weather icon Clear

Nonprofit serves homeless, low-income residents with restaurant-style experience

The backroom of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church is vacant and quiet.

It’s always like this at 4:25 p.m., despite the line of dozens of people outside, waiting for the doors to open and dinner to be served.

Some days, church volunteers have seen the line stretch past the parking lot, but this Wednesday afternoon is relatively tame, with about 80 hungry mouths.

Their stories and struggles might be different, but everyone in that line has one common denominator: They all rely on Friends in the Desert to give them a meal — in some cases, their only one for the day.

“It’s time to open,” said Muriel Dufendach, operations manager for the Henderson-based nonprofit, which provides food, clothing and hygiene products for homeless and low-income people. Its mission to feed those in need became clear after church members noticed homeless men scrounging for food in the dumpsters behind the church at 43 Pacific Ave.

“It is what we are supposed to do (as Christians),” Dufendach said. “Jesus said ‘feed my sheep,’ so, that’s what we are doing.”

What started as the church giving one man a place to sit while he enjoyed a hot bowl of soup on a winter morning grew into a bigger effort. Churchgoers wanted to make it a regular offering.

One homeless patron grew to two, multiplying until the church had at least 50 in its dining room.

Friends in the Desert could have organized another soup kitchen but instead decided to take service to the next level, setting up each night like a restaurant experience, with meals brought out in courses, on trays. Its acts of kindness transitioned into an official nonprofit in 1999, serving various populations — some homeless, others low-income and in search of a meal to fill the gaps.

“About half of them are the working poor,” Dufendach said. “We even have families who come through.”

The group learned more about its demographics when it partnered with UNLV for a 2013 study, which found that 31 percent were sleeping on the street, 22 percent had a residence, and 12 percent were living with friends or family.

But their back stories aren’t a prerequisite for getting a meal. Each night, about 90 gather, though there have been times when only 75 came and others when 130 showed up, and people had to wait for a seat.

The space has only 104 chairs, so when seats run out, “patio seating” is offered — the sidewalk.

“There has only been a few times where we’ve ran out of food,” Dufendach said. “But we always try to give them something.”

Each night, Dufendach greets each person with handshakes, hugs and small talk. In addition to the meal, there is a table with fruits, vegetables and other items, such as pastries and breads, for patrons to take home.

As they walked through the door on this afternoon, Dufendach handed each a plastic bag.

“Oh, we have avocados,” one woman said as she approached the table.

Lucas Payton sat in the front of the room shoveling blueberries he picked up off the produce table into his mouth. He has been coming to the program off and on since he finished serving jail time five years ago. For the most part, he has been sleeping on a beach in California. He makes his way back to Las Vegas every once in a while and camps out in a backyard or the desert.

If it weren’t for this program, he said he would probably revert back to occasional shoplifting — he only does it when he hasn’t found any other solution.

In the back corner, Shawn Matkin stirred his coffee and waited for the meal to be served.

“I remember I met Muriel the first time, and when I came back, she remembered my name,” he said.

The once-silent room is filled with chatter and laughter as people who were once strangers come together as if it were family dinner.

“And it’s like Muriel is our grandma,” Payton said.

Feeding the amount of people who come through the door isn’t an easy task, and Friends in the Desert wouldn’t be able to pull off what it does without its volunteer base.

Dufendach said the group could easily operate with four to six people each night in the tiny kitchen.

“I don’t want to have more than 12,” she said. “One time, I had 35 volunteers.”

In addition to being de facto waiters for the evening, volunteers prepare salads, entrees and desserts. The entrees vary, depending on who is volunteering.

“We’ve served just about every type of meal,” Dufendach said, explaining that dinners can be anything from pasta to Panda Express — one donor purchases Panda Express once a month for the group.

“One week, I served lasagna three days in a row,” she said. “I thought for sure people were going to be angry. But they ate it and treated it like it was the best meal they’d ever had.”

In case something falls through, Dufendach always has a backup meal — chili dogs.

“But they love them,” she added.

On this Wednesday, individual chicken pot pies were on the menu. Leon Sampson, along with a group of students, poured the mixture into individual pie containers, covered them with puff pastry and baked them.

Before the meal is served, Dufendach does mail call — since many are homeless, the church allows some regulars to receive mail there — then prays over the food.

The meal ends almost as quickly as it began, and the room starts to quiet.

At the end of the night, as tables are wiped, dishes cleared and the floor mopped, many of the men being served stick around to help.

Dufendach said people often tell her and other volunteers that they are enabling the people who come by providing a free meal. She knows better.

“I feel, if you save one person, you save the world,” she said.

Meals are served in the church’s back room at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (doors open at 4:30 p.m.). A weekend meal is served at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, and a sack lunch is provided on Sunday.

Visit friendsinthedesert.com or call 702-565-8742.

To reach Henderson View reporter Michael Lyle, email mlyle@viewnews.com or call 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Mob Month is back at the Clark County Library

For the fifth year the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District is making an offer some people find they can’t refuse. Mob Month is coming back to the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road, with events Tuesday nights in January.

7 ways autocomplete can get smarter

Autocomplete is one of the best (or depending on how hastily you push ‘send’ – worst) things in the world. We rely on it so much that Google plans to let us autocomplete whole emails. Here are seven ways predictive input can improve. 1. Recognizing names from previous emails Jakub Kokoszka has a tough name to […]

Movie posters might soon be based on your clicks

You may have thought you left Blockbuster behind, but the basic way we browse movies hasn’t changed all that much. We peruse poster after poster, kind of like walking the aisles of a ‘90s-era video store. That one poster image, meant to appeal to as many people as possible, is often all we see before […]

What I’ll be covering at NAB 2018

The National Association of Broadcasters show kicks off this weekend in Las Vegas.  The show focuses on new and emerging technologies and trends in relation to the media and entertainment industries. As it’s not open to the public, I’ll be at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday to share some of […]

EXECUTIVE TRAVEL: Forget Strip flash; some prefer lake’s panache

If you get called to a board meeting at Lake Las Vegas, you might want to bring your swimsuit. That’s the term Westin at Lake Las Vegas marketing director Matt Boland uses for upright paddleboard races, one of many team-building exercises offered regularly at the resort.

After $4,700 in live poker career winnings, James Romero, 27, wins nearly $2 million

It was a 15-year celebration of The World Poker Tour at Bellagio for the Five Diamond World Poker Classic. The largest field size in WPT Five Diamond’s history was created when 791 entries were tallied, and it was James Romero, 27, of Portland, Oregon, who won his first WPT title.

Auto electronics at SEMA and AAPEX: A brave new world

The Specialty Equipment Market Association celebrated its 50th annual SEMA show at Las Vegas Convention Center this month by showcasing a car culture of “do-it-yourself” garage mechanics who share a passion for customizing vehicles.