The Nicest Place in Colorado: Struggle of Love in Denver

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Feeding Denver's Hungry"

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Thanks to compassion from restaurants, charities, and the police, the Struggle of Love doesn’t struggle to feed the needy.

During normal times, the food bank at Struggle of Love serves about 60 people a week who need a little extra help to get by.

Now multiply that steady stream of kindness by an astounding 40 times.

“In the last three months since the pandemic, we see 2,500 people a week and it has not slowed down,” says Lakeshia Hodge, who founded and runs the Denver-based nonprofit organization with her husband Joel.

Joel and Lakeshia met 15 years ago when they were both homeless. They vowed to help each other get on their feet; once upright, they pledged to bring others up with them. “We asked ourselves how we could give back, how could we make the lives of others better?” says Lakeshia. So,with Lakeshia living in a shelter and Joel staying with friends, they decided to found Struggle of Love. “We wanted to offer others the things that were most important to us when we were homeless,” she says.

He spent days at the library, researching how to launch a nonprofit, and she took that knowledge and filed the necessary paperwork for a 501(c)(3) foundation. The organization hosted backpack giveaways, toy drives, in-school student tutoring, and sports mentorships. Then, two years ago, it partnered with local food banks to host an annual Father’s Day event. That worked so well the organization launched a food bank of its own—which has become critical during the pandemic.

In addition to coronavirus making things harder for people who need food, it also made things tricky for Struggle of Love’s food operation. “We had to switch to a drive-through or walk-through food bank instead of allowing them to come inside and pick their own food,” she says.

Just as more help was needed to serve the growing numbers of people who were going hungry, Coloradans opened their wallets wider. The Denver Foundation, the Jared Polis emergency relief fund and more than a dozen other organizations gave grants so Struggle of Love could hire 11 more workers to distribute food at the drive-thru. Getting additional food itself wasn’t a problem. “We have a lot of support from other food banks and local restaurants,” says Lakeshia.

denver cityscape with moutains in the backgroundBrad McGinley Photography
About 2,500 people a week visit Struggle of Love in this city of about 600,000.

The organization also gets a lot of support from the Denver Police. The department’s “Compassion Cruiser” filled with food makes regular appearances to hand out to community members. The nonprofit’s headquarters is just two minutes away by car from the District 5 station and Hodge says they have a strong partnership.

Most of the protests against police brutality against Black people have happened downtown, far away from Struggle of Love’s offices, says Hodge. But they have attended some protests and she stood alongside the mayor as he spoke at one.

“It’s a tragedy what’s happening,” Hodge says. “We still support the police. We want to get people to remember that there are still good cops, even if there are a few bad apples.”

The Nomination

Struggle of Love foundation distributes food to those hit hardest by coronavirus crisis. Putting on my mask and rubber gloves, I joined the volunteer warriors unloading the semi truck at 12000 E. 47th Ave.

Most of us would have been working at this time, but with record unemployment, we were sent home with no word of a return date. Rather than staring at the wall, Netflix, or an aggravated spouse, we saw an opportunity to help others in this crisis. Thanks to Joel and LaKeshia Hodge, the Struggle of Love foundation began its “Sacks of Love” food distribution service just under two years ago. Now, it’s just the thing that many residents of the Far Northeast need to stay afloat.

After an extremely busy day of packing sizable food bags and distributing them by the carload, I sat down with LaKeshia Hodge in the offices of Academy 360, a charter school under the DPS umbrella. We discussed how this small, community run organization arrived at the place where they could serve upwards of 1,000 people a day during a national crisis.

Sacks of Love food pantryCourtesy Struggle of Love Foundation (2)
Sacks of Love became a drive-thru food pantry as a result of Covid-19.

“Do you want the full story, or the abridged version?” LaKeshia asked me, laughing. I reminded her that I could always edit it down for time. She told me the incredible story of their origins.

It began with meeting her husband, Chicago native, Joel Hodge, 20 years ago while they were both homeless. They both made a vow to help one another get on their feet.

“We didn’t know what we could do to help each other, but we loved each other and said, “we’ll just make it work,’” she said.

LaKeshia says they gained their footing with resources that were there in the community for people in their position. At this point in the interview, I realized that the Hodges are living proof that programs geared to bring people out of poverty do indeed pay dividends down the road.

Soon they were able to buy a house. With that credit, they bought another house and rented it out at a reduced rate for those on Section 8. They literally lifted others as they climbed. In short order, they formed the Struggle of Love foundation in 2007.

I asked them if they had received any grants to do the work they do.

“We’ve been operating off of our own money,” LaKeshia, said. “We haven’t really received any grant funding, mostly just in-kind donations from people in the community that wanted to support our efforts.”

Soon, they were doing backpack giveaways, Thanksgiving baskets and hot meals for homeless families on Thanksgiving. They also did toy drives for needy families for Christmas, all while not being too far from being one of those families in need.

I was curious to know how they got into distributing food to the community. It turns out that the food bank began with their Father’s Day “Reach for Peace” festival. In 2018, they faced a crisis whereby they lost one of their biggest sponsors. In need of sponsors, they began to tap into food banks around the Denver area to meet their shortfall. They formed a relationship with the Food Bank of the Rockies, and with the excess they received, they started a pantry.

It started out with just extra bread, in extending themselves in this way, they formed a partnership. “It was kind of an accident,” LaKeshia says. “We were in a crisis, and through that challenge, we added another arm of our organization.”

With good work comes the right help. Families Forward Resource Center decided to sponsor their space at Academy 360. Soon they even attracted the eye of the Montbello Organizing Committee who partners with Struggle of Love in their space at Academy 360.

When their food pantry started the “Sacks of Love” program in 2018, they didn’t see the coronavirus on the horizon. Their main clients were senior citizens in the Far North East.

“We struggled keeping our volunteers engaged and our pantry operating.” She said that all changed in mid-March of 2020. LaKeshia says that literally overight, the demand went through the roof, but so did the supply, and so did the volunteers.

“I have to say that we really could not do this without the volunteers. The financial support and in-kind donations are cool, but without the volunteers, we’d just be too overwhelmed. I’ve never seen this much food,” she laughed.

Truthfully, neither had I. One Wednesday of volunteering, I helped unload four separate trucks and stacked boxes in their 500-square-foot pantry. There was almost no walking room. Within two days, it was gone, and new trucks were coming in.

This is the kind of need that the massive unemployment has created in the Denver metro area. But with organizations like Struggle of Love standing in the gap, for now, there’s somebody on the ground meeting the needs of the most needy in our city.

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