SILVER SPRING – Shepherd’s Table Executive Director Jacki Coyle has always felt a calling to help others.
She traces her compassion to her younger years at catholic school in Hagerstown, where she and her classmates were often involved in assisting others.
She still feels the calling but believes it’s time to take her skills and compassion elsewhere, noting that Shepherd’s Table currently is “in in a very good place,” in terms of finances, services and planning.
After 15 years at its helm, on May 31 Coyle is leaving the organization in Progress Place in Silver Spring that serves three meals a day on weekdays and brunch and dinner on the weekends to anyone in need.
While the meal guests, as Shepherd’s Table calls its clients, are there, its 12 employees and more than 3,000 volunteers get to know those in need and guide them to its Resource Center, which offers such services as the use of computers and telephones, knowledge of area services, clothes and toiletries.
When Coyle first became executive director, Shepherd’s Table was in a different location and served only dinners.
In the organization’s 35 years, “We’ve never missed a day,” Coyle said.
Under her wings, it has grown. In 2018, it served 117,000 meals. “The need in this community for a place to eat has grown,” Coyle said.
All who come to the Georgia Avenue location are welcomed. No one has to prove his or her income or need, she said. While some of their guests are homeless, many reside in what Coyle referred to as “iffy housing,” without a secure future.
Quite a few of those dining at Shepherd’s Table are senior citizens with difficulty paying all their bills, she noted.
Coyle said she believes seniors are probably the largest growing group served there.
While she also believes most of the meal guests are from the Silver Spring area, its location within walking distance of the Silver Spring Transit Center also brings in people from Washington, D.C.
Since her days in the convent, where she “learned about acts of justice,” through her professional years in Baltimore with Catholic Charities — heading first its Sister’s Place and then Our Daily Bread — Coyle has been helping the less fortunate.
“It just seemed like there was a path laid out for me, and I am grateful for that path,” she said.
However, she has no idea how that path led to the food service industry.
She shook her head while recollecting the time about a year ago when one of the organization’s chefs left and another was out on maternity leave. Coyle and others stepped in to cover their absences.
“Oh, my God, that is not my gift,” she said, remembering how she tried to engage with clients and help some find their way to the Resource Center, all the while chopping and cooking a healthy meal for 100 people.
While excited about her new journey, she said she will miss Shepherd’s Table and its board members will miss her.
In a letter signed by board members Susan Collet and Mike Balderrama, the board praised Coyle for her “tremendous impact.”
“The culture of Shepherd’s Table – welcoming, friendly and compassionate – is a reflection of Jacki’s wholehearted leadership and her impact both on the organization and the community. This feeling of kinship is experienced by anyone who walks in the door, whether they are a client, meal guest, volunteer, friend or donor,” they stated in the letter.
Coyle will be honored April 6 during Shepherd Table’s Surfin’ for the Table event at AFI Silver Theatre.
She plans to use that platform to thank the many people she has met and worked with throughout the county.
“Montgomery County does have a great deal of resources, that’s for sure, but the pockets of poverty are profound here. You certainly have the poverty and the homelessness.”
However, she added, “The good news in Montgomery County is you have a wonderful group of people you can reach out to.”
Coyle and her partner are moving to Northern Virginia soon. She expects to spend a few months relaxing before stepping up to her next challenge, she said.
“I know in my heart of hearts I want to make a difference. I am not retiring. I am going to take a couple of months, two or three months off, and see what direction God is calling me to.”