includes 75 volunteers and three paid staff.

Every Wednesday, whether it’s 9 degrees or 100, the ministry, Blessings Under the Bridge (BUTB), serves about 250 people under a bridge in southeast Spokane, offering food, support, camaraderie and supplies.

Twice a year it hosts events that draw up to 500 volunteers and 1,000 people who live under the bridge, on the streets, in shelters or in low-income apartments.  The summer event is a barbecue.  The December event is held no matter what the temperature is. 

As the ministry grew, Jessica formed a nonprofit organization in 2010.

As a child, she moved from California to Seattle. Then her father’s job brought them to Spokane.  She later moved to Portland and back to Spokane with her husband, Mike.

After 17 years in a difficult marriage, Jessica was on the verge of divorce. Feeling bitter toward her husband and ashamed of who she’d become, she decided to head to unfamiliar territory and do something for people who were worse off than she was.

As she stepped out of her car alone near the freeway where many homeless slept, she had a case of water and a tote bag with the food.

“That step changed my life, restored my marriage and encouraged others, including my husband, to join me,” she said.  “I was scared, but filled with peace, knowing that I was being drawn, pulled and led to do something far beyond my understanding. I had no clue that God had a plan for my life all along.”

What started as one evening became two, three or four evenings, and then a full-time ministry.

Mike was skeptical at first but joined her “under the bridge” about a month later. He quickly became an avid supporter as he listened to stories from the downtrodden and did what he could to make a difference in their lives.

He said doing this ministry together has brought Jessica and him closer. As he listened, people’s stories touched his heart and gave him hope. 

Before long their children, Molly and Ashley, started helping. The weekly feeds now include their grandchildren, ages 4, 7 and 8.

Although Jessica felt drawn to “the bridge” and her new friends there, she had to continue to work at the restaurant until her husband was able to go on disability after losing a good job because of a work injury. Over the years, he had eight back surgeries before he could draw disability income. 

Once there was another income, Jessica quit her restaurant job. As the ministry evolved, she was able to draw a salary.

As the third child in a family of four girls, she felt unique and misunderstood.  Now she realizes she has ADHD.  Her difficult childhood became a blessing because, as an adult, it has given her empathy to relate to the people under the bridge.

“God called me to use my struggles to help others who are struggling,” she said. “God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called.”

Jessica feels God directs her work with poor, marginalized, vulnerable people who live on the streets.

She grew up Catholic but said she began to know God and Jesus eight years ago, when she started going to non-denominational churches. 

“God gave me a new identity and a new ministry of doing works of mercy, kind acts and acts of compassion, by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs,” she said,

Citing Matt. 25:35-36, she lists those acts as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, instructing, consoling, comforting, forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.

Blessings Under the Bridge seeks to offer hope to people who feel alone, rejected, outcast and worthless.  Its motto is: “Live, Love and Serve.”

“We serve people in need who deserve what we take for granted.  It’s a privilege to serve them,” Jessica said.  “It’s more than serving a meal.  It’s an experience. Through God’s truth, we endeavor to reach, bless and offer unconditional love to those lost on the streets of our community to restore their hope, purpose and dignity.”

Over the years BUTB has built relationships with churches, Union Gospel Mission, Feed Spokane, Spokane Valley Partners, Food Services of America, Core-Mark wholesaler and local grocery stores. 

Opportunities to serve, donate or sponsor are listed at BUTB.org or by texting BUTB to 24587.

Over the years, the ministry has changed. At first, it had several locations—Catholic Charities’ parking lot, Hope House on Second Ave. and under the bridge at Browne and 3rd. 

Now it offers services only under the bridge at McClellan and 3rd Ave., because ministering in one place saves time and energy.

For each meal, volunteers unload tables, chairs, supplies and food from trucks as patrons line up for a meal. Children aged six and older serve meals beside their parents.

There are eight stations. At one, there is a seven-course, sit-down meal at tables covered with white linen tablecloths. There is live or recorded music while they eat.

The evening includes free haircuts, cell phone time and an opportunity to “shop” for coffee, cookies, donuts, toiletries, clothes, blankets, school supplies and medical resources.

Sometimes there are programs, like resume-writing workshops.

Blessings Under The Bridge serves quality food like Fettuccini Alfredo.  Those served also receive extra food and treats in brown bags.

Donated clothing with tears or stains is not given out, because “we are serving God’s special people, treating them as we want to be treated,” Jessica said.

“God gives me the strength to do the ministry, and I am blessed as much or more than those to whom I minister. I learn from them. They are kind, grateful, humble and forgiving. God told me not to see the people as those who hurt me or others, but to look at the little child in them who has also been hurt and is hurting, and ‘remember that you might be entertaining angels unaware,’” she said. “Because we are to be friendly to and accepting of strangers, we entertain messengers of God unaware.

“After eight years, I can’t look at someone lying there cold. I know my acknowledgement, hug, ear, prayers, hands and feet during a meal are appreciated,” Jessica said.

The people feel blessed to be called by their first names, to share when they find a place to live, or to have someone listen.

Some tell her not to touch them, because they are dirty, but soon they reach out to be hugged and cry when she hugs them.

Jessica attends Mirabeau Chapel, but the Church for her is the people of God—the people who live “under the bridge.”

Joining her are volunteers from many churches, Jewish people, Mormons and people of no faith who also feel blessed to help.

Jessica and Mike befriended Homer, a 58-year-old homeless man.  Over three years, he was on the road to recovery. They helped reunite him with his son and daughter whom he had not seen in 28 years.  Someone donated frequent flyer miles so Homer and Mike could fly to Florida to see his family, who thought he was dead.

After Homer died a few years later, Jessica put pictures and a quote on social media: “Sometimes life brings you full circle to a place you have been before just to show you how much you have grown.”

Over the last eight years, Jessica has received many awards, been on TV and been featured in news articles.

“It’s the people and the effect we have on each other that keeps me coming back week after week,” she said.

Mike and Jessica realize how much they had to be thankful for, especially each other.

“The people under the bridge have touched our hearts more than we have touched theirs,” she said.

For information, call 869-6697, email blessingsunderthebridge@gmail.com or visit butb.org.




Copyright © October 2016 - The Fig Tree