With food needs across the nation increasing in past months, Opportunities, Inc. in Watonga says – thankfully – it hasn’t seen such an effect.
Opportunities, Inc. serves a wide array of clients, not only in Watonga but across Blaine County.
While the offices are currently closed, the food pantry is open. Signs have been posted on the doors to let clients know how to get a hold of someone if they require assistance.
The food pantry for its Watonga offices has stayed fully stocked, said Carla Flynn, executive director.
“We haven't really seen an increase due to COVID, and we’re really shocked at that. We haven’t had a problem,” Flynn said. “There’s been a little bit of increase but nothing that affects us from being able to provide for those who need it.”
Opportunities, Inc., in the past year alone, helped 2,481 people with food assistance. It operates through grant funding; therefore, clients need to meet certain incomebased criteria to access the programs it offers.
Around 35 million people in America face hunger each year; however, in June of last year Feeding America projected that number could rise to 54 million in 2020 due to COVID-19.
“When the pandemic started, we made a vow. We had a team meeting and we said, ‘We're not going to stop the services,’ ” said Flynn.
Most of its food is purchased from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Karl's Apple Market. Food is also donated from individuals or from organizations, such as the schools that hold food drives.
Clients must fill out a form that can be found online or given to them at the offices. Once a person has qualified, workers get the food packaged up, into boxes, and out to the client in around five minutes.
“There's enough food to last them probably two weeks or more,” Flynn said. “There's a substantial amount of food.”
The majority of clients it serves fall into the age range of 60 and up, Flynn said. With this being the case, senior nutrition has been something the organization has examined, not only this year because of COVID-19 but in the past two years, as well.
To meet the needs of those who are 60 and up, Opportunities, Inc. creates a food box that it delivers to seniors who have applied to its senior nutrition program.
The boxes are distributed on the first Tuesday of the month, and with well over 60 senior clients, Flynn says it's been one of the organization’s best programs.
Though COVID-19 has not attributed to an increase in the needs of clients in Watonga, Opportunities, Inc. has changed the way it goes about business now due to COVID.
Things such as hours, distribution, sanitization, and office life continue to be affected.
Keeping Opportunities, Inc. running as smooth as possible is important, Flynn said. When the pandemic first began, Flynn made sure to buy two disinfectant fogger machines as well as a temperature-check kiosk to check the temperature of anyone entering the office.
“Everyone has to wear a mask. If you leave your desk, we have to mask up. We're trying our best. We have hand sanitizer galore as well as disinfecting wipes,” Flynn said. “They were so hard to find, but whenever I could find them, I was buying some so that we could try to keep everything running.”
Operating a food pantry is not the only thing Opportunities, Inc. does.
It offers services such as a thrift shop, rental assistance, income tax assistance, and many others.
Director of the Retired and Seniors Volunteer Program Jan Franks says dealing with COVID-19 has been a big adjustment. “Having to make sure we
“Having to make sure we keep our employees safe and our home safe is something we've tried really hard to do while still respecting the people with needs,” Franks said. “COVID has definitely affected us, but I’m proud that we’re able to come to work every day and feel safe.”
Opportunities, Inc. received money from the CARES Act, which provided funding throughout all of their programs; however, it had its biggest impact on the rental assistance.
“Thank God for the CARES Act funding. Without that we wouldn’t have been able to help anyone,” Flynn said.
That grant allowed the organization to help 123 people from October into December.
Looking ahead to the new year, Opportunities, Inc. hopes to make dental care available as one of its programs.
It has found a dental clinic willing to give clients lowcost dental services, Flynn said. The goal is to pay for client’s dental care as well as offer travel if needed.
Providing a living space for seniors is another goal.
With a team of 14 staff members, Flynn says she can't begin to commend them enough.
“When we have things going on, everyone steps up, everyone's been willing. I say, we don't have the biggest budget, so we don't make the most money in town, but we have to love and care about people with what we do because it's rewarding,” Flynn said. “You kind of have to have a passion for what we do, that's for sure.”
Franks also spoke about the difference working at Opportunities, Inc. has made in her life. From watching her volunteers do what they love to recognizing what each individual does, Franks said the best part of her job is seeing everyone do what they do from the kindness of their heart.
“I've lived in town since 1980 and just being able to know when somebody has left our office, that we've helped them, and that we've made a difference in their life is always a notable moment,” Franks said. “I've really learned that giving back in your community is probably one of the most rewarding things you can do.”