Story by Lela Atwood
Photos by Shanna Taylor
The basement of First Lutheran Church is packed with an unlikely combination of people.
Baylor students. Homeless people. Workers from a diversity of income brackets. Even a small group of schoolchildren. Yet in this fellowship hall, all are welcomed, all are invited. For breakfast is about to be served.
The murmurs of conversation fade away as a small 73-year-old woman with wheat-colored hair stands up to speak.
“If this is your first time, we welcome you and hope you come back again,” she says in an expressive, friendly voice as if all 90 of those present are her dear friends.
To Jeane Dick, the leader of Mission Waco’s Friday Morning Breakfast, all who come through the church doors on Friday morning are family.
Larry Lenstra knows.
A regular breakfast attendee who is homeless, he was hospitalized with a foot infection and heard from medical personnel that it could be amputated. Lenstra was happily surprised when Dick spoke with him because they were only acquainted with her through the breakfast.
“She came up and visited, said a prayer,” Lenstra said. “I still have my foot, am still kicking.”
At the next table over, Steve York, another regular attendee, relaxes with a table full of friends, his mind focused away from the daily toil of street survival as he listens to the announcements: a GED class, a job training class and a reminder for people to fill out the government form to be eligible for aid.
“She is just a good lady,” he said. “It is good to come here and not have to worry about things, just sit around and talk.”
Dick always had a heart for the downtown Waco area. She remembers her childhood living on Sixth Street, walking to school there, back in the days when the World Cup Café was a pharmacy and when West Elementary was West Junior High.
She spoke of predominant racism in the community and not understanding it. The only person she trusted with her bike was Marvin, an African-American boy who lived one block from her home.
“I think the Lord was preparing me then not to be prejudiced,” Dick said. “It doesn’t matter to me what color your skin is, whether you’re smart or dumb, or what.”
Dick said a lot of people have heard of Mission Waco but have no idea what the organization does. They didn’t observe Mission Waco’s hand in the “bad neighborhood,” the evolution of a pornographic theater to the Jubilee Theater, now used to show family-friendly community entertainment. Nor did they observe the dilapidated drug houses being replaced by new homes that host neighborhood block parties.
“Some people are fearful,” she said. “But I look at it like this: that regardless of where I am it isn’t even going to matter. If you’re going to get shot somewhere, you can get shot in Woodway just like you can on 15th Street if that’s the case.”
“Jeane’s a tough little bird,” she said.“I think that if someone approached her and tried to mug her she would say, ‘Well, listen here, sweetheart. Do you need money? Because I can tell you about Mission Waco.’”
Often on Thursday nights, Dick barely sleeps. Though she drives to the breakfast even when the roads are slick with ice, she is concerned that one morning she will accidentally sleep in. And on Friday morning before any traces of a sunrise, she is already at the church, praying that God would prepare her for the upcoming breakfast.
Although she has only been leading for six months, she has already made her mark on Friday Morning Breakfast, through her desire that all would be welcomed and loved.
“When they come there I want them to feel like they come into a family situation, a place where somebody cares, not just a place to stop and eat,” Dick said. “And to some degree I think I’ve reached that with some of them.”
More than handing out food, Dick has livened up the atmosphere through raffle drawings for hats and gloves, and through distributing crossword puzzles to all the breakfast guests. On Christmas she and all the other volunteers signed 20 cards for all the breakfast attendees. At least 15 of the people wrote her back.
“I have found that these people have a lot more manners and are a lot more respectful to people in the business world,” Dick said. “They want to be thought of as your friend and I count them as my friends. I really do.”
As a certified food handler who works at Chick-fil-A, Dick was not pleased about how the Friday Morning Breakfast kitchen was maintained. Maness, one of the other volunteers who had also been trained in food preparation, agreed. They wanted a kitchen fit to prepare family dinners in. So they got to work.
Dick was relentless in her war against grime and neglect. Even after the other volunteers had left to start their days, she would spend extra time tidying up the place.
“We offered to help her,” Maness said. “And it’s not that she turned down our help. It was just an area of, ‘Well, you guys have to go to work and you guys have to go to class and I have nothing to do today,’ so she’s down on her knees with Simple Green scrubbing the tile.”
Task by task, Dick has won the war. The kitchen is clean as could be, ready for their family of guests who grace the church halls.
It is hard for Dick to get to know all of the breakfast guests. Some of the homeless guests who used to come regularly don’t come so often now. They have their own roof to eat breakfast under.
When getting to know them, Dick and the other volunteers realized that many of these people were mentally capable of caring for themselves and possibly eligible for Social Security benefits.
After an evaluation, these former homeless people were referred to the resources to obtain housing.
“It may not have a stick of furniture or anything but running water, but they are so proud of it, so that’s a good thing,” Dick said.
Dick’s life is seldom dull because she has much to occupy her time. After the breakfast, she sorts mail for the homeless at the Meyer Center, a social service center operated by Mission Waco. Then, she makes some letters too, taking the time to write 15 to 20 prisoners regularly. Once she even wrote a job recommendation letter for a prisoner, a man she says has the best handwriting she has ever seen.
John Cowan, the breakfast Bible study leader who has volunteered since 2002, is amazed about how much Dick does.
“She seems to have a boundless set of energy in her bones,” he said.
What keeps this woman going?
Dick attributes her energy and her opportunities to the help of God himself.
“I’m just available and willing and sometimes that is all God requires,” Dick said. “And I just love them. I look forward every Friday morning to seeing them.”