POSTED ON APRIL 28, 2010:
When government steps back, communities step up
When my family lived in Washington, D.C., I helped with a program that delivered hot meals to shut-ins (older people living alone) around the metro area. Efforts to get people fed were coordinated with a government agency. The food was prepared by members of the Knights of Columbus. Deliveries were made by Knights, like myself, and a variety of other groups.
Each of my children accompanied me at various times on these visits.
The most memorable encounter, among many, came one Thanksgiving Day when my daughter Erin, now 27, was just a little girl. She went with me when we delivered the hot meals to various places, including to the modest apartment of an elderly woman in Washington.
We knocked, and from inside she called out for us to come in. Erin was a step ahead of me. The old woman was sitting across the living room in a recliner. She saw Erin, and began to cry. She said, "Oh my, so beautiful."
That began a visit that lasted about 15 minutes. Erin gave her the meal, which had been kept warm in a Styrofoam container.
The old woman set that container beside her on a coffee table and then asked Erin nearly everything that can be covered in a few minutes: her school, her favorite subjects, her three brothers, where we lived, what things she liked.
She said over and over, "so beautiful."
Other meals were waiting in a heated unit in my car. We had to finish our route, so we had to leave. Erin said goodbye, and shook the little woman's hand. The lady cried again and waved as we departed.
I asked the guy running the program to be sure someone checked on that lady, and he said they would. I hope they did. The next time we helped with the meals program, she didn't live there anymore. That day, that place, and that lonely old woman have lingered in memory.
Recently, the Oklahoma Legislature -- particularly the state Senate -- was deeply divided by a fight over nutrition programs for senior citizens in Oklahoma. In the midst of the worst government budget crunch in modern history, the Department of Human Services (DHS) had to cut the program.
Fighting over whether to restore those funds caused a three-day delay in finalizing the fiscal year 2010 budget. The matter was eventually resolved, but not everyone thinks things should just go back to the way they were.
As the legislative fight over the nutrition program made headlines in February, Senator Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, had already been working for several weeks with pastors in his district to address the problem.
Newberry brought together a coalition of people wanting to take practical -- and private -- steps to address the situation. Through the efforts of the churches and the Glenpool Community Center, today more seniors than ever are meeting for a daily meal or having meals delivered to their home.
Pastor Johnny Carnes, of Glenpool's Faith Church, describes what has happened:
"I've been in ministry for five years. On December 29, I was looking for a book to read. I came across Dino Rizzo's book, 'Servolution.' I read it in two days and it had a huge impact on my heart. Rizzo is the pastor at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge. The book rekindled the fire in me to do what I'm here on earth to do, which is to serve others.
"Shortly after I finished the book, I received an e-mail from Senator Newberry. He invited me to a meeting. I went and was accompanied by our senior pastor. He knew that I was ready to take something like this on, and he was, too.
"Our intention in participating and in answering Senator Newberry's call concerning the senior nutrition program was to reach outside the four walls of the church.
"We found out that due to the budget cuts there were 15 people who were not being fed who had been receiving a daily-delivered hot meal under the old program. We asked for and were given the 'who, where, and what' information. We discussed our response and agreed that we could add those 15 daily meals for shut-ins onto the program and prepare them in the cafeteria at our church school.
"We began with the 15 and are now helping 35 people every day, Monday through Friday, at the noon hour. Fifty folks in our church are involved in that ministry. We take food to the home of those we help, give them a hand with eating it, and spend some time just talking and visiting with them.
"I am doing this because I believe that seniors in general are marginalized in our society. They are, or many of them are, lonely. They need friendship and compassion. Calling on them, spending time with them, caring for them is a good thing to do and it lifts up our hearts.
"The lesson in this is that we have a responsibility to one another. We have a responsibility to feed, love and care for all people. For us this is an opportunity to share the love of Christ with a whole new group of people. It is a blessing to be involved with this."
In the Glenpool and Sapulpa area, the "25:40 Coalition" is delivering meals five days a week. Some 1,000 meals are served every month through the coalition's efforts. That compares to about 500 a month in the area under the old DHS program.
Newberry is respectfully offering the 25:40 Coalition as a "prototype which I hope my colleagues will take into their districts across the state."
In nearby Sand Springs, the local government responded a bit differently, at least initially. City Manager Doug Enevoldsen and one of his employees, Grant Gerondale, crafted a creative response that combined public and private resources.
In our interview, Gerondale said, "In our community, the need for the meal is real for many of our senior citizens, but in truth the real need is more than that. This might be the only, or perhaps the primary, human contact some of them have. That is especially the case with our 'shut-ins' who look forward to that visit from the person with the program who delivers the meals."
Members of the community helped. The crucial step was when the Masonic Lodge arranged for $10,000 in special funding (from both the local group and the state Lodge). That got the Sand Springs program through January, February, and March.
Then, a few weeks ago, a local resident pledged all the money needed to fund the program for this month (April). George Taubel works in energy service, as a natural gas provider. He gave the money, he said, because he wants to give back to the community and the people.
Sand Springs is looking to tie in with the 25:40 Coalition for the months ahead. They're going to find a way to keep some form of the program alive, regardless of what the government ultimately does.
The 25:40 reference is to the Gospel of Matthew, at the end of a parable Jesus told about those who served when He came as one who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, or in prison. In the story, "the righteous" ask the Lord when they had seen him hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill or imprisoned.
"And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'"
Patrick B. McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK. He works under a contract with OCPA to provide incisive, accurate, and timely news coverage of Oklahoma state government. Visit www.CapitolBeatOK.com for in-depth reporting on the latest developments in state government.
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