Young man's kindly spirit launches meal service for homeless AOK Friends is one of a dozen charities and churches that regularly serve meals at Seattle's "Outdoor Meal Site," a fenced-in area with tables and benches under the freeway near Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. By Jack Broom Seattle Times staff reporter PREV1 of 2NEXT ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES As cars rush by on Interstate 5 above, homeless people enjoy a free lunch on Sunday near Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street in Seattle. Volunteers cook hot dogs at Seattle University, and clothing is available along with the food. On the WebFor more information:www.aokfriends.org It wasn't a fancy meal by any means: a couple of hot dogs, a hard-boiled egg, a pack of chips, a banana, a bottle of water and a cup of hot chocolate. But to David Bauer, a homeless veteran, Sunday's lunch under Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle didn't just fill his stomach, it touched his heart. "You get a good feeling seeing these people here, helping others," said Bauer, 56. "You know that they care." He was one of 115 people served at a weekly lunch put on by AOK Friends — the initials stand for Acts of Kindness — an organization started three years ago by Jon Coyne, a 27-year-old Mill Creek man whose enthusiasm for helping the less fortunate is contagious. "To see people coming together and sharing with one another, it's an expression of love," said Coyne, a Washington State University psychology graduate whose weekday job is working with autistic and disabled young people at Mariner High School in Everett. AOK Friends is one of a dozen charities and churches that regularly serve meals at Seattle's "Outdoor Meal Site," a fenced-in area with tables and benches under the freeway near Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. The site is jointly managed by the city and Operation: Sack Lunch, which hosts many of the meals there and coordinates its use by other groups. A schedule posted on the fence tells which group is feeding when. Coyne knew little about conducting a large-scale meal operation on that summer day in 2007 when he felt God was directing him to help the hungry. That day, he spent about $50 of his money to buy hot dogs and bottled water. He cooked the hot dogs at home, put them in a cooler to keep them warm and headed alone to a park near the King County Courthouse. "I had never really been in that part of town much, and when I got down there I had this great sense of fear," Coyne said. But a man who saw he had food to give away offered reassurance: "He said, 'You're cool. No one will mess with you.' It was exactly what I needed to hear." Coyne went back downtown with a friend a few days later to feed the homeless, this time at night. One of the men they served told them, "The only thing real before you die is what you give." The group adopted the line as its motto, printed on the blue T-shirts members wear, and which are sold on the charity's website to help raise money for supplies. Each feeding costs about $250. Jaime Ramirez, 26, joined the group in its first year, when he saw a posting a member had placed on the volunteer page of Craigslist. Ramirez recently had moved to Redmond from Eastern Washington. One of his first impressions of life in the metropolitan area came when he and a couple of buddies saw someone poking through trash cans at Seattle Center for something to eat. "My friends were kind of snickering at him, and I didn't like that," Ramirez said. "I wanted to do something to help." Ramirez now coordinates AOK Friends' operations at the serving site. AOK Friends registered as a nonprofit in 2008, providing a tax deduction for those who make donations, such as the van given by the parents of one volunteer that carries food to the serving site. On most Sundays, the action starts in a kitchen at Campion Hall at Seattle University. That's the workplace of Jeremiah Beckwith, a longtime friend of Coyne's mother and a manager with Bon Appétit, the campus' food-service concessionaire. Beckwith slides three metal trays, each holding 80 turkey franks, into a large electric oven. After they're fully heated, the wieners are put in buns, wrapped, reheated and then loaded into insulated containers for the short ride to the serving site. An important funding source for the group, Beckwith said, is Seattle University students, who can donate "points" from their meal cards to the charity. Beckwith said Coyne's attitude and commitment intrigued him. "I really liked his outlook on life, and I admired what he was doing at such a young age." In addition to the food line Sunday, AOK Friends volunteers handed out clothing at a long table heaped with sweaters, sweatshirts, socks, knit caps and other items — some donated directly, some purchased at thrift shops. At the center of action at the clothing table was Debbie Chen, 43, of Kirkland, who rounded up many of the garments and who sometimes brings her two young sons to help out. "It just feels good to help these people," she said. "I put myself in their situation, and I feel for them." Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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