Hungry for hope
Filling a void for Tulsa's homeless.
Each Friday around lunchtime, it’s easy to find Kelly Swan.
He’ll be in a parking lot near East Third Street and South Detroit Avenue, standing in a crowd of people, some he knows and some he has just met.
Regardless, he treats each as a new friend, handing out a Bible verse on a small slip of paper and, later, a sack lunch.
For lunch recipients, these 15- to 20-minute sessions are a welcome respite from the challenges they face daily. They are homeless, and Swan wants to provide them with encouragement and hope.
It all began one day six years ago. Swan, a Williams employee, was walking back to his downtown office after his lunch break when a homeless man approached him.
The man gently grabbed Swan’s arm and asked for help. Swan, uncomfortable, said “No, thank you,” and walked away.
But he knew he had missed an opportunity. So Swan turned around and caught up with the man, whose name he later learned was Roy, and the two spent 20 minutes talking about the challenges Roy was facing.
“The experience changed me, and it put everything in perspective of my calling in life,” Swan says.
Soon Swan learned that his friend Erin Bjornberg had felt a similar desire to serve homeless people, and the two began walking the downtown streets together, distributing lunches and looking for those who needed an encouraging word.
In late 2003, another friend, Chris Brooks, got involved, and the group decided to make Filling the Void an official nonprofit.
Swan, Bjornberg and Brooks soon went from meeting with people individually to addressing entire groups. In 2005, they began gathering in the Williams Green each Wednesday, first attracting 15 to 20 people and, by 2008, more than 200 people.
Since Filling the Void’s founding, more than 500 volunteers have lent their services to the nonprofit. Swan has even spread the Filling the Void concept to Denver, and he would like to see it reach other cities.
In late 2008, Swan decided to move the outreach events to the current location to give them some added privacy. Although numbers have dropped from 200 to about 40 to 50 people, the change has given Swan and other volunteers an opportunity to get back to the personal nature of their work, shaking hands and learning names.
“It would be easy after you’ve done this for a while to go through the motions,” Swan says. “We don’t ever want to get to that point. We want to go out every week knowing there will be someone new there, it will be their first experience, and we want them to know God has a plan for their life.”