In 2013, Oklahoma was ranked the 5th worst state in the nation for extent childhood homelessness by The National Center of Family Homelessness. 1,481 homeless people can be found in a single night in Oklahoma City. City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City works to fix these problems. Sonny is one of the 600 people that lives there and he says he hasn’t always gone without.
“I’ve partnered with numerous celebrities,” Sonny said. “At 29 I had the number one restaurant in the country with Arnold Schwartzenegger we were in Atlanta, it was called Café Tutu Tango. I’ve partnered with Chuck Norris, Jim Belushi, Bruce Willis, Stevie Ray Von, Martha Stuart. I mean the list goes on.”
Chef Sonny sits leisurely in the chair across from me in his white chef’s uniform. His mannerisms are relaxed and fluid as he gushes about his past life.
“I worked on Wall street, I was not in the restaurant business, I worked in Project Management, what really was private equity which means private bank,” He said. “My senior party represented 2 foreign governments: Venezuela and Cuba and he represented those two countries when it concerned the United States so if there was an issue with one of those two countries and the US, the attorney general would leave the white house and come to our office on Park Avenue and discuss whatever those issues are.”
Sonny is a charismatic, energetic man that captures the attention of every room that he’s in. These traits lead to his successes in life. But sitting where we are now, many people would make a different assumption. Sonny has been living at City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City since a string of bad luck left him from living in a multimillion-dollar home in New York to a homeless shelter in Oklahoma City in a matter of months.
“My two business partners John and Jay, they were going home one night and, they were hit by a drunk driver and I was left without two partners,” He said. “Obviously I couldn’t run our firm but we had people on a contractual basis and clients completely all over the globe. The state of New York got involved and all of our assets were seized, including everything that I had. Six months after that my fiancé of 34 years of age died of a brain aneurism. I lost an almost four-year-old foster child that I had since he was 3 years old; he was killed by his natural parents. Then, I got cancer.”
Stories like this one embody why so many individuals end up in Shelters. There are a lot of problems that come to mind when you think of homelessness: Addiction, abandonment and poverty. But when I walked through the doors of City Rescue Mission, I felt an atmosphere of positivity and hope that shocked me. And when asked what their biggest challenge is at City Rescue Mission, President and CEO Tom Jones didn’t say the homeless, but those around them.
“If you’ll ask a homeless person what hurts them the most, “ He said “It is when they are walking down the sidewalk and they’re not dressed like everybody else, their hair isn’t fixed like everybody else’s, sometimes because of the drugs they’ve lost their teeth, they’ll be walking down the sidewalk and people walking towards them will literally cross the street to not have to walk by them.”
The shelter serves 450 people a meal each day, offers a recovery program, housing with 640 beds, classes and other opportunities for OKC’s homeless. And in providing this to thousands of individuals each year, Jones learned something.
“When I look at those individuals I often look at them and say if you didn’t know what they’ve been through, you would assume that they’re all just lazy and have no desire to do anything with their life,” He said. “But the reality is no one as a young person says I cannot wait until I grow up and become a homeless person that walks the streets, I mean it makes no sense for someone to give up on life unless you’ve gone through some great struggles.”
But these great struggles that lead people here, often are met with a new appreciation and love for others.
“Well when I first started working here in the Kitchen there was a lot of men, guys,” She said. “And I used to fuss at them all the time. ‘Pick this up, do that, do this, you know, mop this off the floor.’ So they just dubbed me mama ‘You sound like my mama’ so they just started calling me mama and it just stuck. So even the guys that come off the street are calling me mama. “
It is apparent from the moment you meet Sharon Nichols or Mama Sharon, why she has the nickname. She’s about 5’3, expressive and encouraging and greeted me with a big hug. She has been volunteering here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for 4 years. She teaches a bible study for women on Fridays and serves food in the kitchen on the weekends, and has all but made this place her home.
“When they first get here, now the first week they’re here they come into the kitchen; they come into the dining area to work,” She said. “Yes I have seen some mean attitudes, I mean and then they go through the program, I love on them, I pray with them, other people love on them, and then when they graduate and they tell their testimony, yes I’ve seen great transformations. A lot of people may not like it, they may leave, but some of them come back and they come back and they fall in my arms and say mama I messed up but I’m back, I’m home.”
She says she volunteers because she loves it, and these people are her family.
“Everyday I go home I feel fulfilled,” She said. “Just a simple ‘Thank you, I love you mama’ you know? Just that right there, you know? They let me know I’m appreciated. So you know, Just loving people. You’d be surprised what a hug will do, you’d be surprised what taking their hand and showing them that you care would do. And the attitudes just disappear, they just disappear.”
For Chef Sonny and many of the people here, these human relationships teach them lessons that you don’t need a great struggle to appreciate.
“I don’t know if you’ll understand this man but I’ve never been more happy than I’ve ever been in my life right now,” He said. “Because everything that I thought was important, it was a white picket fence, you know it was just painted it wasn’t real. You know, I had 3 houses in 3 different parts of the country and all that stuff that I thought was fun and important was just not.”
For more information on City Rescue Mission and homelessness in Oklahoma visit the Assignment: Radio page under the programs tab of KGOU. Org