When I first saw Shelby, he was taking a nap in a nice sunny spot. The temperatures were mild for December and Shelby looked perfectly content snuggled under a blanket his human had tucked carefully around him. The stout, copper-colored dog was snoozing so comfortably you almost didn’t notice the shopping cart he was tethered to, filled with clothing, blankets, and a plastic bag of dog food perched on top.
Shelby’s cozy form in the early light actually a painted a picture of serenity, though the dog was about the only creature enjoying a little peace and quiet at Iron Gate that morning. The rest of the place was buzzing with activity – volunteers preparing food and filling plates, a steady line of people passing through the serving line. Over in a far corner of the room, behind the swiftly filling rows of tables and chairs, was my station where Santa Bob (he just goes by Bob the other 364 days of the year!) and Jim were busy handing out little gifts and lots of necessities.
An amazing non-profit organization based in downtown Tulsa, Iron Gate’s mission is simple: Feed the hungry and homeless in Tulsa – every day. And that’s exactly what they do. Every single day, all year around, people in need can go to Iron Gate, in the basement of Trinity Episcopal Church, to enjoy a warm meal in a clean, safe environment.
Jim and I were first drawn to Iron Gate because it is also one of the pet food distribution points for Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless. Every Wednesday morning, employees of our city animal shelter are stationed in the parking lot outside of Iron Gate handing out small bags of dog or cat food to anyone who needs it.
I was initially surprised to learn how many homeless or low income people do have pets. But the more time I have spent helping raise food donations for the group, the more it all makes sense. A dog is a loyal friend, not to mention a great little alarm system when a person has to sleep outside at night. Dogs don’t judge, they don’t question. If they receive affection and care, they give loyalty and love in return. In reality, homeless people often care for dogs or cats that are homeless as well – they are drawn to each other. They need each other.
Shelby’s owner told me how he found the dog injured and starving by a roadside. He worked to nurse the dog that no one else wanted back to health. Now he has a loyal friend and protector. Shelby was quite friendly in the setting outside of Iron Gate, but his owner assured me that Shelby took care of him just as much as he provided care for Shelby.
“No one messes with me or my stuff with Shelby there.”
I can honestly tell you that all of the dogs I have seen that belong to homeless people appear to be amazingly healthy. I have found that the homeless are very devoted to their animal companions, so much so that they often put the needs of their pets ahead of their own needs.
One of the animal control officers that spearheads the Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless program told me a story about a time he bought a sandwich for a homeless man he ran into outside of a convenience store. As he got into his truck, he saw the man immediately unwrapping the sandwich to feed bites to the dog sitting quietly by his side.
The dog ate before his human had a bite.
OK. See what happens when you get me talking…or writing…about dogs? I stray (yes, great word choice). Back to Christmas morning we go.
With lots of changes in my family and holiday routines in recent years, Jim and I decided that we wanted to start some new Christmas traditions of our own. So for our Christmas morning, we gathered up a bunch of goodie bags we had put together for kids, as well as some gifts for any dog friends that might show up, and headed downtown to Iron Gate to meet our good friend Bob. We expected a number of children to be at Iron Gate for breakfast, so we wanted them all to see Santa and receive something special for the holiday.
As it turned out – you can never predict who will show up at Iron Gate on any given day – there were very few children at breakfast that morning. But the place was packed with hungry people, and the regular volunteers created a cheery, festive atmosphere for their guests.
Instead of handing out our carefully prepared bags, we were given boxes of socks, blankets, gloves, woolly hats, and other essentials to distribute. And yeah, we raided the goody bags, gave out all of the candy, and sent toys and stuffed animals with anyone who said they had kids. Even a few people who perhaps didn’t have kids seemed to love receiving a toy or candy cane. Everyone loves a little gift on Christmas, right?
I will admit that the first 10 to 15 minutes in our little corner space were a bit overwhelming as people crowded around to see what we had, what might meet some of their needs. I was initially a bit of a deer in the headlights, but then quickly found my smile and hit my stride.
Clean socks were a priority. Blankets went quickly. Many hoped for backpacks and I was sorry we had none. What I found was, for the most part, the people were polite, did not try to take more than what would meet their immediate needs, and they were grateful. I was thanked time and time again for being there with them on Christmas morning.
Jim, Santa Bob, and I worked from 8 to 10:30 a.m., digging through boxes to find one more hat, one more pair of gloves, as we helped people prepare for our soon-to-change weather. Though Christmas day was mild and sunny, the forecast promised torrential rain and dipping temperatures over the course of the weekend, with sleet and snow predicted for the start of the new week. A rough prospect for those with no roof over their heads.
Back outside, in addition to Shelby, two other dogs had arrived and were tethered to a fence while patiently waiting for their humans to return from breakfast. They weren’t stressed, they weren’t barking or pacing. They were just waiting and watching. There was no separation anxiety among these three. Just a seemingly quiet understanding that their people would be back soon.
Jim and I were, of course, very prepared for canine guests that morning. All three dogs got new, brightly colored coats to wear. All received goody bags filled with biscuits, a toy, and chew bones.
The dogs were lovely. They were friendly and happy. I enjoyed a little break with Shelby while his owner was still inside. Shelby was dressed in a makeshift dog coat fashioned out of t-shirts and some sort of tube top. I was pleased that Shelby would now have a proper coat to wear, but he seemed quite comfy in his eclectic ensemble.
Back inside the Iron Gate dining room, people were finishing up last bites of a generous meal, gathering their belongings, and stopping to say thank you for our time there. I assured each person I spoke with that there was no place I’d rather be that morning. And I meant it.
After things at Iron Gate closed down for another day, Jim and I, suddenly famished ourselves, stopped at a convenience store for for a breakfast sandwich to eat on the drive back to Tails You Win Farm. At home, we celebrated our own little Christmas, exchanging fun gifts, watching the dogs compete for the best new toy (whichever toy another dog had at that moment), and just spending a little rare time relaxing together.
We had a really great day.
Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me. I grew up with huge family celebrations and now, as my family has changed through the years, I’m finding new joy in re-inventing our holiday, finding meaning in new ways and places. I think the joy and purpose that Jim and I found in our first-time experience volunteering at Iron Gate will spill over to many more days of the year beyond the holidays. That’s a pretty special gift to receive.
Mother Teresa once said that it is Christmas every time you smile at your brother and offer him your hand. What incredibly wise and meaningful words.
I’m sure Jim and I will be returning to work with the amazing volunteer group at Iron Gate again. I’m very sure it won’t just be during the holidays. I’ve already started working to gather some backpacks, some warm coats, and other useful items. And I know I’ll always have pockets full of dog biscuits and some bright dog coats to share, because many of my “brothers” have four legs and wagging tails and they deserve a Christmas too.
Today and every day.