The Oklahoman: Day of free services draws thousands to Love OKC

By Nuria Martinez-Keel
Published: Wed, August 19, 2019 

David Sirleaf, a physical therapy assistant, looks at Marcos Vasquez, 7, as he finishes a massage during the Love OKC One Day event inside the Oklahoma Expo Hall at State Fair Park. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

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A picture of community needs took shape at the Oklahoma State Fair Park on Saturday.

Thousands lined up at Love OKC for free medical care, haircuts, groceries, and connections to jobs and resources. The one-day event drew about 2,000 volunteers who provided services to roughly 5,000 to 6,000 guests who walked through the Oklahoma Expo Hall doors.

“Our goal is for every single person who comes through here to have hope that everything will turn out OK,” Founder and CEO Rodney Fouts said. “It’s not just a handout now. We’re giving them hope.”

The program, now in its eighth year, began after Fouts decided to experience a week of homelessness. Fouts, an Oklahoma City pastor, slept outside during freezing December nights, getting a glimpse of the challenges that the metro area’s homeless population endures year round.

The experience broke preconceived ideas Fouts had of poverty and homelessness, he said. It also inspired him to help fill the needs he saw on the streets.

And Love OKC was born. Fouts created the nonprofit highlighted by a one-day event, where he referred to every visitor as an honored guest.

Dozens of attendees drove to the fairgrounds. Those who lacked transportation took a free bus ride from select school sites.

The event welcomed families of all backgrounds to provide medical services, such as dental extractions, flu shots, physical therapy, eye exams and breast screenings.

“We’ve seen a lot of patients without insurance and have a family history of breast cancer,” Dr. Beth DeBoer said. “So, before) they haven’t been able to see a doctor.”

DeBoer estimated about 80% of the breast screening patients had no health insurance. After the screenings, volunteers directed guests to a booth with information on how to become a patient at community healthcare centers, such as Open Arms Clinic, where DeBoer serves as medical director.

Volunteers also helped with non-immediate needs, giving free haircuts and taking family portraits.

Brittany Barnett-King, of Oklahoma City, waited in line with her two children, Heayvan, 6, and Kyren, 3, to take family photos.

“Me and my daughter don’t have family pictures,” Barnett-King said. “It’s something to look back on, like the time we went to Love OKC.”

Saturday was Barnett-King’s second time attending the event. The job fair and free dental exams encouraged her to come back again.

“We had fun last year,” she said. “It’s a good impact. Last year, I found out about a lot of organizations that I didn’t even know about.”

One of the organizations meeting with visitors was Palomar, a family justice center serving victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Chava Adams, a Palomar volunteer, spoke to lines of local residents about the services available at the family justice center. Palomar is known as a one-stop-shop where victims can receive medical attention, file a police report and receive counseling, among several other options.

“A lot of people didn’t know what a family justice center was,” Adams said. “A lot didn’t know there was a place where people would say, ‘How can we help you?’

“It’s about long-term care. It’s about survival and thriving. How can we help you for the rest of your life?”

On their way out from the fairgrounds, guests pulled through a drive-thru lane to turn in grocery and toiletry vouchers. Volunteers loaded cars with boxes of food and toiletries that could sustain a family for a week.

Vicki Keller, a Love OKC volunteer of eight years, said the drive-thru line reflects the growth of Love OKC. In the event’s first year, volunteers and guests carried heavy loads of groceries out to cars at John Marshall High School.

Organizers quickly realized the event would need a larger venue and a more practical way to connect guests with needed supplies, said Keller, a teacher in Edmond Public Schools.

Now, Love OKC gathers sponsor support to purchase food and toiletry boxes from Feed the Children, which packs the boxes in advance of the event. Volunteers said they’ve never come close to running out, and Love OKC donates leftover boxes to other local nonprofits.

“This and Christmas are the two best days of the year,” Keller said. “(Guests) get here, and they’re so excited and thankful. They can’t believe so many people are willing to help.”