Eight years ago, high school sweethearts Mike and Jessica Kovac were on the verge of divorcing after 17 years of financial hardship, medical problems and dealing with personal issues from adultery to alcoholism.
“I wished he would die,” Jessica, 42, of Liberty Lake, Washington, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t feel I was strong enough to divorce him.”
It wasn’t until they started helping the hungry and homeless in Spokane, Washington, that the couple realized how much they had to be thankful for – especially each other.
Today, through their nonprofit Blessings Under the Bridge, the Kovacs feed about 250 people every Wednesday evening beneath a busy freeway bridge in Spokane, dishing up everything from chili to lasagna with a band of regular volunteers.
“Doing this has not only brought us closer together, it’s given us hope,” says Mike, 43, who has had eight back surgeries and is on disability after losing his job at a warehouse club after nine years.
“We’ve learned that if there is hope for us, then there is hope for anyone, regardless of their circumstance,” he says.
They also helped a homeless man track down his daughter after a 28-year estrangement. He now lives with her in Jacksonville, Florida.
“They are so giving,” says Homer Hill, 67, who’d been living under the bridge for several years when he met them. “I think the world of them.”
It was October 2007 when Jessica, a former waitress, filled a basket with 40 sack lunches paid for with her tip money and walked through downtown Spokane to hand them out to the hungry.
“I’d been feeling so bitter toward my husband and I was ashamed of the person I’d become,” she says.
“So I decided to head to unfamiliar territory and do something for people who were worse off than I was,” she says.
A month later, she was joined by Mike, who quickly became hooked on listening to stories from the downtrodden and doing all he could to make a difference in their lives.
He and Jessica spent the last $40,000 of their savings to start Blessings Under the Bridge, setting up tables and chairs every week beneath the overpass and serving three-course meals to anyone who stops by.
With help from community donors, they also give away bags of groceries, haircuts, clothing and blankets, along with hot coffee and sacks filled with gourmet treats.
“They’ve touched our hearts more than we’ve touched theirs,” says Jessica, who is on a first-name basis with most of her homeless friends.
“It’s something that Mike and I are just drawn to now,” she says. “We can’t imagine doing anything else.”
One of the biggest bonuses, she says, is that she now looks at her husband with different eyes.
“Working side-by-side with those who have nothing has rekindled our relationship,” she says. “We now know what really matters in life.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine