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Heart and Soul: OCU Religious Life supports local food drive

"When I walked in, the women who lead Billy Hooton hugged me. They said, ‘We couldn’t wait for you to get here. We’re so excited for you to be here.’” Kristen Olmsted

Tucked away in an industrial area just a couple miles south of the Oklahoma City University campus you can find Billy Hooton Memorial United Methodist Church. A well-worn wooden picnic table sits in the yard beside the small church building, which is framed with brown clapboard siding.

A small sign planted in the grass outside the front gate urges passersby to invite someone to church this month. Most Sunday mornings, Billy Hooton welcomes about 20 congregants, but the church’s mission is reaching dozens in the community — with a little help from OCU’s Religious Life Organization.

In 2019, former OCU student Rebekah Small was instructed to venture into the community and find places that needed help and could benefit from a few college student volunteers. When she landed at Billy Hooton, she knew she found the right place.

Once a month, Billy Hooton hosts a neighborhood food drive for community members in need. Many come to the church by foot or bicycle to pick up a box overflowing with enough food for the next few weeks. Some are experiencing homelessness or delivering boxes to neighbors who are struggling to buy enough groceries for their families. All are welcomed by Billy Hooton church and the OCU student volunteers.

For two years, Small was the student leader of the partnership between OCU Religious Life and Billy Hooton. When she graduated in 2021 with degrees in youth ministry and Spanish and a minor in children’s theatre, leadership passed to Kristen Olmsted, a senior who is studying vocal performance with a minor in economics. Olmsted recalls going to Billy Hooton for the first time and feeling nervous and unsure of how well she would fit into her new role. Once she arrived, her nerves were quickly calmed by the congregants.

“When I walked in, the women who lead Billy Hooton hugged me,” Olmsted said. “They said, ‘We couldn’t wait for you to get here. We’re so excited for you to be here.’”

From left, Marie Sensibaugh, Alfreda Hibbard and Kristen Olmsted

Those women — church matriarch Alfreda Hibbard and sisters Jo Wynn and Marie Sensibaugh — have been serving the community through the neighborhood food drive for more than 20 years. Each month, Jo and Marie pack the boxes with cans, cereal and other dry goods from the food bank. When OCU student volunteers arrive for the food drive, they load those boxes onto carts, add perishable items like frozen foods and meat, and help hand out the boxes to community members.

“You would think it would be hard to get college students to get up and go hold boxes and work on a Saturday morning, but after they go once, they’ll always go,” Olmsted said. “It’s that special and that enlightening and exciting to be in a place where you get to make change, even if it’s not seen.”

Olmsted said the experience of volunteering for the food drive has helped the OCU students involved recognize the food-security struggles many community members face. For Olmsted in particular, serving alongside Billy Hooton church members has opened her eyes to the needs of the community in Oklahoma City and changed what she wants to do after college. When she started at OCU, she planned to get a master’s degree in opera performance after she finished her undergraduate studies and then travel across the country singing. After getting involved at Billy Hooton, Olmsted realized she had a passion and potential for being an arts administrator and advocate. She now plans to earn an MBA from OCU after graduation and work with an arts nonprofit focusing on bringing art to all types of communities.

In addition to assisting with the monthly food drive, OCU Religious Life partnered with McFarlin United Methodist Church for a day of service at Billy Hooton in the fall of 2021. They used the day to clean out and clean up the space used for the food drive. With four rented dumpster trucks and a crew of helping hands, they spent the day cleaning up leaves and trash, moving old appliances and furniture, and making the space easier to navigate to subsequently help more people. Since then, church leaders have been able to put new refrigerators into that space, and they now have space to expand the food drive where they didn’t before.

In a typical month, Billy Hooton church and OCU students hand out between 50 and 60 boxes of food. Olmsted said she would like to see OCU’s involvement expanded to play a role in the project from beginning to end. Congregation members are primarily older than age 60, and Olmsted believes OCU students should be a valuable part of keeping the food drive alive when congregants are less able to do the literal heavy lifting.

“I really hope this program can continue in the long term,” Olmsted said. “Billy Hooton is a huge part of my soul and my heart and who I am, and I think that it has thoroughly changed most of the students who have gone.”

Olmsted recently started a job at the Oklahoma Hall of Fame as a marketing associate and decided to hand leadership of the Billy Hooton partnership to OCU first-year student Kohl James. Although she was sad to move on, Olmsted said she still plans to volunteer for every food drive at Billy Hooton that she can and knows it is in good hands.

“This partnership between Religious Life at OCU and Billy Hooton means so much to me,” James said. “It’s an opportunity to not only be involved with a community of people, but also to help such amazing and friendly people. Getting to lead this project just means so much to me.”

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