Two years ago, Graydon and Mary Anne Cowgill traveled to Alaska from Louisiana at the invitation of their son-in-law to do a little summertime sport fishing, just two among the thousands of visitors who came to the Kenai Peninsula that season in search of salmon.
Little did they know then that within a year they'd be working to turn a closed-down bar and one-time brothel in Kenai into a seven-day-a-week soup kitchen and shelter for homeless men called the Friendship Mission.
"This is the work of the Lord," Cowgill said in an interview Wednesday. "We're not sponsored by any church. It's just my wife and I, but we've certainly had a lot of help."
Help has certainly come from many quarters and in unexpected ways. More on that later. First, a bit about the genesis of the Friendship Mission project.
Cowgill said they were riding with their son-in-law when they passed by a piece of property on the Kenai Spur Highway near the northern end of the city limits of Kenai. That was in July 2003.
"The Lord said, 'This could be used for something good,' but I had fishing on my mind," Graydon said.
In August, he and Mary Anne returned to Louisiana, and not long after, he had a dream about the Alaska property.
That property had once been home to the Last Frontier Dine and Dance, which was opened in the early 1950s by Ethel D. "Eadie" Henderson, according to an obituary. It later became known as Eadie's Pawn, Hotel and Liquor Store. Before the city limits of Kenai were extended, the business had also included a brothel.
The original building was built in 1952 and later had at least two additions made to it. There was also a separate shop built at some point.
Henderson became something of a local celebrity who, despite the nature of her businesses, was much loved for her charitable contributions, earning the nickname "Unforgettable Eadie."
"Some people say she was a saint and did a lot of good for the community," Cowgill noted.
A series of circumstances led to the demise of the bar and pawnshop, and Eadie Henderson died in January of 2000.
When Cowgill, driven by his dream, returned to Alaska in the fall of 2003, he found the property tied up in probate court.
Dealing with the court and an Anchorage attorney representing Henderson's estate, he eventually struck a deal. He agreed to pay back property taxes and promised that if the court gave him the keys, he'd clean up the property and open a rescue mission.
In the late summer of 2004, the court agreed, giving the Cowgills two years to turn the Friendship Mission into a reality.
The property was a mess, he said.
"There were no less than 30 cars and trucks on that property," he said. "There were a lot of environmental issues."
The main structure itself was in serious disrepair. The basement had caved in requiring that two cinderblock walls reaching to the second floor had to be rebuilt, and the plumbing and electrical system needed replacing.
Work really began in earnest this year. Twice during June, large groups of volunteers from an organization called World Changers, a Baptist summer mission group, arrived to lend a hand. People came from the Lower 48 and Anchorage.
"The Nikiski churches have chipped in a lot," Cowgill said.
On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Some 50 people showed up in the rain and enjoyed a barbecue and potluck while working on the structures.
"We're building a boiler room now, and getting some well stuff put in so we don't freeze up," he said. "I hope to install the boiler this week and supply heat to the shop."
When the project is completed, the main building will have 13 rooms. Cowgill said they'll start with one bed in each, but those rooms could support bunk beds for two if necessary.
There also will be two larger rooms over the shop that could handle up to eight occupants each.
"We hope to have those rooms open in October," he said. "The main building won't be open until next fall. The court gave us two years, and I guess it's going to take that long."
During the recent workday, ConocoPhillips donated funding for food and beverages, and Unocal sent a barbecue pit and two people to do the cooking.
Among the volunteers were several children, who were put to work moving old Styrofoam pulled from the building to a place where it could be stored for removal.
"It was great to watch them. They were like ants packing that Styrofoam."
Two large piles of old lumber were burned and enough junk to fill two dumpsters was hauled away to the dump.
Meanwhile, volunteer electricians were at work on the wiring, plumbers fitted pipes, and a carpenter worked on framing.
Cowgill said he's been uplifted by the sheer amount of volunteer help that has come their way. A retired millwright, he said he is able to do some of the work himself. But for other projects, he needed professional help. Sometimes, help came in unexpected ways.
"During the second week that the World Changers were here, we tore out the old cinder block," Cowgill said.
Some of that block seemed literally glued to the cement flooring. It looked like it would take days to break away using chisels and hammers.
But then a man the operator of a local restaurant stopped by, assessed the situation, and headed home for his tools. He came back with an electric jackhammer and he and Cowgill cut away the block in about two hours. A bit of good luck? Perhaps. But Cowgill thinks there was more at work than meets the eye.
It seems the man had bought that jackhammer at a garage sale two years ago. Cowgill said the man told him that on that day he knew why he'd bought the tool.
On another occasion a truck driver arrived with a load of cinderblocks, sand, cement and lime. He saw what was going on and made a decision.
"He gave us our check back," Cowgill said. "That was almost $1,900."
With that kind of help and as the Cowgills see it, the Lord's intervention the Friendship Mission dream of a shelter for homeless men will be realized. It will include a soup kitchen that will be open to the public, and will serve three squares a day to residents.
Cowgill said there is more need on the Kenai Peninsula for this kind of facility than many realize. Though he cannot put that into numbers, he said they have already had to turn down four requests for space because they are simply not ready yet. Cowgill said he has heard from the people at Bridges Community Resource Network, under whose umbrella they operate, as well as Central Peninsula General Hospital looking for space for a soon-to-be-discharged patient.
Cowgill said he doesn't know why the need is as great as it is, but there are a host of reasons why men might be homeless.
"Some want to be that way," he said. "Others are facing circumstances beyond their control. Some are down and out on their luck, and just need a little help to get going again."
The Cowgills are relatively new to this kind of activity.
"I did not know Jesus until I was 50 years old," Cowgill said. "Now I'm 65. I gave everything to the Lord. It's all new to my wife, too."
He and Mary Anne do what they can, and rely on volunteers to help them do what they cannot. That will be the case when the Friendship Mission is fully open. Many of the people he expects to serve as residents will need life skills.
"Homeless people often have other problems besides being homeless," he said. "They need to be worked with and encouraged."
He said he will look for professional counselors to provide those kinds of services.
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