Ken Sellers, 29, babysits a wagonful of groceries and other free items while his son, Mason, tumbles through a balloon obstacle course. He picks up a children’s book, “Spooky Old Tree,” featuring the Berenstain Bears. He says Mason tries to read the lines, “and we read, too,” pointing to his wife over yonder.
This is the third year Sellers has been to LoveOKC’s One Day, a sprawling community outreach event at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. The collective of churches and local businesses donates resources and arranges for medical staff while Feed the Children provides a grocery section. Visitors are dubbed “Guests of Honor,” and there were 7,205 of them Aug. 29.
To many present at LoveOKC’s event that Saturday, the affair was the only one of its kind they can attend, so they are ready when it comes. With 17.2 percent of its population considered food-insecure, Oklahoma regularly ranks among the top-five states by number of hungry people, according to Foodbank.org. In Oklahoma County alone, 126,990 people are estimated to be food-insecure, according to studies by Feeding America. Still, many of those struggling have income above the federal poverty level.
Sellers likes the atmosphere and the people, and that it’s a free event.
“Gas is higher now, but food prices?” Sellers said. “I remember when you could get a full basket with $100. Now, that gets you a quarter of a basket.”
It’s an extraordinary thing happening: kindness. Extra volunteers (there were many) get worried if they stand idle. They came. They want to help. A team leader assures them it’s not an issue of help, but rather the grocery line is just moving slowly right now. A pastor and his colleague have beatific glows as they walk past the popular family portrait section.
Restrictions tighten for those in need
In November 2013, recipient of SNAP benefits (food stamps) saw the program take a 5 percent across-the-board cut when a prior benefit increase expired. A year later, Congress’s new farm bill closed a loophole that dropped 850,000 households from government food assistance.
Further, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 1909 in April 2013, which requires individuals between 18 and 50 — who are not disabled or raising a child — to work 20 hours a week to be eligible for SNAP relief. Signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, the bill also prohibited Oklahoma Department of Human Services workers from seeking federal waivers for work requirements. Immediately, 233,000 individuals were put under review for SNAP eligibility.
Those in favor of the safety net benefits say the state government is creating one more hurdle for people who are already spread thin, and that the self-sustaining idealism of the measure doesn’t take into account the actual availability of jobs and access to transportation (key in rural areas and the widespread Oklahoma City metro).
Meanwhile, proponents of the bill point to high government spending.
“Unfortunately, some believe compassion is measured by how many people you can keep on a government-aid program,” HB 1909’s author and former Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon said when the bill was signed. “We must change the paradigm to how many people we can get off government assistance. We must encourage able-bodied people to break their addiction to government subsidies and gain self-sufficiency.”
Helping others ‘a relief from your own worries’
“I don’t know another thing like it, unless there’s a crisis,” said Chad McCoy, 42, one of more than 1,400 volunteers. He helped carry heavy boxes of groceries to the parking lot Saturday, eventually leaning on the back wall, his short salt-and-pepper hair gleaming with sweat as he took a break.
McCoy said it is humbling to be ministered to at the prayer circles inside; talking with other believers, seeing where they are in life. At first, he didn’t know what to do, what to expect, how to help. Now, to him, the message seems simple.
“That’s one thing people forget Christ is about: It’s love,” McCoy said. “We get so set in our own heads. To be able to get out and serve other people is a relief from your own worries.”
Meanwhile, volunteer doorman Jamie Huntley directs people to the lunch area or the kids zone, to the haircuts to the left or straight ahead to the main expo area. Career fair vendors have set up shop, a massage therapist is working on a woman pointing to her neck, flu shots are being administered, and breast exams are being given. Four dentists are even pulling teeth. The groceries are the last stop.
One volunteer, 52-year-old Noel Leal, is a single dad and Master Sergeant in the Air Force. He is watching the main thoroughfare and notices a woman covering her mouth because her front teeth have been pulled.
“You gotta let me see it!” he says. She pauses, then shows him. “You’re going to feel so much better,” he reassures her.
Vignettes of hope
Elsewhere in the large exhibit hall, the event has kindled a mother-daughter bonding session for Christina and Shamron Church. They run to the haircut line, laughing like teenagers. Christina is about to graduate from City Rescue Mission’s Bridge to Life rehab program.
Despite two rows of barbers at work, they will be in line for an hour.
“I’m going to Rose State,” Shamron Church said. Environmental sciences is the intended major, and she hopes to pursue a career in health and safety inspections. During previous jobs at Subway and Mazzio’s, she was in charge of prepping for those inspections.
Grandmother Davietta Penn also waits with her grandkids in the haircut line. Her daughter, Sanae, holds onto a stroller.
“It’s very convenient,” Sanae said. She can’t afford the added cost of haircuts, school supplies and food, so the kids wait with her. “Anything helps,” said Davietta.
John Craig, 37, waited in an Insane Clown Posse shirt for his wife and two sons to get a haircut. They left Guthrie at 6 a.m. but found that wasn’t necessary: Everything moved quickly and opened at 9. He said haircuts are good for them right now because it’s hard to cut the baby’s hair. He’s also working on getting his daughter on the right track. She smiles shyly in plastic rimmed glasses and flannel. She says her math class is working on integers. Math is her strong suit.
Maria Patterson (with a tattoo that reads Smiles All Day) moves with her friend, who is directing a stroller. She doesn’t think the grocery line is that bad. Her relief? The kids area. She’s always trying to find stuff for the kids to do.
At the kid zone, volunteers paint faces. Elizabeth Bishop, 29, watches her daughter.
“Mom, look, I’m getting a pony!”
Bishop heard about LoveOKC at the Opportunities Industrialization Center where she is getting her GED. Between that and her two kids, there’s not much time for work.
Like so many, she and her daughter had been looking forward to the event for a while — a day of hope, resources and, of course, love.