Feed His Sheep volunteers serve a hot meal at a feeding in December 2021.

Preparing for winter

As the end of the year draws near, the need increases for many local nonprofits who focus their care on the homeless.

Oklahoma Gazette started Citizen Spotlight more than a year ago to highlight the citizens in our community who selflessly pay it forward to those in need. As the days pass, these selfless citizens have continued their missions, often working together to make the biggest impact.

As the close of the year draws near and many begin to consider their end-of-year giving or search for a place to volunteer, I felt it might be time to revisit some of the individuals that will spend the coming months battling cold weather, increasing inflation and the everyday odds to help those in need, keeping them warm and providing the care they need to survive. During this season, these small grassroots efforts will face even more challenges and they don’t often make the donations lists like larger charitable organizations. Each is funded entirely off the generosity of the community and partnerships.

There are a number of organizations whose primary mission is to keep people from going hungry. Robyn and Clyde Watanabe have spent more than 11 years passing out hot meals and necessities on their Sunday mornings. As the need has grown larger, so has their groups of volunteers who meet each week in the Dunlap Codding parking lot. Feed His Sheep now feeds hundreds of people each week.

click to enlarge Preparing for winter
Berlin Green
The Ice Angels pass out a hot meal during an April 2022 feeding.

Not far away you’ll find the Ice Angels, who visit 1200 S. Walker Ave. every Wednesday to serve the homeless. Similar to the Watanabes, Lenny and Mary Kaplan started volunteering their time 12 years ago, growing their group of volunteers to meet the need, even acquiring a small food trailer to prepare quality healthy meals.

If humans are struggling, so are the pets, so the Pet Food Pantry of Oklahoma City often joins the site to distribute pet food and essentials so low income residents who will often feed their pets before themselves don’t have to choose. They gather and distribute needed pet supplies to hand out at feeding sites and through other charitable organizations like Bagz of Luv.

Augustina Aviles with Bagz of Luv draws on her history as a sous chef to create filling, healthy meals for the homeless. She found an ingenious way to help keep those on the street warm during the cold months, crafting small space heaters from aluminum cans and other household items.

As the nights drop to a bitter cold, Ryan Cristelli will make the rounds with Project Winter Watch, passing out zero temperature sleeping bags, socks and gloves to ensure people can stay warm when the temperatures drop. Though she does outreach all winter long, Jodi Berge with On Bended Knee will use her time during the winter to help Cristelli and others like Jessica Laster distribute resources like tents, hand warmers and coats.

Laster overcame addiction and homelessness but never forgot her struggle. She continues to go out each week with Sandwiches with Love, passing out meals and connecting with people in the community. She works closely with Delisa Jones of Second Chances Thrift Store to provide with the needed resources to both stay alive on the streets and overcome the obstacles keeping them there.

Attorney Rusty Mulinex founded the Oklahoma Phoenix Project to help raise awareness of the many plights the homeless face.

“These are real living, breathing people,” Mulinix told Oklahoma Gazette earlier this year. “Many are out there because of drug problems or mental health problems, and there are a lot of them that, for whatever reason, life has pitched them a bad hand. They’re all very easy to talk to, they’re intelligent, and they’re often very spiritual. And everyone deserves help. My theory is if we can help them for 30 minutes, three days, or whatever it is, if we can give them food, clothes, and a zero-degree sleeping bag that helps them for a month or whatever, then we’ve accomplished something. And they’re always so grateful. You very rarely get anybody that’s anything but just totally thankful that you’ve done something for him. These are people; they deserve care and respect too.”

It’s this attitude that each of these individuals and their organizations carry. Each uses their gifts in unique ways to pay it forward and make change in their community. Even the small things add up in very big ways.

Something as simple as laundry can become very expensive, very quickly, causing many families to make the choice between clean clothes or other more vital necessities. Tamara Nelson created Sox of Love to help bridge that gap. She partners with local laundromats to help provide free laundry products and services to those in need. Where you find Sox of Love you’ll often find Lisa Gerard who visits the sites with Little Read Wagon, passing out books, pajamas and stuffed animals to help children foster a love for reading.

Aley Cristelli designed Pine Pantry to be a community supported pantry that allows people to take what they need when they need it. What started off as a small project to give back in a new city, Cristelli now operates six locations around the metro. Often found at Sunnyside Diner locations, the pantry expanded to locations like Grill on the Hill and Andrew Johnson Elementary to make sure food insecure students have something to eat.

click to enlarge Preparing for winter
Berlin Green
The Pine Pantry at Andrew Johnson Elementary.

The spirit of good deeds is what inspired Fill My Basket. Disty Simpson and Matthew Danuser found that small acts of kindness can go a long way so the pair spend their free time paying for groceries, passing out meals to those in need and simply brightening people’s days through positive actions, helping people lighten people’s burdens if only for the day.

Retired veteran Adam Ely knows how vital a car can be, so he spends his time fixing them — for free. Thanks to generous donors and partnerships with auto parts companies, Ely provides a variety of automotive services to help people continue to get to work, school and doctors appointments.

As the cold and flu season sweeps through the season, visits to the doctor will increase. Dr. Boyd Shook left his career at OU Medical Center to use his skills to help the underserved with needed medical care, offering his services at no cost to the patient. The small clinic, Manos Juntas relies completely on the services of volunteers and the generosity of donors to serve thousands of patients each year.

All of these organizations work closely together year-round to help meet the needs of the needy in their communities.

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