Living to serve
"I had no idea what I was doing," she said. "I carried 40 sack lunches in a pink basket with my hoochie high-heels on."
With years of experience as a waitress, the Liberty Lake resident said talking to people on the streets was easy for her, just a little different. She said one of the big moments for her in those early days was a particular response from a homeless man she met while driving around downtown Spokane.
"His eyes, I just remember his eyes," Kovac said, widening her own. "I gave him the brown bag and whatever I had in my car. I'm watching him in my rearview mirror and he's walking toward the dumpster. I'm human; I was like, I know he's just going to throw it away. I'll never forget. He literally threw himself against the dumpster and just started shoveling the food in his mouth."
Soon after, her husband Mike Kovac joined the effort.
"When she first started, I was kind of skeptical," Mike Kovac said. "That changed quickly."
Now the couple, along with a core group of volunteers, serves meals every Wednesday evening to about 200 homeless people. They've expanded services to provide clothing, home furnishings and toiletries to those in need. Their effort has gained 501c3 status, a 34,000-square-foot building, scores of donations and a name: Blessings Under the Bridge.
The blessed brown bag
She said she and her husband share a philosophy: There are just as many unhappy, addicted, angry people with roofs over their heads as there are on the streets. Those on the streets just don't have anywhere to hide all that baggage.
"Let's just agree; some of them probably are lying," Jessica Kovac said. "They don't really need to get a bus ticket home; when they ask for money, they might actually be wanting to buy drugs. That doesn't bother me, because I know there has to be a reason why they do the drugs. There's a reason why they drink alcohol. I go to the root of it."
As an aside, she mentioned that in the history of the organization, no one has ever asked her for money. However, volunteers are constantly asked what church they are with.
She said their mission is simple: It starts with fresh food served consistently with love, then there's trust, then there's a relationship. Sometimes, it changes lives.
"When we go out and serve these people, we don't just go out and say, ‘OK, here you go,'" Jessica Kovac explained. "We get to know these people. We know their names, their needs, if they're sick - whatever their story is. There's no hidden agenda to get people to stop drinking or get a job or whatever. We've just found time and time again, that that's when people completely change. It's unconditional. It's free. It's like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real. People are nice.'"
A turning point for Blessings Under the Bridge came last year when the effort gained area-wide attention for reuniting Homer Hill, a homeless man who lived under an Interstate 90 overpass, with the family he had abandoned 28 years before.
In their four-year friendship with Hill, the Kovacs provided countless meals, furnished two residences and taxied him to doctor's appointments.
"He had the shaggy beard, drunk, sweet charming man, and he just kept floating in and out of our lives," Jessica Kovac said. "In February of 2010, he called us up and said he'd gotten off the streets. He said he was too old to be on the streets. He was 63 years old by then and sick with COPD and emphysema. … In July, I decided I had to find his kids."
Armed only with names, the Kovacs found his family living in Florida and boarded a plane last year to reunite him with an ex-wife and two kids who had mourned his assumed death 18 years earlier. And they did it in time for him to form a relationship with his dying daughter.
"The bottom-line for that was it all started with a brown bag," Jessica Kovac said. "We had no idea it was going to lead to that."
A year later, Hill lives with his ex-wife and daughter about two miles from his son. Jessica Kovac said he's clean-cut, sober and happy.
Bridging the gap
"I call it the bridge, but it's just the I-90 overpass," Jessica Kovac said. "The bridge is just a metaphor for us. Our goal is to bridge the gap in Spokane - rich or poor, sinner or saint, young or old, outcast or glorified - whatever."
With a bubbly, never-met-a-stranger personality and willingness to serve, Jessica Kovac seems to draw support everywhere she goes.
"I think God can use my quirkiness, and he does," Jessica Kovac said. "I didn't go to college, and I've been married since I was 16. This is how I am all the time."
A board member for the nonprofit is the United Airlines employee who checked the Kovacs into their flight to Florida with Hill. One of the lead volunteers used to be on the receiving end of the brown bag; now he's reunited with his local family and provides "comedic relief" and consistent, hard work on Wednesday nights, Jessica Kovac said.
One faithful volunteer contacted Jessica Kovac through the website, www.butb.net, saying a group of friends was looking for a way to get involved.
"This lady had never baked before," Jessica Kovac said. "Her friends ditched her, and she has probably baked 4,000 cookies for us. She's a foster mom. She lives in a house with no air conditioning, and she's never once asked for money for eggs or butter. She's always thanking everyone for getting to be a part of this, and I'm like, ‘Are you kidding me?'"
A level head, humble perspective and laid-back attitude reinforce the Blessings Under the Bridge philosophy.
"If there was hope for me, there's hope for you," Jessica Kovac said. "I'm nobody special. Everybody has gifts and abilities that I don't have, and together we make a great team."
Mike Kovac called her the "lifeblood" of the organization, as one who connects the community, does all the networking and constantly passes on new ideas.
