Second chance at life: Baking gives a way to avoid being homeless

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2018

My friend, Mike, is a survivor.  With lots of help from many kind folks, Mike was able to do what many have not — he pulled himself out of a hopeless situation. He now enjoys living in Tiny Blessings, an appropriate name for the shed he owns and calls home.

My path crossed Mike’s a few years ago. A local church in Davie County reached out to me searching for a place he could temporarily live to escape cold weather during winter months after discovering him living in his truck. The church bestowed a generous act of kindness upon Mike, and I gained a new friend in the process.

The last time Mike was homeless lasted about 12 years. He went from having a home and family to being totally alone with no place to go. His truck was the only place he could seek refuge from the outside world. Always on the road and living out of a truck, much of the time, he had no valid driver’s license. Mike would get his license pulled for not paying child support because he had no money due to lack of work. He drank too much alcohol to medicate himself from pain and forget his struggles and was in his 50s before he got his drinking under control. It affected his jobs, his family, his friends and how people treated him.

“People still judge me on my past. Sometimes I find a rare person who will take a risk with me. It’s been so difficult going from one place to another. I’ve lived in my truck — I’ve lived in the streets — I’ve lived in cardboard boxes — wrecked vehicles — and in a subway. I’ve lived in people’s homes — in their basements for weeks at a time without their knowing I was there,” admitted Mike, reflecting on his hardships.

One of Mike’s most painful memories of being homeless deals with being on the move constantly. He was having to move from one place to another so it wasn’t obvious he was living in the truck. Living in a small, cramped space, never being able to stay in one place very long, and uncontrollable weather — just added to an already high degree of instability. Mike had no place to go, no place to take showers and had to constantly worry whether he had enough gas in his truck to keep the heat on.

Mike got in trouble at times with the law because of an aggressive attitude due to additional problems with addiction and mental health issues. He struggled with mental illness from the time he was 7 years old but doesn’t remember his mother and father ever taking him to the doctor or trying to get him help. He made a lot of poor choices. Mike was almost convicted of vehicular homicide at age 15.

“The boy who was killed in my car — his family supported me and kept me from going to jail. They never gave up on me. They are still in my life today. It was the first time in my life I’d seen God’s grace.”

Mike believes where he is today is the best place he’s been in his entire life. He’s learned much about his addictions and mental health issues and how to manage them and not allow them to manage and control him. He’s learned how to make better choices. Mike’s made it five years now, clean and sober.

The church in Davie County provided a place for Mike to stay for three months — just long enough to get him through winter. After moving out, he tried to find a stable environment, but Mike moved back to his truck. It took a couple of months to figure out how to get his finances where they needed to be so he could buy a tiny house. Still living out of his truck, Mike got the break he needed. A family allowed him to keep his truck parked in the driveway of their home. The family was committed to helping him find a home, but Mike wanted to do most of the work on his own.

His goal was to purchase a shed, and the family provided some land to put it on. There was a repossession lot for sheds and Mike was in process of getting some cash together. He took a private loan from about 30 people, for $2,300, with a promise that for every dollar they put in, he would give $3 in return. The deal was the only way Mike could purchase Tiny Blessings as he had no credit and no money. Finally, things worked out, and Mike purchased the building. He moved his new home to the land and finished off the inside, making it suitable for living year round. God provided the front door.

“The reason why I named my home Tiny Blessings is that it was the first major step by myself with God — just me and God. For everything I did for myself, God matched me step for step. I was able to pay the building off in 7 months,” said Mike, recounting how he came to buy his first real home.

More blessings followed. A restaurant owner in Clemmons gave Mike an opportunity and provided him with a job as a dishwasher. Until it closed, he worked for the restaurant and also took on odd jobs to make money. That’s all it took — someone who would give Mike a chance, and things began to change.

“It was the first time in my life, I’d seen a change in myself. I really began to respect the value of a dollar and learned how to save money. My priorities had changed. I paid the home off as fast as I could to not risk losing my home.”

When I asked Mike how being homeless had affected him, I expected him to begin with a list of negatives. Instead, he opened with words of deep gratitude.

“It gave me a family, taught me how to trust people, I learned how to trust me — I had always made bad choices.”

On the other side, being homeless made Mike’s mental and physical health worse. The situation made him feel more isolated and alone.

“I’ve been attacked in shelters a few times. It’s been such a struggle. I wasn’t much of a fighter. I’ve learned how to fend for myself. Someone’s always there to take advantage of you and you always have to watch your back.”

Being homeless also made him work harder than ever.

“I have never enjoyed working as much as I do now. It doesn’t take much money to live on. I can use my money to serve others and still take care of me.”

Now, that’s a heart of gold.

