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Birthdays for the Homeless Are the Cakeman’s Best Medicine

September 6, 1995

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Hardened by years on the street, even the toughest of Philadelphia’s homeless soften when a crusty old salt named Pete Farley gives them a handout they never asked for _ a birthday cake.

For the past four years, all 48 residents of the city’s Bethesda homeless shelter have received a home-baked cake on their birthday with a personal congratulatory message from the 69-year-old former sailor and monk.

``Anyone who survives a year on these streets deserves a party,″ Farley said Tuesday.

But the rosette-dotted cakes are more than just sweet nothings, said Bethesda’s Gino Lerario. The confections are big medicine for restoring trust and self-esteem, and can help ease a homeless person back into the community.

``Some people need just one small link to bring them back to their fellows, and in some cases it can be as simple as a birthday party,″ Lerario said.

The Bethesda Project has been working with what it calls the most hardcore homeless _ mental health patients, drug abusers, the ill and elderly _ since Father Dominic Rossi, a Roman-Catholic priest, founded the program in 1979.

Delores Ford, who has managed the shelter on the city’s tough North Broad Street for five years, says even the most alienated of the homeless brighten up in the glow of Farley’s birthday candles.

``Just seeing your name on a cake can make you cry,″ said 28-year-old Hector Hernandez, a recovering drug addict who got his last cake in February.

Farley makes several different types of the large, two-layer cakes, including vanilla and chocolate. He learned his way around an oven baking 10,000 loaves of bread a week for a Virginia monastery.

Farley, a Philadelphia native, spent years in the Navy and the merchant marines before joining the monastery on the advice of a spiritually inspired shipmate.

``The abbot called me in one day and said `I’d like you to be the baker.′ I’d never baked anything in my life. I borrowed an old Army field manual and learned, ″ Farley said. ``Holy obedience.″

He soon began pushing the abbey’s ovens until they were turning out hundreds of loaves a day to be sold in Washington, D.C., supermarkets.

He left the monastery in 1969 after 15 years, married a former nun and had three children. Retiring from his machinist’s job in 1990, he decided to devote his spare time to the homeless.

The move has done wonders.

``People shun you when you’re on the street, step over you, make you want to die,″ said Hernandez, who has received three of Farley’s chocolate specials. ``Then along comes Pete to celebrate the fact that you’re still alive.″

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