Every Sunday morning for the last 11 years, at the northwest corner of Sheridan and Dewey avenues in the Dunlap Codding parking lot, you will find Robyn and Clyde Watanabe amongst a small army of volunteers serving smiles, hugs and a hot meal to people experiencing homelessness in downtown Oklahoma City.
Arriving on a particularly frigid December morning, about a hundred people are waiting patiently in the parking lot as the volunteers of Feed His Sheep set up stations for coffee, food and clothing. Despite the cold, there’s cheer in the air, as people smile, laugh and greet one another.
“This is just a grassroots project me and my daughter Amanda started. With her, my husband and my three grandkids. They were four, six and seven at the time,” Robyn Watanabe said.
“We brought them with us and they loved it. And we’ve not stopped. The first week nothing was planned. We just were there Sunday morning at the house. And we’re like, ‘Let’s go do something.’ But what do we do?’ And the kids said sandwiches. We had enough bread and supplies for 14 sandwiches, some granola bars and bottled water. Got little brown lunch bags. We made up only 14 bags. So we got in the car. All three kids, my husband and myself and my daughter and we took off. I didn’t know where the homeless were. I had no clue. We had no clue whatsoever. We just knew we had to do something. So I saw a couple people on the off-ramps so we stopped and gave them a few bags. We had nine left and headed downtown. The old highway was still there and, behind McDonald’s, there were nine people sitting at the dumpster. I’m like, ‘Nine bags. There’s your sign.’”
This small mission to pay it forward would continue to grow into something more, giving Robyn and her family a new sense of purpose. They served at different locations around downtown before finding a permanent home in the Dunlap Codding parking lot.
“This is our church and these are our friends,” Robyn said, gesturing towards the crowd. “I say this is because they’re used to us here, they know we’re gonna be here. It’s the consistency and they like that sense of normalcy and we just love what we do. It’s not work to us, it’s just what we do. I look forward to Sunday. It’s my favorite day. I get to see all my friends.”
The small group has no church affiliation or corporate sponsors. They operate simply off the generosity and time of volunteers. They have roughly five core volunteers who join each week and volunteers from different churches alternate weeks to cook hot meals. Groups come from local schools and other organizations to help serve and often bring coats, gloves, blankets and other necessities to hand out to those who need them.
“We never solicit for any donations. In 11 years, we’ve never done without, we’ve always had everything. When food comes to us, it’s just random, and people randomly send checks and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a lot.’ Because we don’t advertise, it’s the best-kept secret,” Robyn laughs. “That’s not our purpose. We just want to do our thing. If money comes, great, but we’ve always had everything we needed. I would like to be able to serve more people. We’ve never turned anyone away and everybody has always gotten food, which is really a blessing because we never know who’s coming and we never know how many are coming. But somehow there’s always enough,” she said.
Feed His Sheep now feeds more than 100 people each week. During the cold winter months, the need for a hot meal and a kind word only grows. Both retired, Robyn and Clyde attend classes at the Homeless Alliance to learn more about how they can help in the community and find new ways to serve.
“Our main thing is food because food is like a common denominator and it kind of levels the playing field because we all need food,” she said. “It’s an icebreaker so we can get to know them, look them in the eye, know their name and build a relationship. We want to give these people a sense of community and some dignity so that’s our main goal. That’s why it’s kind of nice to get to know them and find out what their needs are so we can help them with that.”
Led by faith and spirit, the passion the Watanabes have for their mission is clear. Clyde and Robyn often purchase bus passes to help people get a warm ride across town. They make little bags of dog food and treats and help people find shelter, or make connections to get them the help they need. When the people they serve are able to transition into housing, they help them get necessities for their new homes. And, of course, the hugs, kind words and smiles are more than abundant.
During the midst of our interview, a man walks up from West Metro Church, one of this week’s volunteer groups, to discuss the possibility of opening up an additional feeding site at a location in Yukon that has a lot of need.
“Oh, see,” Robyn said with a big smile. “It just happens. We asked for nothing, we simply serve.”