Mike’s greatest challenge is finding a job.

“My age makes it more difficult to find work — especially with my health situation. That affects my ability to work, and I don’t move as fast or think as fast as I used to.”

Mike still suffers from PTSD due to years of drinking and hanging around the wrong people — people who constantly told him he was worthless.

“I’ve not had running water in my house for two years since living there. I  do my best to keep heat in the house, but that’s hard,” said Mike.

Sometimes it’s hard to overcome one’s past. People often judge Mike unfairly or perceive him simply from what he drives or how his truck appears.

“The family I live with is disabled and low income. I don’t take money from them. For people who have nothing, they gave me everything — I have a family who loves me, keeps an eye on me, we have meals together, we do activities together — in other words — a family — right down to the land my house sits on. I do whatever I can to give back to them.”

Mike believes the greatest help he received in assisting him out of homelessness was being surrounded by strong, loving mentors who were not afraid of him, people who looked out for his welfare, friends who would call him out if he was getting off track, and supportive Christians as well as non-Christians who were not afraid to say yes and no.

“God has used everyone including two organizations in Davie County — Storehouse for Jesus and Just Hope — they provided much support in so many ways.”

Mike has taken what God has given him and learned how to use it to become more stable in job situations. He’s gained skills and learned how to use many forms of equipment he never knew how to use before.

“It’s been an amazing journey.”

I asked Mike how he believes we can better serve the homeless.

“Income. Give them jobs — take a chance with someone so they can find employment. The biggest help to a homeless person is providing work. The smallest jobs are the largest. If someone is disabled, an opportunity to learn a new skill they didn’t have can lead someone into a better situation. Someone helped me get a job at the restaurant in Clemmons, I was hired as a dishwasher, but I consider my artisan craft to be baking — I’m actually a baker. I prepped and cooked at the restaurant.”

Years ago, Mike started working in school kitchens and small restaurants that were holes in the walls. Someone would open a restaurant and hire him. He’d shadow behind the cooks and chefs, learning every aspect of the business. After cooking for years, Mike discovered he was most talented with baking.

Mike considers himself, basically, a scratch baker — a way of baking that gives baked goods a different flavor.

“My baking is unique. Each item equals something you can’t buy at a grocery. I have recipes of cookies no one has ever seen. I used to collect cookbooks from the ’30s and ’40s and got into understanding how they made their own cake flour, the combination of flavors to make things work, and new ways to come up with my own recipes. I call it simple country cooking — none of that fancy stuff. Cinnamon rolls, bread, cakes, pies, and cookies — the stuff people love the most. They love the simple — doesn’t have to be expensive. One of the timeless things about past foods — they make an event a ‘wow’ and not a ‘ho-hum’.”

Mike recalled the past and how he learned to bake. Mike was pushed into baking through a friend who had broken his arms.

“I was basically his hands for a year. He was a professional chef with culinary certificates. We were working in a restaurant, and I was the dishwasher. He put me in front of an oven and taught me everything I know about how to bake. Baking bread looks simple, but it’s not. Yeast is a fussy little thing. If you play with it too much, it will die. You have to know its limitations. He taught me all the basic fundamentals of baking. Measurements, ingredients, temperatures and flavorings. His name was Jesse. He died 20 years ago. I’ve been fortunate to bake in small church kitchens, ministries, and for private functions to use the skills he taught me.”

Jesse introduced Mike to better foods.

“I was a hamburger and French fry man. I was raised dirt poor, and we’d be hungry many days when I was a kid.   We lived on bread and popcorn it seemed for days. When I left, I swore I would never be hungry again and learn to take care of me. My skill in the kitchen has been a saving grace. I can fix meals in a parking lot that people wouldn’t ever think of coming up with.”

Mike’s greatest challenge to baking is what he doesn’t know about baking.

“I would have enjoyed culinary school. People always told me I could do better, and I guess I just didn’t see it. I don’t know. Sometimes I look back and think I’ve wasted half my life. I think I would have been a great baker.”

For Mike, baking is the happiness he sees at an event, the “music” people make when they are together having a great evening with friends and family while sharing in fellowship over food.

“They come to the event to be with one another and eat good food. Personally, when I bake, it’s a calm peace. A place where I can find a little space for something I can do well without a huge amount of struggle. I can work through my problems in my head whenever I’m baking. I’ve had some traumatic events that, if it weren’t for being in the kitchen, I would have lost my mind.”

Mike has some advice for those who want to learn to bake.

