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Bridge Bread gives homeless opportunities for employment, job skills

Daryl Pitchford rolled small clumps of dough into balls, setting them on a pan. They were to become a freshly baked batch of dinner rolls, to be sold through the Bridge Bread initiative.

Pitchford, who supervises the kitchen on South Grand Bouleard where the baked goods are made nearly daily, wasn't always a baker. After a divorce, he became homeless for nearly a year — four months of which was sleeping on the streets.

"They call it 'sleeping raw,' said Pitchford, who also received help from Peter and Paul Community Services and now has his own place. "A buddy invited me to come with him over to a bank. I would sleep out there behind the shrubbery."

Pitchford is part of a group of men hired by Bridge Bread, a nonprofit organization that employs homeless and formerly homeless people to bake bread and pastries. The initiative provides them with a stable income and gives them job skills and training.

Pitchford got involved when he frequented The Bridge, a drop-in center for the homeless at Centenary United Methodist Church Downtown. He volunteered there, doing odd jobs. He saw a group of people there baking bread and asked if he could get involved.

"I don't know how many loaves later, but here I am," he said.

Bridge Bread started as a group of volunteers, led by Fred and Sharon Domke. Fred Domke's volunteerism was inspired by a sermon his pastor gave. "It was about what Jesus said, 'When you serve the least of these, you serve me,'" Domke recalled. The pastor expanded on that, saying, "when you're taking care of the needy, you're the face of Christ to them, showing God's love. But more importantly, they're the face of Christ to you, because He's giving you the privilege of caring for Him."

One day, Domke was at home, and decided to make a few loaves of bread for fun. That night, he had a dream about baking bread with the people who came to The Bridge. Searching for ways in which he could serve more deeply, Domke had found an answer to his prayer.

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord. I've received my instructions,'" he said with a smile.

Under the guidance of chef Alan Ramsey, a group of volunteers made their first batch of bread in 2011. The group began hiring homeless men and women who came to the church to work as bakers — giving them not only an income, but job skills.

About three and a half years ago, Bridge Bread started operating its bakery out of a small storefront on South Grand Boulevard. Two years ago, it became an independent nonprofit. What helped push the effort into its own nonprofit was a $30,000 award in 2014 from the Daughters of Charity Foundation of St. Louis and Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. The award was presented as part of the annual YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition.

The operation has six bakers on staff, making a range of breads and pasties, including brioche, dinner rolls, brownies, cinnamon rolls, and apple cinnamon, sourdough and wheat loaves. In addition to retail locations on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis and Main Street in St. Charles, many churches help by volunteering to sell the goods. In fact, Domke noted that the Catholic Church is the largest growing denomination to support the initiative, with 22 Catholic churches and schools (including St. Louis University) selling items after Masses and at events.

Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves is one of several parishes to regularly sell Bridge Bread products. Parishioner Lisa Schulte said a former youth minister told her about the initiative and invited Domke to speak to students.

"We see it as an easy way to help," said Schulte. "Sometimes we see homeless people on a busy intersection and can't always help them. Something like this gives them pride and confidence."

Terrance Ray, who has been employed with the program for more than five years, said the opportunity has helped him stay motivated. He had been homeless for three years after his father had passed away, but is now working toward a GED.

As he spread brownie batter into a pan, Ray said it was difficult for him to find a job, but now he's found some happiness in what he's doing. "I'm still kickin' it," he said. "I'm taking it a day at a time — not sure what I want to do next." 

Bridge Bread

There are two retail locations: 419 S. Main St. in St. Charles, and a new location at 2639 Cherokee St. in south St. Louis. The initiative also has a Bridge Bread Truck that makes visits to organizations upon request. The new location on Cherokee is a larger space that will combine the bakery and retail operations into a bakery and cafe. To learn more, including retail hours and how to book the Bridge Bread Truck, visit www.bridgebread.org. 

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