OK volunteers reach out

Judith Boggs remembers volunteering at a disaster relief center at a local church in 1999 to help people affected by a tornado that battered her community that year.

BY PJ HELLER | CHOCTAW, Okla. | May 14, 2003

"Every once in a while, we'll find something that nobody knows what it is and we'll have a contest to figure it out."

—Judith Boggs

Judith Boggs remembers volunteering at a disaster relief center at a local church in 1999 to help people affected by a tornado that battered her community that year.

She never thought that four years later she would not only still be helping, but would be the director of a resource center distributing material goods to people and agencies in need.

But that's exactly where Boggs finds herself today as the volunteer head of the Compassion Resource Center in Choctaw outside Oklahoma City.

The 10,000-plus-square-foot center, located in the Choctaw Plaza, provides both new and used items to individuals and families who have been referred to it by a social service agency. It also provides goods to agencies.

The center, at first glance, looks like a huge second-hand thrift store. The sprawling facility is filled with clothing, shoes, house wares, bedding, furniture, books, electronics, toys, cleaning products, personal hygiene items and much more, including a food pantry.

Unlike a typical store, everything here is given out for free.

In the last year alone, the center personally served approximately 11,000 people. This year, the center is on track to serve even more, according to Boggs.

She admits that she never intended to run the center. It just more or less fell into her lap.

She was working at the church site that was distributing items to survivors of the May 3, 1999 tornado when that relief center was forced to relocate. Shortly after moving into a donated 25,000-square-foot space in town, the agency's volunteer director left to return to work. Boggs stepped in to temporarily fill the gap.

"I'm a mom and a volunteer and I'm used to being left holding the bag," she said. "It just didn't seem out of place."

It wasn't until she had to fill out some paperwork that she discovered that neither the church nor the community action group that had secured the building was responsible for the operation.

"Suddenly I had an epiphany that nobody was in charge," she said.

But with tornado survivors still coming in and a warehouse filled with goods, Boggs felt she was being called to keep things going.

"I thought that some day I'm going to stand before the throne of God and have to account for what I did with this opportunity," she said. "I couldn't bear the thought of leaving it."

Soon thereafter, she received a call from the American Red Cross asking if she could provide items to someone who had lost his home in a fire. Before long, other agencies began calling asking if the center could provide assistance to their clients.

"We could see right at the very beginning that there was no way we were going to be able to distribute all of the resources we were given just to the tornado victims," Boggs said. "We had a resource glut and we knew we had to do something with it. So we started going out and seeking places where it might go. Then they started coming back to us."

Boggs describes the approach as a "backwards ministry."

"Most people who set up ministries see a need and then they try to fill that need," she explained. "We've got all this stuff and we're trying to find the ministry that can use it. We've got the resources. We're trying to find the need."

Not only has the center given items to individuals and agencies, but has provided goods to church mission groups for distribution in at least 25 countries. It has also provided goods to schools and churches.

"This is God's warehouse," Boggs said.

All of the items at the center come from either individual donations, from Feed the Children headquartered in Oklahoma City, or from relief agencies which are often overwhelmed with donations, especially clothing, that often pours in after a disaster.

Following the May 1999 tornado, Boggs said disaster relief agencies simply couldn't manage the amount of clothing that people sent. She noted that 75 percent of the clothing donated was winter wear, even though the twister hit in the spring. Much of that clothing found its way to her center, just as it is following last week's tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area, including Choctaw.

The center distributed items for about a year after the 1999 tornado, giving out about $1.5 million in goods. Since then, it has primarily served clients of social service agencies.

People referred to the center can select a certain amount of clothing, shoes, bedding, furniture and house wares on their initial visit. They can return for additional clothing after a three-month interval; additional furniture and house wares requires a one-year interval.

Anyone can come to the center and take books for free.

"Anyone that wants to read a book, I'm not going to keep them from reading a book," said Boggs, a former teacher.

The center runs on a shoestring budget of $12,000 a year, all of it donated. About 40 percent of the budget comes from the faith-based community. Boggs, like the others at the center, works without pay.

To help finance the operation, some thought is being given to selling items, such as vintage clothing, that people coming to the center may not want but that may fetch a good price from people in other parts of the country.

"Poor people think of vintage clothing as old clothes," Boggs said. "Rich people think of vintage clothing as cool."

The center is open to the public three days a week from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but tornado victims can come in anytime Monday through Friday until 9:30 p.m. when volunteers are working in the center sorting, storing and setting up items.

Sometimes it's a challenge to figure out what a donated item is.

"Every once in a while, we'll find something that nobody knows what it is and we'll have a contest to figure it out," Boggs said.

One contest took six months before somebody figured out the item was some type of toothpaste holder and dispenser.

Other unusual items brought to the center have included oil rig drilling tools, first edition books and a 1938 stove which Boggs says is worth about $4,600 on the Internet.

Boggs said her biggest need is more volunteers. The vast majority of the volunteers today are there doing community service ordered by the courts. Occasionally a youth group or Sunday school group will come in to help.

To keep costs down, there is no heat or air-conditioning in the center. There is also no dumpster; the few things that may have to be discarded are put into the dumpster the center shares with a grocery store.

The frugal approach to the budget is both spiritual and practical, Boggs said.

"The rich community needs to see somebody treating their money like the precious commodity that it is and that we're not wasting a dime of it," she said. "They need that just as much as a poor person needs food."

As Boggs looks around the center filled with its smorgasbord of items, she admits she wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"There is nothing in this world that I found that has brought me more joy or personal satisfaction than knowing that there was something that I did that helped somebody who was hurting," she said.

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