Norma Okonski, the founder and executive director of Oakland HOPE, has a knack for personification.
She refers to the refrigerator and freezer her organization uses to store hundreds of fresh food items for families in need as David and Goliath – a nod to the Bible story about courage, faith and overcoming the seemingly impossible. Norma calls it a near-perfect description of the work Oakland HOPE does daily with its client choice food pantry and thrift store.
Recently, the duo was at full capacity, which meant Norma had to turn down four pallets of donated chicken and turkey, equaling around 10,000 pounds of food that could have fed hundreds of local families.
“It absolutely crushed me to have to say no simply because we didn’t have room to store it safely,” Norma said.
Shortly after, Norma received a call from United Way for Southeastern Michigan that would ensure Oakland HOPE would never have to turn down fresh food again.
With the help of a Winter Relief grant from United Way for Southeastern Michigan, David and Goliath will soon get a makeover – doubling the footprint of the walk-in freezer and cooler, enabling them to store more food.
This year’s Winter Relief initiative offered grants to help local organizations thrive during the colder months and after the holidays — a period when donations and volunteer numbers typically drop. This year, we provided $766,200 in “gap-filling” funds to 18 organizations including Oakland HOPE, Pope Francis Center, local Meals on Wheels efforts and COTS. The grants are made possible through donations from The Ford Fund, and grant funding United Way received in 2020 from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
“Our partners needed additional assistance providing things like winter clothing, warm meals, shelter — needs that couldn’t be met within their standard operating budgets,” said Bryan Van Dorn, director, Basic Needs at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “We took a deeper look to see where we could help organizations fill gaps over the next few months as temperatures fall and the region continues to be impacted by COVID.”
In 2020, Oakland HOPE distributed 1.4 million pounds of free groceries to thousands of families, seniors and veterans across 62 communities. Clients also have onsite access to a benefits coordinator, counselor, and pastor.
Marquis Cruz, a disabled veteran, has come to Oakland HOPE weekly for the past year to pick up food for himself and others in the area who lack transportation.
“This place is 100 percent better than other pantries I’ve been to,” he said while waiting on volunteers to fill his trunk with the items he selected during his most recent visit. “There’s better quality food and more of it here. It’s not just toilet paper and generic canned stuff.”
Before Norma purchased Oakland HOPE’s current Pontiac location in 2018, it was a grocery store. Walking into Oakland HOPE today, many of the store’s esthetics remain. Volunteers pick out fresh fruit and meat, decadent baked goods, prepared foods, personal care items and more for waiting customers.
“We’re intentionally different from other pantries,” Norma said. “We stock items people wouldn’t find at other places because we want people to feel excited when they walk through the doors.”
Oakland HOPE is one of the only pantries in metro Detroit that didn’t close at any point during the pandemic, Norma said. She recalls that in 2020, when much of the region was shut down, she and several volunteers handed out food while draped in garbage bags, plastic gloves and masks.
“No one really knew what this was at the time so of course we were scared, but the need was greater than our fear,” Norma said.
The pantry is funded in part by the attached thrift store, which feels more like a department store with its packed aisles overflowing with donated items for purchase. Volunteers power every area of the business. In 2020, more than 900 volunteers contributed over 17,000 hours of service to the pantry and thrift store.
In 2022, Norma plans to open a kitchen where individuals can rent the space to cook items they can sell or take classes utilizing the commercial-grade equipment she inherited when she purchased the former grocery store.
“We’re excited to get that off the ground,” she said. “You can change the entire trajectory of someone’s life when you help them learn a new skill that can lead to a new job, or offer them a place to start or grow a business.”
But first, Oakland HOPE must raise money to replace Sybil — the truck Norma named after the lead character in a 1973 book about a woman with dissociative identity disorder.
At last check, the truck’s odometer read more than 800,000 miles — a breathtaking amount, even for a truck with what Norma says are “many personalities and lives.”
The truck is an important part of Oakland HOPE’s operations, picking up enormous amounts of food for pantry clients each week.
“United Way helped us out a lot with David and Goliath. With a little more help, we’ll be able to replace Sybil and continue to grow,” Norma said.