Cookson Hills addresses needs despite challenges
Every year Cookson Hills Ministry Center near Lake Tenkiller hosts a Christmas store for local needy parents and grandparents to sign up and pick out Christmas gifts for their families. Even during all the chaos of 2020, donations and volunteers have poured in to make this event possible.
Families come through at assigned times. They choose a gift item for each child or grandchild, a clothing item, and a general household item like blankets or towels. They also receive a food bag and a turkey for a Christmas dinner. Children get a stocking, and adults get a gift bag. This is made possible through the United Methodist Women, who prepared those through Toole Tyme.
Rev. Judy Deere, the executive director for Cookson Hills Ministry Center said the store was really important for people in the area, especially grandparents.
“They are below poverty level a lot of times,” Deere said. “One of the ladies said the other day that she couldn’t have done any type of Christmas at all without the help of the store.”
UMW and the Christmas Store
United Methodist women have long supported Cookson Hills. Every year, the Oklahoma UMW hosts a weekend called Toole Tyme that helps in several areas around the Cookson site, including helping to set up the Christmas store. Even this year, UMW still managed to host the event with extra cautions put in place. Many UMW groups sent funds to support the Christmas store and local UMW groups provided volunteers to wrap gifts and bring Christmas spirit. Ladies from Cookson and Tahlequah-First provide most of the volunteers.
Maryann Stephen from Cookson says she has volunteered for at least the past 10 years.
She said what brings her back each year is the feeling of joy it brings.
“The people appreciate what you do for them so much,” Stephen said. “They thank you and wish you Merry Christmas. It's a very good feeling.”
Jane Bond from Tahlequah-First is a co-chair for her church’s UMW group. They have been long-time supporters of Cookson Hills Ministry Center, and Bond has come to events at Cookson Hills since the 1980s.
“We give on a yearly basis to Cookson Hills; we put in our UMW budget and make sure that we set aside money for Cookson,” Bond said. “It's been an important mission for us. It was started by women, and we hope it can continue.”
Judy Young from Tahlequah-First said this was her first year volunteering with the gift wrapping, but she has been a part of events and collecting and delivering items for the store.
“The one thing that has stayed the same to me this year is the generosity of our churches,” Deere said. “We have gotten donations from here in the state of Oklahoma and from out of state like Little Rock, Arkansas, from Colorado, one from New York… they have sent funds to support the Christmas store.”
Deere expressed her amazement at the outpouring of support.
“I know that many of our churches are not meeting, and they're struggling financially, and here they are sending funds to us for these families to be able to have something at Christmas,” Deere said. “I think that has impressed me the most is the way that the churches have continued to give and individuals have donated to the store.”
Cookson Hills has seen challenges this year with ministering during a pandemic.
“One of the ways that COVID has affected us is that we used to gather with the seniors up at the center every Monday and Wednesday for the lunch feeding program, and we couldn’t do that for a couple of months,” Deere said. “I had some of the participants calling me up and asking, ‘Please Judy, when can we go back to the center, that’s our family?’”
Deere described how hard it is on the seniors who still received their weekly meals through a drive-thru style delivery, but really lacked the companionship and community they had built together.
“The biggest problem is you can't hug each other,” Deere said. “I think that being able to be together and to share a meal and companionship is really effective.”
In November, Cookson Hills restarted their food pantry, and approximately 20 people showed up. They also reopened their thrift store a few months ago. Local families expressed how much they missed the ability to buy things at a low cost. Deere believes the word about Cookson Hills’ ministries is starting to get out among those in need.
“Cherokee Nation is doing quite a lot to try to provide meals in the area, but besides the native people in this area, there are other individuals that are in need,” Deere said. “We could tell the difference even for us that we felt so much better when we were able to see others, lay eyes on them and know they are doing okay.”
Cookson Hills is trying to become more self-sustaining with an onsite garden to provide fresh vegetables and address food insecurity. With help from Broken Arrow-St. Paul and Tulsa-Asbury, Cookson Hills can offer training programs for starting home gardens, a seed program in the spring, and giving away baby chicks so participants can have fresh eggs.
Deere addressed some of the hardships facing the mission.
“We're a really low-staff operation,” Deere said. “Cookson's going through a time of transition…we're in a time where we've stabilized fairly well we have an idea of what's available here, and we want to grow in different directions.”
Deere encouraged people to consider short-term mission opportunities with Cookson Hills.
“If you have any particular skills as far as being able to maintain or improve the buildings, our gymnasium really needs repairs. Just from the basics like painting to repairing the insulation on the walls, we can host one-day missions or even half-day missions.”
Deere expressed the desire many people might have right now to be in mission.
“I know that many of our churches are closed right now and you don't have that opportunity to feed yourself spiritually, to be able to do a mission project,” Deere said. “Come in and help us load food boxes for a day. We can use all kinds of just basic assistance; the opportunities are here if you want to just get a hold of us and set something up.”
To contact Cookson Hills Ministry Center for volunteer opportunities, call or email Rev. Judy Deere at 918-457-5181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.