Giving back produces a paycheck for New Kensington man

September 5, 2018
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New Kensington’s Knead Community Cafe is on a mission to help people -- especially those who want to help themselves and aren’t just looking for a handout.

Volunteer Bruce Dowell is the perfect example of that.

“He’s just that kind of guy,” cafe co-founder Kevin Bode said.

Dowell, a dishwasher by trade, was in a pinch when he first came across the cafe, a unique “pay what you can” restaurant along Barnes Street, in February.

He was having trouble finding a job and was in jeopardy of losing his house.

“If it wasn’t for these people, I literally don’t know what I would have done,” said Dowell, 59, of New Kensington.

Dowell went to the cafe, which was founded by Bode and his wife, Mary, on a referral. He said he liked it as soon as he stepped inside.

“I didn’t have a dime to my name,” he said. “I talked to the lady at the door and I told her what my situation was. She led me to Mary.”

Dowell told Mary Bode about his circumstances, too, and she asked him if he felt like volunteering at the cafe, which is run mostly by volunteers. If someone can’t afford to pay for a meal, they can volunteer their time and still be served.

Dowell said sure. They fed him, and he volunteered that day.

“The food was awesome,” Dowell said.

But Dowell didn’t stop here. He kept coming back to volunteer.

He stayed late, washed dishes and mopped the floors -- essentially going above and beyond, Kevin Bode said. Sometimes he volunteered without even eating.

“A lot people come in, when they volunteer, if they’re coming in for a meal, they just want to do their one hour for their meal, and that’s it,” Kevin Bode said. “He would come in and volunteer and say ‘I don’t have a job, if you need me to do more, I’m happy to do more rather than sitting around doing nothing.’ ”

As soon as Dowell told Kevin Bode about his predicament, he immediately started to help Dowell look for jobs. Dowell had been looking for jobs on his own, but wasn’t having much luck.

“I thought I was going to have a job within a couple of weeks and, as those weeks passed on, I couldn’t find a job,” Dowell said. “It got into March and my landlord said ‘I can’t carry you anymore. I have to have money for this house.’ ”

When Kevin Bode heard that David’s Diner in Springdale Township was in need of a dishwasher, he went over to plead Dowell’s case. He told them Dowell was a good worker and dependable, and wanted to see if they would interview him. They told Bode to send Dowell over.

Dowell went to the diner for an interview, and when he came back to the cafe he was smiling, Kevin Bode said.

“I said, ‘You got the job, didn’t you?’ ” Bode said. “Before he could even get words out of his mouth, he started crying, grabbed me and gave me a big bear hug. He’s just been great ever since.”

Dave and Lisa Speer, who own David’s Diner, hired Dowell in March.

Dave Speer said Dowell is an excellent employee and an asset to their business. He works full time and fills a variety of roles. He washes dishes, picks up trash, greets customers, serves food and busses tables.

“He feels the value of work is what the key is to anything,” Speer said. “He works hard.”

Despite his job, Dowell still volunteers at the cafe when he can. He said he can’t just walk away. “I’m not that type of person,” he said. “I’ll always come back to this place. Always.”

Dowell said all cities need places like the cafe and people like Kevin and Mary Bode who care enough to help people like himself.

“That’s what makes the difference, is the people,” he said.

He said, if people need help, they should visit the cafe, but be willing to give back.

“Be willing to give back what they’ve given you, not just be using and (going) on your way,” he said.

Kevin Bode said people like Dowell are what keep the cafe going. The cafe has three paid employees; the rest are volunteers. It takes about 12 people to run the restaurant, so without volunteers, it wouldn’t be able to operate.

“If people come in and they just expect a handout and they’re not willing to help us, then we can’t sustain this model,” Kevin Bode said. “But when people like (Bruce) come in and they help out, and they volunteer, it becomes a partnership -- it keeps us going.”

“He really fits the mold of looking at this as a partnership. He’s helping us, we’re helping him. It’s not just a one-way street.”

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