“Think outside the box. Never take the easy way out. It’s so much more rewarding and satisfying. Desserts have a way of making a bond, building a bridge with people, and bringing back memories — in general, food does that. Something about food triggers our inner child and brings great joy to us. Reminds us of our childhood — seeing our mothers in the kitchen — the whole family in the kitchen back when times were simple. I was able to teach my grandson past his learning curve on math by baking with measuring cups, ½ cups and adding them together.”

Mike voices the same sentiments of joy expressed by those who bake.

“Some of my greatest joys have been getting the kids in the kitchen with me baking cookies as a church activity.”

One thing’s clear. People who love to cook always focus on what they share in common. Joy. I guess that’s why they call it “Baker’s Joy.”

A prolific writer, Mike writes an almost daily documentary on Facebook of his life as a person with few resources but sheer will that keeps him going despite the hardships he faces each day. Please feel free to go to his page at Mike W Whoo, and send him a friend request. Don’t miss his most poignant account of the baby steps he takes to stay out of homelessness.

I found this great quote on Mike’s social media page.

“Joy is very cheap, and if you can help the poor on with a garment of praise it will be better for them than blankets.”

Enjoy the Christmas cookies — a baker’s dozen — taken from Mike’s personal recipe collection.


¼ cup butter

½ cup white or brown sugar

½ cup dark molasses

3 ½ cup flour

1 tsp. soda

¼ tsp. cloves

½ tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

½ tsp. salt

5 Tbsp. or more water

In a mixer, blend butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in molasses. Sift flour. Sift again with soda, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture alternating with the water, working the last of the flour mixture with your hands. Roll the dough to any thickness you prefer. You can grease the bottom of a baking sheet and roll dough directly onto it. Cut with floured cookie cutter. Decorate figures before baking with small raisins, bits of candied cherry, red hots, decorettes, citron, etc. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes according to thickness. Cool. Make a paste of ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar and a few drops of water. Apply icing with a toothpick to make additional garnishes such as hair, mustache, belt, and shoes. Children love these. Makes 8 fat or 16 thin men.


3 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup unsweet cocoa powder

2 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. baking soda

¾ tsp. salt

¾ cup softened, unsalted butter

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

2 tsp. lemon juice

5 tsp. red food coloring

1 cup white chocolate chips

1 cup powdered sugar

In a mixing bowl, whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt for 30 seconds and set aside. In a mixer, whip butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in eggs 1 at a time, blending until combined after each addition. Mix in milk, vanilla extract, lemon juice, and red food coloring. On low speed, slowly add dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Stir in white chocolate chips. Cover bowl with wrap and chip for at least 2 hours. Pour powdered sugar into a bowl. Remove dough from refrigerator. With buttered hands, shape into balls about 2 ½ Tbsp. each. Roll in powdered sugar and evenly coat. Transfer to parchment paper lined baking sheets and flatten slightly. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 13-14 minutes. Cool slightly and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If you prefer more chocolate flavor, substitute 2-3 Tbsp. of flour with 2-3 Tbsp. of cocoa.


½ cup softened butter

½ cup Crisco shortening

1 ¼ cups packed brown sugar

¾ tsp. baking soda

3 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

3 ½ cups flour

1 cup Christmas colored M&M’s

1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

In a mixer, beat butter and shortening. Add brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Beat until light and flurry. Add eggs 1 at a time and vanilla. Beat well. Add flour, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in M&M’s and nuts. Drop from rounded teaspoons 2 inches apart onto an ungreased cooking sheet. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until golden. Cool. Transfer to wire rack and cool completely.


1 pkg. (14oz.) sweetened, shredded coconut (5 1/3 cups)

1 cup sugar

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. baking powder

½ cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Pour 2 cups of coconut on a plate. In a food processor, add remaining coconut, sugar, salt, and baking powder, Process until finely ground. Add butter and process just until no lumps remain. Add egg and vanilla. Process until smooth. Add flour. Pulse until crumbly dough begins to form. Do not over mix. Form into balls by the tablespoon, and roll in coconut. Arrange balls 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 23-25 minutes. Cool 2 minutes and transfer to wire rack to cool completely. For a light texture, do not over process dough. It should be loose and crumbly when you begin to form balls.


1 cup salted butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. ground cardamom

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

In a mixer, add butter and sugar, and mix until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time until light and fluffy. Combine flour, cardamom, and cinnamon. Stir into the sugar mixture just until blended. Separate the dough into 6 balls. Roll each ball into a rope about as big around as your finger on a lightly floured surface. Cut into ½ inch pieces, and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool for a few minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. These cookies are little shortbread nuggets.


2/3 cup softened, salted butter

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup unsweetened cocoa

½ Tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 ½ cups (10oz. pkg.) mint chocolate chips

In a mixer, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add to butter mixture, beating well. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by rounded tsp onto ungreased cookie sheet. Slightly flatten. Bake in a 350-degree oven 8-9 minutes or just until set. Do not overbake. Cool slightly and transfer to wire rack to cool completely.


