A new start through volunteering

A new start through volunteering
Donnie Henderson takes a break outside the Iron Gate food center where he volunteers daily. (K. Barnett/Reporter)

“He seemed a little more eager than most people, you know, that he was wanting to help out more.”—Geno McCombs, Iron Gate Chef

Muscogee (Creek) descendant without a home serves others

Kevin Barnett/Reporter

TULSA, Oklahoma— According the 2017 Tulsa City-County Continuum of Care point-in-time yearly survey, there are over 800 Tulsans living on the streets or in shelters.

This number has been on the rise for the last eight years according to the Community Service Council of Tulsa.

One organization that has been doing its part in caring for this forgotten population for nearly four decades is Iron Gate.

Iron Gate is what is commonly referred to as a ‘meal center’ or ‘soup kitchen,’ to use an outdated label.

Although the organization does, from time-to-time, receive notice and recognition for its contribution to the community, it would not be nearly as effective without the staff and countless volunteers.

Muscogee (Creek) descendant Donnie Henderson, at the entreaty of Chef Geno McCombs, began volunteering at Iron Gate in early autumn.

What makes Donnie’s story unique is that he, himself is without a permanent place to live.

“He seemed a little more eager than most people, you know, that he was wanting to help out more”, Geno said of Donnie’s initial enthusiasm when he began volunteering his time.

It seems that enthusiasm has only grown over these last few months.

Donnie, along with his girlfriend spend their mornings as part of the hum of activity that allows the organization to feed approximately 300 people per day.

Whether cleaning, packing food or unloading delivery trucks, Donnie carries out his duties with an undeniable joy and optimism.

He attributes his positive attitude to his sobriety and the “clear thinking” that comes with it.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and substance abuse are among the leading causes for homelessness.

It is naive to attribute the cause to any one issue alone; it is normally a combination of factors that contribute to a person ending up on the streets. But once there it can become a vicious cycle that many experts liken to the ‘revolving door’ of the prison system.

Both Donnie and his girlfriend have both struggled with addiction in the past and have served time in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“I don’t look at these as barriers. They are just challenges that we have to get through and get past,” he said about the hurdles the couple currently face.

The two left the downtown area and now have a small encampment in a wooded area a short bike ride from Iron Gate.

Donnie said their decision to build their camp, “… was a no-brainer. If I was going to get off the streets or do anything good with my life we had to get away… I saw it as an opportunity to do something great. It’s not done but I feel like it is in motion, now at least.”

The couple’s attitude and their eagerness to laugh is both moving and humbling.

Both know, all too well, that they are currently fighting an uphill battle, but there is also a clear appreciation for what they have gained in their sobriety and a sense of gratitude that epitomizes the holiday season.

When they are not volunteering or attending church, the pair spend their free time reading, improving their camp and watching movies on their phone.

Donnie does have some employment prospects after the holidays. Until then he plans to continue the routine that has given him something that past, less healthy choices never offered: a chance.


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