Some men might buy a sports car when a midlife crisis strikes. Others dye their hair, book a visit to a plastic surgeon or take up a risky sport.

Not Larry Kogovsek. When the Bend man’s self-described midlife crisis came knocking 16 years ago, as he approached 50 and his marriage collapsed — instead of trying to impossibly get young again, he got altruistic. And he’s a happy man for it.

His first step in a journey of a thousand smiles was calling Bend’s Family Kitchen. Kogovsek is originally from Colorado. He had been a hospital chef when he lived in San Diego with his then-wife. They moved to La Pine in 2000, where they worked as caretakers.

“I had been a chef, and I became aware of the Family Kitchen,” he said, referring to the Bend nonprofit meal center at 231 NW Idaho Ave., co-founded in 1986 by Carol Bryant.

The co-founder asked him, “‘Well, which church do you belong to?’ ” Kogovsek recalled. At that time, volunteer church groups worked in teams to serve meals at Family Kitchen. A former Catholic, Kogovsek didn’t have a church, so he began attending Trinity Episcopal Church, which hosts the soup kitchen on its property. It was also Bryant’s church prior to her death in 2011.

“I got my foot in the door,” Kogovsek said. Though he was working as a chef at the time, Bryant invited him to arrive after meal services.

“You’re gonna sweep the floor,” she told him. “I said, ‘Fine, that’s great. No problem.’ For several weeks, I would show up at the end of the service, and I would sweep the floor,” he said.

Once he became a presence, Kogovsek took the initiative to do more. Before long, he was running Family Kitchen. “I just kept stepping up. That’s kind of how these other things happened, too,” Kogovsek said.

Over the last decade and a half, “other things” has included volunteer work with Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers, Central Oregon Home Health and Hospice, Meals on Wheels, Bend’s Community Center and a number of other organizations over the years.

At Cascade Peer and Self-Help Center, he volunteered to cook lunch. After noticing the nonprofit, which provides support to people dealing with addiction and mental health issues, needed board members, he joined its board. Now he’s the board president. He also chairs the board for New Priorities Family Services. Located in Redmond, it provides addiction and mental health treatment under one roof, and serves the homeless as well.

Sagewood Sanctuary

Kogovsek is also president of the board at Sagewood Sanctuary, an organization helping the homeless. The nonprofit has three goals, including a year-round, managed homeless camp. For now, the question of where it might be located remains unanswered, Kogovsek said.

Transitional housing is another stated goal; he stresses Sagewood’s “housing first” philosophy in helping the homeless; first stabilize the living situation, then confront other challenges a homeless person may face, such as addiction or unemployment.

Sagewood Sanctuary has acted on its third goal — a nighttime, emergency warming shelter — the last two winters at Pfeifer & Associates’ drug addiction treatment center at 23 NW Greenwood Ave., near the Bend Parkway. It was not without problems or controversy.

“The need was great. We were immediately overwhelmed. We got anywhere from 50 to 60 people a night,” Kogovsek said. “It was staggering.”

He’s also on the advisory council of the Central Oregon Health Council, which helps to fund the warming shelter.

“So we were able to have paid staff” at Sagewood Sanctuary, Kogovsek said.

David Lynch, 29, was one of those staffers.

“That’s what he does — nothing but things for others, for the most part,” Lynch said of Kogovsek. “I would say that it’s his religion … or at least his spirituality. And I would say based off of what I know of (his) history — and I don’t know a lot — it was always there. He has always been a very open-minded person and willing to help people out. He does nothing but good things now.”

For many years, Kogovsek has volunteered with Partners in Care, through which he makes hospice visits.

“That still is, ultimately, what I want to do. I just kind of got involved in this homeless stuff,” Kogovsek said. “I’m volunteering all over the place.”

His many volunteer efforts keep him on the move, and appointments sometimes bump up against one another. He shares an anecdote about driving a homeless friend to a doctor visit before heading to make a hospice visit.

“I tell them, ‘Now I’m going to go visit hospice for relaxation,’” he said, laughing.

Bridging Hearts

Though Kogovsek has his hands in a lot of pots, there’s a simple, common thread among all the populations he works with.

“People just need attention,” he said. “They need to have somebody to talk to and feel like they’re connected to a community. That’s what drop-in centers are for. And ultimately … what I do as a hospice volunteer is visit people.”

He has in mind establishing an organization to give people training in presence. It would be called Bridging Hearts, and it would be “an overall organization where people volunteer to just be with people,” he said. “We’ve seen what kind of reaction or kind of developments can occur when people start getting attention. Even in hospice, people start living longer.”

One man in hospice, Kogovsek said, wanted to change his Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment, or POLST. “It’s for emergency responders to know what that person wants to have happen in an emergency situation,” Kogovsek said. “If someone’s on hospice, it says, ‘no heroic measures,’ because somebody’s dying anyway. He went over, because I was visiting him … and crossed out ‘no heroic measures.’

“He said, ‘No, I want to live.’ That’s what happens when people start getting some attention.” (Kogovsek alerted the man he’d have to go through official channels to amend the form.)

Kogovsek believes people in Central Oregon are generous, but they want a specific task they can accomplish and call done. Being present for other people is a little more open-ended.

“We’re a very left-brained society where things have to be concrete and linear and so forth,” he said. “People are uncomfortable with just showing up for somebody and talking to them. … For a lot of people, that is a right-brained activity. You have to be nonjudgmental both of yourself and the person.”

Lynch says Kogovsek lives that ideal. With hospice visits, “He’s just making the last moments of a person who no one really seems to care about — maybe he’s just kind of old and upset and even a little bit nasty — Larry goes right over (and) he sits with them and still cares about them no matter what.”

That same nonjudgmental approach informs his work with the homeless.

“There are people who have made some really bad decisions in their life, and he still sees them as good people,” Lynch said. “It’s not like he excuses their behavior. He recognizes that we are all human, and he sees recovery and rehabilitation as something anyone can do.”

The simple life

In recent years, Kogovsek battled with cancer and saw his fourth and longest marriage come to an end. (All of his marriages have ended in friendship, he said.)

After that divorce, he rented a room in a house, where his roommates “soon discovered that, in my room, I lived totally like a Buddhist,” he said. “All I had was a mat on the floor, my light and my radio — and my phone, of course. I decided that was enough because the phone connects you with everything.” On the radio would be either NPR or music. “What else do I need?”

Apparently, exercise.

“He is so fit,” Lynch said. “I play tennis with him — and I’m sick, I’ve got Crohn’s disease — but I was definitely on my tennis team when I was a kid. I was pretty good at it. He beats me; I hate to say it, but he does.”

Today he rents an affordable west Bend studio apartment for under $800 a month, and works as a senior caregiver and personal chef.

Had his midlife crisis not sent him down the course he’s on now, Kogovsek said, “I supposed I would have continued my chef career and be trying to buy stuff from REI, trying to buy an Audi, just try to fit into the culture in Bend — and that’s awful,” he said with a chuckle.

He “absolutely” wishes he could do more to help others.

“Always,” Kogovsek said. “But also, I’ve developed a perspective on it, and you just do the best you can. You’re no messiah, and you’re not going to solve everything. … Like I said, you’re just there to provide empathy and presence to people, and let them know some other people care. And a lot of times, they’ll solve their own problems, once they’ve been told that they’re capable (and) get some affirmation.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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