Over 100 Years of Service and Partnership: NSO and UWF
When a young high school student turned 18, his foster family dropped his belongings off at his high school and told school administrators he was not welcome back. When the school bell rang at the end of the day, that young man found himself homeless.
A woman who had been estranged from her family moved back to Oklahoma with none of her belongings, and lived in her car for months. Suffering from mental illness as well as physical ailments, she worked her way through sobriety programs and homeless shelters, trying to find a way to reestablish connections with her estranged family members.
Another woman went into a dental clinic in a wheelchair. All of her body’s systems were sick because of infections in her mouth.
These three stories have one thing in common: Neighborhood Services Organization. The young man was able to get into a transitional living space for other young men like himself. NSO provides housing and around-the-clock staff to make sure the young men feel safe. The first woman was able to get into Palo Duro, NSO’s permanent housing program for unhoused people diagnosed with a mental illness. The clinic’s dental staff worked with the second woman through a long process of multiple extractions and visits. She walked out of the clinic after her last visit, no longer requiring a wheelchair.
When brainstorming ways to serve the community, many people imagine the sweet smiles of children, the humble gratitude of families, and sweet grannies opening gifts of warm socks to keep their feet toasty in winter. Those imaginings leave out a large segment of the population in need of service.
NSO also provides housing for single mothers with up to four children, and pregnant mothers or those with infants. These homes come fully furnished, and NSO provides wraparound services including life skills classes, individual case management, health services, and – if needed – reunification services.
Young men who have aged out of the foster system – or are simply in need of a stable home environment – along with unhoused adults find homes through programs funded and carried out by NSO.
In addition to housing 90 to 100 residents, NSO serves as Oklahoma’s only low-cost dental clinic. Rather than offer free services, which causes long wait times, or a sliding scale, which requires proof of income, NSO takes the approach of offering the same low price to anyone who needs dental services. They have extended evening and weekend hours to provide services to people who can’t take time away from work to have preventative care.
The dental services offered help close a gap for uninsured or underinsured clients. They also allow fourth-year dental students of the OU School of Dentistry an opportunity to get their practicum hours while performing a necessary service to the community. Many students return once they’ve finished their degree and volunteer.
NSO’s dental clinic is run by full-time, paid staff, plus student dentists. The dentists on staff are adjunct professors at OU, in partnership with NSO.
On top of everything else, NSO provides rent and mortgage assistance on an emergency basis. They do all of this work through grants and with the help of dedicated partners and volunteers.
Neighborhood Services Organization looks a lot different today than it did when it started over 100 years ago, but it operates from the same spirit of true service to the community.
“The United Women in Faith support NSO through their financial giving, volunteer efforts, and consistently lifting our agency in prayer,” said Stacey Ninness, president and CEO of NSO. “They are not just partners in ministry, they are a group of faithful women with a servant’s heart, that provide for the ministry of NSO whenever we make a call. The UWF are an incredible group of women that have been a part of our history for more than 100 years, and we could not imagine doing the important work of NSO without their faithful support.”
In 1920, a group of Methodist women came together to form an organization centered around fostering the physical, mental, and spiritual development of poor, immigrant families in South Oklahoma City. That organization took the form of a settlement house, then a Wesley house, and then a community house.
Many iterations later, and that group, now known as the Neighborhood Services Organization (NSO), helped start such programs as the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, Positive Tomorrows school, and Mobile Meals.
The focus then changed to direct services, filling the gaps in service for many Oklahomans – not just in the city. The organization provides permanent housing and long-term transitional housing to unhoused people, it offers a low-cost dental clinic, and it operates as the largest WIC clinic in Oklahoma.
WIC, also known as Women, Infants and Children, is a service of the Department of Human Services providing nutritious food, like milk, cereal, peanut butter, infant formula, and more, to pregnant women and those with young children.
When the pandemic hit, many WIC offices across the state were forced to close their doors. NSO stayed open as a call center, helping moms and children get their benefits. NSO serves 29 counties in Oklahoma, and has a current case load of 5,000 families per month.
Communications manager Amber Hyland summed it up, “Our elevator speech might take a couple of rides, because we do so much.”
Methodist women started NSO way back in 1920, and Methodist women, now in the form of United Women in Faith, are still an integral part of the organization’s success. “We started it back at Quayle Church,” says Harri Williams, president of Oklahoma’s chapter of United Women in Faith (UWF). “We were in a basement, then an empty building. We were taking care of kids after school.”
As NSO grew into its own entity, it expanded to serve the entire Oklahoma City metro area. Through the decades, Methodist women continued to serve as a key part of the NSO legacy. Before Covid-19, UWF assisted each and every client in some way, at Christmas and beyond.
For Christmases past, UWF members would go to NSO clients’ homes and decorate them for the holidays.
Since in-person contact became an issue, the ladies of UWF were not deterred. They regrouped and came back strong with new ideas, like interactive Advent calendars, family tradition baskets, candy jars, and more, for each household.
The Oklahoma UWF also does gift card drives each year. They divide the gift cards between NSO and Cookson Hills. The drives aren’t just for the OKC metro, but for the entire state. The clientele are different in the two entities. Each district has its own entity to serve.
Statewide, UWF concentrates on four areas of concern. Two affect Oklahoma directly: homelessness and food insecurity. The other two, which are global, are environmental stewardship and the mass incarceration of people of color.
“It sounds overwhelming,” said Williams, “but if I can get each person to do one small thing, they’ll get sucked into it, and then they’ll be doing it for life.”
About the work of UWF, Williams says, “We get our hands dirty, rather than just throwing money at it.” They really like to do item drives for staples like laundry detergent or bar soap. According to Williams, it takes intentionality and purpose to buy something for someone else while shopping. It makes it more personal.
UWF does much more than work with specific entities. They collect school supplies and get them to teachers at the beginning of the second semester, when supplies might be depleted. They work with youth groups to do item drives. “If you sit there and observe what’s happening, you can find something to do to help,” said Williams.
“I’ve always known that when you do something for someone else, you’re the biggest recipient,” said Williams.
NSO has hosted the Neighborhood Santa Operation event for 17 years. The group creates stockings, family gifts, and more. Additionally, they pray for NSO’s clients and enjoy service together. Submitted photos.