By 6pm, Owen Park is already pitch-dark. But that hasn't stopped a group of dedicated volunteers from striking up a charcoal fire in a grill near a park pavilion each Thursday evening through Thanksgiving.
After the group's weekly prayer circle concludes, a volunteer shouts "Women and children first!" as a rush of between 60 to 100 hungry people of all ages vie for a place in line for authentic summertime barbecue.
On Nov. 17, volunteers held flashlights over smoking burgers and warming buns while about 60 people lined up for hot potato soup, baked beans, donuts and of course, tasty barbecue.
For the past two years, a loosely organized group of Midtowners like Jesse McIntyre and Jacob Wright have gathered in Owen Park to feed the less fortunate.
On Thanksgiving Day, the generous group is preparing a big feast for the hungry in Owen Park. The tasty meal is the final dinner the group will make before breaking for the winter.
They will reconvene in the spring, McIntyre said.
During the holiday season, while many Tulsans lavish gifts and special treats on their children, hunger, thirst and homelessness are problems that seem even more difficult to imagine.
While reporting this story, two young kids jogged past my son and I with donuts and beans on their plates. The kids were younger than my 11-year-old son, who hasn't ever really had to see homeless or hungry people up close.
When we returned from the Owen Park barbecue, I asked him to write a short report of what he witnessed and subsequently felt after visiting with the people in the park. He wrote a series of thoughts and observations afterward, which were, in their own way, touching. Here's some of what my son Stephen Calvillo, 11, wrote in part:
"They joined together hand-in-hand saying a prayer ... But I also saw children without coats in the freezing cold. And people living in their van. I saw bikes with trash bags on top, filled with their own belongings.
"The food smelled delicious to me ... It made me think about Thanksgiving and that the people with nobody but themselves would have no family to see."
From the youngest to the oldest, hunger affects all segments of Oklahoma's population. This year, Governor Mary Fallin proclaimed 2011 as a "Drive to End Hunger Year" in Oklahoma.
AARP Oklahoma volunteers have spent the year raising awareness for senior hunger. During her proclamation this past spring, Fallin said, "As a state, it's important we join together to address the problem of senior hunger in Oklahoma.
"Through the efforts of volunteer organizations and terrific events like the Drive to End Hunger Year, we will be able to provide needy Oklahoma seniors with the support and nutrition they need," Fallin said.
Throughout 2011, events and awareness campaigns and food drives have been held to try to end hunger statewide. The governor kicked off a Feeding Oklahoma Food Drive in late October that encouraged Okie businesses, organizations and families to help join in fighting hunger together.
In conjunction with the governor's effort, Mayor Dewey Bartlett got the city of Tulsa in on the act, too. On Halloween, Bartlett encouraged Tulsans to "scare away hunger" with a Bedlam-themed food drive at City Hall.
"With one in five Oklahoma children at risk of going to bed hungry every night, this is a statistic we must address," the mayor said at the Halloween press conference.
The city's food drive wrapped up on Nov. 22, after city employees collected non-perishable food items for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
City workers placed food items into the bins of their choosing, depending on where their loyalties lie -- with Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma or University of Tulsa.
Michelle Allen, who works in the mayor's communications department, said the OSU bin was overflowing on the 12th floor, beating out support for OU or TU.
The annual football game between the Sooners and Cowboys will be played on Dec. 3. Hopefully by the time the two teams kick-off a great game in early December, the hungry and hopeless in Oklahoma will have had at least one good holiday meal.
Oklahoma ranks fifth in the nation in the number of people --15.2 percent -- who are "food insecure," a term defined by the USDA as a person who is hungry at points throughout the year due to a lack of money for food. About 48 percent of Oklahoma households that are served at Green Country food pantries reported having to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities, according to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
Food drives are still being held all around the city and state. The most-needed items on the Food Bank's list include canned meats, canned or packaged fruit, canned or boxed meals, soup and stews, peanut butter, pasta and sauce, rice, breakfast cereals, baby cereal and formula, plus non-food stuffs like toothpaste, shampoo, soap and laundry detergent.
Food bank personnel have stated the organization can turn $1 into seven meals. To start your own food drive or donate to the food bank directly, check out cfbeo.org.
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