It all started with socks.
One may not consider it a luxury to slip into a nice, clean pair of socks, but to many people, that’s exactly what it is.
Tamara Nelson is an economic development specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. She specializes in historic preservation, with her work taking her into a lot of the state’s older buildings and structures.
“I noticed that in these buildings, there were a lot of younger people and older women living in them,” Nelson said. “I just ignored it like everybody else — I’m just here to do my job, and let’s get out of here. But it just bothered me enough, so I started asking them one question, ‘Hey, I can’t fix your problem, but if I could give you something right now, what can I give you?’ And they all have the same answer. ‘My feet hurt. I need a pair of socks.’ Oklahoma’s infrastructure is to move cars, not people. So if you’re homeless and in poverty, you don’t have a vehicle. It’s patent leather for you and if you don’t have proper footwear, your feet are broken down really quickly. Minor injuries can quickly turn infected and in cold weather, you can lose unprotected toes and feet.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2016, Tamara and a few friends went out and distributed over 200 pairs of socks to homeless residents in downtown Oklahoma City.
“When we were out of socks in, like, seven minutes, I knew it was a problem,” she said.
An encounter that day with a woman in yoga pants and a tank top changed her forever.
“No socks, no shoes, in February. It’s cold outside, and she’s lying on a trash bag. Her toes were blue, and she was going to lose her toes. When she sat up, she looked like a skunk — she was bruised all the way around. She’d run out of the house because she was being abused. So that’s why no socks, no shoes, no nothing. Her skull was broken. We put like seven pairs of socks on her feet, got her warmed up and tried to help her. That’s when I knew this was something far bigger and not just some one-off, feel-good kind of thing. These people are out here suffering. It’s not just because they’re on drugs or they misuse their money or whatever. A lot of people are just victims of circumstance, so a sock is something that we can take care of.”
That day Sox of Love was born. Tamara rallied volunteers and continued to raise money and give out socks to unhoused residents and those in need far beyond our state’s border, but it wasn’t long before she noticed a much larger problem.
“We learned about two years in that over half our donations were going into the trash,” Nelson said. “People in poverty don’t have the luxury of thinking about going somewhere to wash their clothes. It’s really expensive. It became very difficult for me to continue asking for donations, knowing that the likelihood of that donation going into the garbage.”
Tamara took the problem to social media, requesting anyone interested in helping join her to discuss the problem. A small group gathered at the Wendy’s at NW 36th and May Avenue to come up with a plan and Laundry Love soon began at the laundromat in the strip mall at that intersection.
“We thought this was just going to be like more of a homeless outreach to help people with laundry, but we really started understanding that this is a poverty issue. The very first time we did Laundry Love, I noticed this woman that kept coming back, but she had different families every time. It ended up being a city councilwoman from Del City, Christine Price. She was picking up families that she knew did not send their kids to school. They were already three weeks behind because they didn’t have any clean clothes. Their water was shut off. About 50 percent of the people that we serve are elderly, disabled or a grandparent that is raising a grandchild so they don’t have the money to wash clothes. They are usually using the money that they should be using for their medication, food or gas in their car to wash clothes.”
Laundry Love now has more than 430 volunteers who help residents in need do their laundry every fourth Saturday of the month at nine different laundromat locations across Oklahoma City. They provide ten dollars for the machines as well as detergent, dryer sheets and bleach. In 2021 alone, the grassroots non-profit washed more than 89,200 pounds of clothes and served 2,365 homeless residents and families in need. That same year, Sox of Love distributed 28,390 pairs of socks with the help of generous donors. Volunteers also use that time to get to know the people they serve and connect them with more resources to get them the help they need.
“More than anything, we have love,” Nelson said. “We’re not a ministry, we are just neighbors loving our neighbors. Our hope is to be the lowest barrier. Simply a friend to our neighbors. You don’t need an appointment, you don’t need ID or proof of residency, you don’t need proof of anything. If you show up and you say you need help, we’re going to help you. There’s nothing they have to do but show up and we just love them the best way that we can, while they’re here. An average person is with us for 75 minutes. We fill that time with storytime, we serve a meal and offer connection. A lot of people just want to sit and talk while you know what happened and how they got there. They want someone to hear them. We partner with Empowerment Community Services and they have licensed counselors, because a lot of people need more than what we can offer. If a person is needing rental assistance, is about to get evicted, whatever their issue is, we can connect them with the right resource.”
Tamara’s goal is to continue growing Laundry Love and Sox of Love so she can serve as many people in need as possible, and she does it all with a very uncomplicated mission.
“We have three core values and that’s to build, love and serve. We want to build our community, we want to love our neighbors and we want to serve our neighbors.”
To learn more about Laundry Love and Sox of Love and their services, or to donate and volunteer, visit www.soxoflove.org.