|Dave Dahl speaking at the 2012 Northwest NAMIWalk. (Photo: Sean Bowen)|
By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator
Dave Dahl does not look like your typical bread baker. He certainly does not look like what you’d expect an organic bread baker to look like. His muscular chest and tattooed arms make him nearly twice as big as just about any other man standing next to him. His graying mustache and long hair add to his intimidating appearance.
If he looks the part of a hardened criminal, it’s because he is one. He has been to prison four times for dealing drugs and armed robbery.
In his mugshots, you can see the desolation in his face. His lifeless stare exemplifies the way he now describes how he felt about life at that time.
But there’s something that softens his demeanor now in his pictures. In recent images and interviews, you often see a wry smile as he glances to the side. You can see some piece of hope that didn’t exist before.
Since childhood, Dahl had struggled with depression. He began to self-medicate with drugs and found himself in and out of prison over the next two decades. In 2004, after getting out of prison for the last time after 15 years served, he decided it was time to turn his life around. “I had reached bottom,” Dahl says. “There was nowhere to go but to get help.”
In a video on his company’s website, Dahl chronicles his rise from the bottom. “I finally discovered the humility to go and talk to a doctor…. I didn’t want to be weak like that, but when you have something wrong with you, you have to get it fixed,” Dahl says in the video. “It’s not being weak. It’s being stronger to have humility to do what you have to do to get right.”
Returning to his family roots, he went back to baking bread. Dahl’s father had started a bread company, NatureBake, in 1955. With his brother Glenn’s help, Dahl launched his own line of bread called Dave’s Killer Bread. His story is printed on the back of each label on every loaf of bread (which does not involve killing). The brand started out small, selling loaves at a local farmer’s market, but it quickly expanded. The bread gained popularity and was soon sold in local stores and is now available in supermarkets around the Northwest United States. In recent months, the bread has been added to stores in Los Angeles and Denver, and there are plans to expand distribution to other parts of the country in the near future.
From donating 325,000 loaves annually to local charities to hiring fellow ex-felons into the company’s workforce (more than one-quarter of his employees have served time), Dahl is constantly trying to give back to his community. Since 2011, one of the local groups that have benefited from his attention is NAMI Oregon. Dahl, and eventually the other staff members of his company, have been supporting NAMI by participating in the NAMIWalk Northwest.
In 2012, he served as the honorary Walk chair, and Dave’s Killer Bread sponsored the Walk. “His story just resonates with so many people because he was in a very bad place,” said Michelle Madison, events manager of NAMI Oregon, who is in charge of organizing the NAMIWalk Northwest. “Mental illness is really the last frontier. It’s something people still don’t really want to talk about, so when you have someone in the public eye who comes out in favor of a cause, people respond.” This year’s Walk takes places on May 19 in Portland, Ore.
Dahl cherishes his position as a positive influence in the community. “I can now be a role model—a good seed, not a bad seed. The difference is exponential,” he says. His popularity shows. At all of the NAMI events where Dahl speaks, he is often overwhelmed by fans running up to him. But no matter how many adoring fans come up to this ex-convict bread-maker, he always takes time to talk to everyone.
Whether baking bread, sharing his own experience with mental illness, or just listening to others share the stories of their own journeys, Dave Dahl is looking to make the word a healthier and happier place, even if it is just by baking one loaf of bread at a time.
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