Agencies across Oklahoma offer warm meals and clean beds to homeless people. A few go beyond the basics with programs that touch the hearts and souls of volunteers and their clients.
“People need life-enriching opportunities whether they are housed or not,” says Kinsey Crocker, director of communications for the Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance.
About 1,200 people volunteer every year with the nonprofit, she says. Some help with a dog kennel that serves pets of homeless clients, and others teach classes ranging from yoga to computer literacy. Volunteers also interact with clients through an Alcoholics Anonymous group and a book club.
Fresh Start, one of the Homeless Alliance’s programs, offers art classes and a place for clients to “come in, relax, take their mind off their stress and build their confidence,” Crocker says. The program hosts art shows several times a year, and clients receive money if their pieces sell.
“We offer a dignified way to earn an income for people transitioning out of homelessness,” says Ranya Forgotson, director of Curbside Chronicle, a monthly publication that Homeless Alliance clients sell on the streets. “Our second main mission is to amplify people’s voices through the articles that we share. Vendors share their personal stories and experiences.”
Lauren McCaffrey, 38, an acrylic artist with Fresh Start, sells her works in northwest Oklahoma City … and usually has her service dog with her.
“I turn my radio on and it’s my happy place,” she says. “I’m dancing, playing with my pup, and smiling and waving at people going by. I love to see them smile back.”
With the help of a case manager and the Homeless Alliance, McCaffrey and her partner got approved for their own apartment. They were homeless after living several years with friends and relatives.
The Homeless Alliance “opened doors that I didn’t even know existed,” McCaffrey says. “It’s not just about food and shelter. They deal with the mental and the emotional, and the support is invaluable. If I am feeling overwhelmed, they are always available.”
Curbside Chronicle vendors also sell flowers for special occasions. A year-round shop should open this month.
“This will help our vendors who have excelled at the magazine to continue building skills and be in a more traditional working atmosphere,” Forgotson says.
In Tulsa, Sarah Grounds says she creates “the connection of human to human and heart to heart” at the City Lights Foundation of Oklahoma. The nonprofit helps homeless people and brings them together as a community with neighborhood cookouts, summer camps for children and female empowerment seminars.
Night Light Tulsa, a City Lights outreach program, meets beneath a bridge in downtown Tulsa every Thursday night and serves about 300 people a week, Grounds says.
“We serve a hot meal. We provide clothing, books and haircuts. We paint fingernails. We play with the kids and do crafts and games,” Grounds says.
The goal is to build relationships and connect people to services. First-time volunteers might think their jobs are to hand out hygiene supplies or help serve food, Grounds says, “but they leave realizing their purpose was much larger. It’s a place of healing for the guest they are sitting with and the volunteer.”
Johnathan Campbell, who used to live near the building that houses City Lights, approached the nonprofit for help after he lost his job.
“I didn’t know where else to turn,” Campbell says. “They are the most awesome people.”
Campbell says Grounds and her staff helped him get transportation to work after he found a job. They also helped him and his wife, Amanda, get Social Security cards for their children.
“They were always very respectful, very polite,” he says. “They helped me with anything I needed.”
Campbell works as a foundation repair specialist. Although he and his family still need assistance sometimes, he’s spent a few Thursday nights volunteering at Night Light to let clients know that their situations will improve.
Grounds and her husband launched Night Light in 2013. She says the idea came about after she became seriously ill and ended up traveling to Boston for surgery.
“A ton of people” helped her family with babysitting, meals and finances, she says.
As she and her husband reflected on that experience, they “felt that we were good people but weren’t really doing anything for anybody else.”
Night Light Tulsa earned its nonprofit status in 2015 and became the City Lights Foundation, which has a building in west Tulsa near low-income housing. It also offers a stand-alone food pantry and an eviction-prevention program that helps ward off homelessness.
“We believe in the power of meaningful relationships to restore community,” Grounds says. “I feel lucky to get to do what I get to do.”