Serving Denton County, Our Daily Bread aims to feed the working poor

Published in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 25, 2015

Denton soup kitchen Our Daily Bread has always catered to the homeless. Now, it’s six weeks into a Monday night dinner program that helps another group in need — the working poor.

“Monday night dinners are absolutely needed here,” said Myles Wood, 28, who started volunteering in 2013 and was hired by Our Daily Bread in April. “The only other place you can consistently get dinner is the Salvation Army, and they’re very limited on space.”

Dinners, which can accommodate at least 120 people at one time, start at 5:30 p.m. every Monday at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 300 W. Oak St. in Denton.


“It’s a big undertaking, especially since we’re already established for lunches,” Wood said. “But it’s a need and would help a whole lot of people in the community.”

Our Daily Bread is one of 23 agencies selected to receive funds from The Dallas Morning News Charities this year.

In 2004, everything Frank Hurst owned was stolen, including his clothes. Though Hurst, 79, is not homeless, he never fully recovered from the financial blow, he said.

“I had no place to go and no money, but I found out I could get a free meal from Our Daily Bread,” Hurst said. “They even helped me get cataract surgery. I’ve always been grateful for that.”

Hurst said he would like to see the program expanded to add Wednesday and Friday.

“It would make a real big difference for me if it was,” he said.

Rick Holliman, executive director of Our Daily Bread, said the program started with a popular picnic table for day laborers at the corner of Fort Worth and Eagle drives.

“A board member thought they might not eat at Our Daily Bread because they may lose an opportunity to make a living,” Holliman said. “We wanted to find a way to reach out to them without the large investment of a mobile food pantry.”

Our Daily Bread also wanted to further support The Wheeler House, a group home for single working mothers.

“They don’t have an opportunity to eat with us, either,” Holliman said. “So it would really help them if they didn’t have to pay for a meal for their families.”

Our Daily Bread serves about 355 meals on Monday nights, counting second helpings. Most people who attend also eat lunch there during the day, Holliman said.

The organization advertises the dinners through bilingual fliers distributed at schools, libraries, churches and other charitable organizations.

“The fliers don’t just say that we’re having a free dinner,” Holliman said. “They say, ‘Our family invites your family to have a meal with us.’ That way it sounds more like families getting together for a Sunday dinner than a need-based program.”

Our Daily Bread also partners with the Denton Community Food Center to deliver food to students in Denton ISD. The North Texas Food Bank delivers food to the Denton Target Distribution Center, where volunteers sort food before delivering it to children at local elementary schools.

“The food is in backpacks, so it’s not obvious that [the recipients are] in need,” Holliman said. “We also put a flier in the backpacks advertising our Monday night meals.”

Holliman said the dinners might not hit their intended demographic because of fear.

“Some of the working poor are too proud to get help because they don’t want to be affiliated with the stigma of the homeless, drug-addicted ex-convicts and the mentally ill that we also serve,” he said.

He tries to make it a comfortable environment by providing separate tables for families — crayons and coloring books included. Some play the standup piano tucked into the back corner or bluegrass tunes on the mandolin.

“It’s hectic and chaotic around here at lunch, but it’s a real relaxed and pleasant atmosphere in the evenings, almost like a social event,” Holliman said.

He said the volunteers almost act like waiters refilling drinks at their tables.

In the daytime, volunteers who prepare the food also serve it, working from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The dinner preparation crews volunteer from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. before dinner servers arrive at 5:15 p.m., working until 7 p.m.

“We have noticed an increase in new volunteers, particularly college students from both universities,” said Holliman, referring to UNT and TWU. “They’re ecstatic about being here, and some have signed up to volunteer through the end of the year.”

The dinners make Our Daily Bread unique because they feed a section of the community that doesn’t receive much assistance, Holliman said.

“Many people don’t know there’s this class of people who may have a home and job but still need help,” he said.

The organization is also unique because while many of the volunteers are students, so are many of the guests.

“We found out that there are 600 homeless students in Denton ISD and that Denton universities enroll a number of homeless students,” Holliman said. “We need to help those kids to eat, too, as they’re going through school. Just because you’re a student doesn’t mean you have a silver spoon in your mouth.”

The only people Holliman said he’ll turn away are previous guests who brought drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence on the premises.

“People have to come to us, but our door is closed to nobody,” Holliman said. “We don’t care if they’re from Dallas or Houston. We don’t care if they’re Christian, atheist or Muslim. We don’t care if they’re straight or gay. We don’t care if they’re transgender. We care if they’re hungry.”

Disabled Lewisville couple faces unique challenges to remaining independent

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Published in The Dallas Morning News on Oct. 29, 2015

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica, claim one functioning arm and a pair of unbalanced feet between them. But their brains are as sharp as ever.

Their diseases have made them develop logic skills greater than their able-bodied peers, Shawn said.

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)

“Able-bodied people don’t realize what a process it is to put on your pants,” Shawn said. “I actually have to through a systematic process of how I’m going to brush my teeth, shower, comb my hair.”

Shawn, 50, and Monica, 42, live together without outside help as they both deal with disabilities. Monica has cerebral palsy, which comes with poor coordination, stiff and weak muscles and difficulty speaking. Shawn is a quadriplegic resulting from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, which, much like muscular dystrophy, has left him without any muscle strength.

Fighting for independence comes with obstacles, they said.

“I don’t want to give up. I research ways to stay independent,” Shawn said. “It comes down to attitude and the will to make things happen.”

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)(Photo by Adam Schrader)

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)(Photo by Adam Schrader)

The disease isn’t fatal, and most people with it have normal life expectancies, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The Koesters use robotic electric wheelchairs. Their Lewisville apartment includes a motorized rail lift to carry Shawn through different rooms and lift him onto his bed and recliner. It keeps him out of the nursing home, he said.