1 cup softened, salted butter

½ cup sugar

½ cup packed brown sugar

1 egg

2 Tbsp. orange juice

1 Tbsp. grated orange peel

2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

¼ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup chopped pecans

In a mixer, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, orange juice, and peel. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add to creamed mixture. Stir in pecans. Shape dough into two 1 ½ inch rolls; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours. Unwrap and cut into ¼ inch slices. Place 2 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 7-8 minutes or until golden brown.


2 cups sifted, all-purpose flour

¼ tsp. baking soda

1 cup soft shortening

1 egg, well beaten

2 tbsp. lemon juice

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup sugar

1 Tbsp. lemon rind

½ cup chopped walnuts

Sift flour, soda, and salt. In a mixer, cream shortening. Add sugar. Then add egg, lemon rind, and lemon juice. Mix until light and fluffy. Add flour and nuts to mixture and mix just until blended. Shape into a roll, about 2 inches in diameter. Roll in wax paper and chill for at least 4 hours. Cut into 1/8 to ¼ slices and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 10-12 minutes.


2 cups flour

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

Large pinch of grated nutmeg

½ cup softened, salted butter

¾ cup sugar

1 egg yolk

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

In a bowl, sift flour, soda, and salt. In a mixture, cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolk and egg, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, add 2 tsp sugar and 2 tsp. cinnamon for top coating. Drop by Tbsp. onto ungreased cookie sheet 2 inches apart. Flatten slightly. Dust with sugar cinnamon. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes. Cool slightly and transfer to wire rack for cooling.


½ cup shortening

½ cup sugar

½ cup packed brown sugar

2 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. cloves

1 cup raisins

¾ cup chopped walnuts

In a mixer, combine shortening, sugar, brown sugar, and eggs. Beat until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, nutmeg, salt, and cloves. Add to shortening mixture and mix well. Stir in raisins and walnuts. Drop by tsp. onto greased cookie sheet. Bake in upper third 350-degree oven for 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned.


¾ cup softened, salted butter

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. strawberry jam

¼ cup green decorator sugar

In a mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs and vanilla. Mix well. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended. Refrigerate dough 4 hours. On a floured surface, roll out ½ of dough at a time to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut dough into star shapes using a 3 to 4-inch star cookie cutter. Using a1 to 2-inch star cookie cutter, cut a star out of the center of half of the big stars. Sprinkle colored sugar on the cookies with the centers cut out. Put on greased cookie sheets about 1 inch apart and bake in a 350-degree oven for 6-8 minutes. After cookies cool, spread 1 tsp. preserves in the center of each cookie that does not have a star cut out in the middle. Place a cookie with a cut out on top of the layer of preserves. A festive sandwich style cookie.


2 ¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ cup (1 stick) softened, salted butter

¾ cup sugar

¾ packed light brown sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 eggs

1 1/3 cups (8 oz. pkg.) toffee bits

1 ¾ cups (10 oz. pkg.) HERSHEY mini kisses milk chocolate

2 Tbsp. Crisco shortening (don’t use butter)

In a bowl, mix flour, baking soda, and salt, and set aside. In a mixer, beat butter, sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla until well blended. Add eggs and beat well. Gradually add flour mixture, beating until well blended. Stir in toffee bits. Drop by rounded tsp. onto prepared cookie sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 9-11 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly and transfer to wire rack to cool. Line tray with waxed paper. Place chocolate pieces and shortening in microwave safe bowl. Microwave at medium for 1 minute and stir until chocolates are melted and the mixture is smooth. Dip about 1/3 of each cookie into melted chocolate. Shake gently and scrape cookie bottom on edge of the bowl to remove excess chocolate. Place on prepared tray. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until chocolate is firm. Store in cool place with wax paper between layers of cookies.


1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

¾ cup smooth peanut butter

1 stick softened, unsalted butter

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for rolling

1 large egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup raspberry jam

In a bowl, whisk together, flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. In a mixer, beat peanut butter and butter until smooth. Add sugars and beat until fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until mixed. Add dry ingredients, and mix until combined. Scoop one Tbsp. of dough and form into balls. Roll each ball in granulated sugar and transfer to parchment lined baking sheets spacing 2 inches apart. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until puffy. Make indentations in centers by using the end of a spoon. Return to oven and bake 6-7 minutes more until edges are golden. Transfer to wire racks for cooling. Heat jam in a saucepan while stirring for 30 seconds. Spoon ½ tsp. into each indentation. Store in a single layer. Any jam or jelly can be substituted.