Since founding Blessings Under the Bridge, she has been featured in numerous publications and was asked to speak at a missions conference attended by national organizations.
"Every time someone wants to have anything to do with me, I feel like … well, I guess I feel like the homeless," Jessica Kovac said. "I don't think I'm anyone special or have a lot to offer. Every time someone wants to give me something or help me, it's like, ‘Are you serious?' I never stop getting excited."
"It's the one thing that brings us both true happiness, that we can both work on with all our hearts," Mike Kovac said.
Soon after launching their efforts, the couple celebrated Christmas with an event under the bridge.
"I started dreaming it up, talking about round tables with linens and chafing dishes and hot food," Jessica Kovac said. "I could totally picture it in my head. We had this event Dec. 22, 2007. We printed these cheesy little fliers off our computer and invited three shelters. It's really what we're known for now."
For the annual Christmas event, volunteers power wash and decorate the open area under the overpass and serve a feast of eggs, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, baked goods, and pancakes with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
"The first year, we reached out to three organizations, and now we reach out to 42," Jessica Kovac said. "I'm telling you, I have no idea how it comes together. I have no idea. It's crazy."
Through donations from area families and businesses, she said she's able to dole out necessities like blankets, jackets, gloves and socks. And through volunteers the organization is able to forge friendships. She recalled last year when she watched students from Central Valley High School cracking jokes and playing rock, paper, scissors with the homeless.
Mike Kovac said the group continues to see more and more working-class people in the serving line - families that have lost their jobs, others who work two jobs but can't make ends meet.
"The need has grown tremendously over the last few years," he said. "During this time of year, people are extra willing to help out. The sad thing is that this is a regular need. It doesn't go away after the holidays."
This year, the fifth annual event will be held 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 17 under the bridge between Division and Browne off 3rd Street. All are welcome to attend. For more information, visit www.butb.net or contact the organization at 869-6584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The weekly feed
By Kelly Moore
Splash Staff Writer
Every Wednesday, volunteers with Blessings Under the Bridge serve about 200 meals to Spokane's homeless population. The Splash tagged along for an outing last week, just before the Thanksgiving holiday.
5:15 p.m.: A corner of the dark warehouse on Trent, where the new Blessings Under the Bridge HUB is located, is bustling with volunteers packing brown bags with a special holiday meal: turkey sliders, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie strudel for dessert.
Reminiscent of a hectic scene from "Top Chef," organization founder Jessica Kovac weaves in and out of the scene carrying boxes and wiping out crates.
"They're actually getting a full Thanksgiving, can you believe it?" she says. "I had no idea this was coming together this morning."
5:38: "We're out of bins, what a wonderful problem to have," Kovac says as she looks for extra boxes to pack brown bags in. She said the night's fare is the most they've ever given out.
5:50: Kovac says a quick prayer of thanks with a circle of volunteers before heading out. As she asks for each to be touched in a different way, a light drizzle picks up outside where the temperature has dropped into the low 30s.
6:08: The Blessings Under the Bridge Crew pulls up to House of Charity, drops the tailgate on the truck and sends a volunteer inside to announce their arrival. Volunteers form a serving line and start handing out brown bags and hot coffee.
6:28: "Hi friend! How are you?" Kovac said as she hugs a man named Charlie. Charlie boasts when saying he's known Kovac for the entire time she's done Blessings Under the Bridge. His leaky Styrofoam cup makes Jessica laugh, and she runs off to get him a new one.
6:50: Kovac leads the caravan to the spot under the bridge. Three volunteers follow her to a dark nook where a group has made beds for the night. The group discusses the advantages of their location out of the rain, and Kovac thanks them for their hospitality.
"We have a million-dollar roof, and it stretches for miles," a man responds. "It's our pleasure."
7:10: The crew loads up and heads to Hope House, a women's shelter a few blocks away.
"It's a totally different vibe with the ladies," Kovac says on the way. "It's a lot more intimate."
7:15: A group of women receive meals and go through bins of blankets. Those who didn't make the list for one of the shelter's 34 beds will be turned away to sleep outside.
7:32: Rodney, a homeless man on his way to sleep at the men's shelter, passes the commotion in the alley behind Hope House and curiously approaches the scene.
"What are you guys doing?" he asks.
After hearing the rundown and getting a brown bag, he's introduced to Kovac. He tells her he was laid off from his construction job at the end of 2008 and finding work since then has been spotty at best. He commutes daily to a new project in Liberty Lake by bus and returns to Spokane in the evenings to sleep at House of Charity.
She lets him know where and when to find Blessings Under the Bridge.
7:48: After leaving leftover brown bags at Hope House, Kovac returns to the HUB to unload and clean up before heading home. Reflecting on the night's events, she says, "I'm so glad we were able to offer them such a full meal tonight. Things are always so different this time of year. Everyone is always so much more drunk or unhappy, like whatever is missing from their lives is more painful during the holidays."