“I have a lion inside of me, but I know that my body is disabled,” Shawn said. “I love football and run a college fantasy league online. I would love to play some football. My mind says I can do it, but my body won’t let me.”

Insurance paid for most of the lift; Shawn set up a GoFundMe campaign for the rest.

“I’m not completely paralyzed,” he said. “I can still move some, which is a blessing because I can scoot on the floor. That’s usually how I get around and use the computer.”

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)

Shawn Koester and his wife, Monica. (Photo by Adam Schrader)

Monica does most of the caretaking. She cooks, cleans and takes care of their dog.

“I’m not as strong as I used to be and have issues cleaning and stuff, too,” she said. “We have to eat a lot of frozen stuff, which I know isn’t very healthy.”

In the meantime, Monica also works at Ross, a department store, across the street part-time to provide for the family.

“I like working at Ross, but it’s getting harder to do it because there are days I don’t feel very good or Shawn needs me,” she said. “But we do what we’ve got to do to stay independent.”

Monica used to ride her electric scooter to work day shifts. But now, she’s on a nightly schedule. Shawn said that a friendly co-worker drives her two to three nights a week, which has been a blessing as colder weather approaches.

“If a friend wasn’t willing to pick her up, she probably wouldn’t have a job,” he said. “We don’t really think it’s safe for her to ride her scooter across the street at night.”

Monica was raped more than 18 years ago, she said. The attack led to her now 18-year-old daughter, who also endured sexual assault as a child, Monica said. The Koesters met in an online chat room for singles soon after. Shawn helped her overcome the trauma.

More than their disabilities, Monica said, it united the couple in their fight for independence.

“Figuring out how to get the diaper on, dress Emily and being able to take care of her financially or otherwise was difficult,” Shawn said. “At one time, I was going to try to adopt Emily, but that didn’t work out. We actually missed out a lot on her growing up, which was difficult for Monica being the biological mother.”

The Koesters met Jan. 1, 1999, and were married July 2, 1999. Monica walked down the aisle. Shawn used a three-wheel electric scooter.

“My family was old-fashioned and didn’t want me to move in with him until after we got married,” Monica said. “When I was in Vegas for our honeymoon, they moved my stuff in for me.”

Monica said that unlike Shawn, she was sheltered growing up and that concerned her before the wedding.

“I didn’t know how to cook,” she said. “I was staying with my family, and they took care of the cooking and cleaning.”

Shawn walked as a child, but as he aged into adulthood, he needed support.

“Then I started falling down more frequently and had to go to a manual wheelchair that I was able to push myself,” he said. “When my muscles got weaker and I could no longer push myself, I got the electric wheelchair.”

This was around the time he married Monica — when he still had the use of his hands and could dress and wash himself.

“Sometimes when I’m trying to eat, I need help,” Shawn said. “Monica will feed me.”

Shawn said it’s been traumatic for Monica to watch his disease worsen.

“When we got married, we discussed the future and talked about how this is what we’d face,” he said. “Monica, the strong person that she is, understood that and decided to stay with me anyway.”

But Monica, too, has lost some of her ability. Her balance has worsened and her left arm, once semi-functional, is now unusable. Luckily, her speech impediment has improved some, Shawn said.

“When I met Monica, the communication between us was challenging,” he said. “Now we have no trouble with it.”

Monica says it’s because she talks more now.

The couple has lived together for 16 years — the length of their marriage. Ten years were spent in a Section 8 housing program, Shawn said. But those funds have decreased annually.

The Lewisville apartment complex formerly accepted Section 8 vouchers, Shawn said, but its new owners will not after December. The Koesters will have to start paying regular rent, which is around $950 a month.

They could try to find a new home that would take the funds, Shawn said, but a new place means costly transport and rebuilding the lift.

Shawn got his GED and attended Richland and El Centro colleges in Dallas.

“I didn’t get my degree, but I got a job in the computer lab and tutored classes,” he said. “Then I got a job as a computer operator at a bank association, which launched my IT career.”

Shawn then worked at JC Penney corporate headquarters, but his last job was at National Tech Team in Dallas before its move to Fort Worth. In all, he worked in the IT industry for 17 years.

“It was a real high honor to work for National Tech Team,” he said. “But with the baby and my increased ailments, I had to take my severance package.”

Shawn drove until 2009, when it became too difficult to transfer from his wheelchair to the driver’s seat.

“Since we don’t really go out now, we have our computer and TV and watch a lot of movies,” he said. “When we do get to go on dates, it’s awesome. It’s the little things that really give you joy and happiness.”

Now, Shawn can get stuck in the apartment for a month at a time because he doesn’t have reliable transportation. He can’t load his electric wheelchair unless a vehicle is equipped with a ramp or lift. So, he’s been researching ways purchase another van.

“God has blessed us with good brains, and I have looked into working from home,” Shawn said. “But I’ve been out of the workforce for more than a decade.”

Shawn said his IT skills are now obsolete like the technology he worked on, but updating his skills would cost money he doesn’t have.

“Reliable transportation is the only way to have any quality of life,” he said. “With a new van, I wouldn’t be able to drive — but my sister could.”

Not having to worry about paying rent would change their lives, Shawn said, and taking some of the stress off Monica having to work.

“We just want peace of mind that we can pay our rent, pay our bills and get our groceries,” he said. “Right now, we rely on those days she gets at Ross to get by. “It’s really frustrating; we don’t qualify for Medicaid and food stamps because we’re just over the limit. It just makes it tough that I can’t go out and work a full-time or part-time job to help pay the rent.”

Shawn said that living on a limited income is more difficult for people with disabilities, and living independently takes serious planning skills.

“If you needed to make some money, you can go to McDonald’s and get a part-time job,” he said. “We can’t, so we have to find other ways.”