Serving 'the last, the least and the lost'

At the Cookson Hills Center (#582161), staff members work to embody the mission Jesus named when he said in Matthew 9:13 that he "did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

The Rev. Meri Whitaker, director of the center near Tahlequah, Okla., said Cookson Hills works hard to serve "the unemployable." Among them may be people who have trouble finding traditional employment due to a history of drug abuse, for example, said Whitaker. Cookson Hills provides flexibility and understanding.

"Almost everything we do is directed at the last, the least and the lost," Whitaker said.

The 65-year-old rural ministry serves a mostly Cherokee population in some of the poorest counties in Oklahoma with employment opportunities, substance abuse programs, ministries with senior citizens and a daycare service. It also operates a community garden and orchard and distributes seeds.

Whitaker said the daycare encourages education and growth among the children, while also offering jobs to several people and helping low-income mothers who need to work during the day.

Cottage industries, which provide employment and teach job skills, are a major program at Cookson Hills. These include "Recycle Rebound," which converts used tires into doormats; a craft store where local Native Americans and seniors can sell their wares; "God's Handiwork," which provides embroidered or screen-printed items; a pottery workshop where baptismal sets and Communion chalices are made; and a jewelry repair and packaging shop for a major retail company.

"We have established those and are looking for even more," Whitaker said of the cottage industries. "We are able to hire people and give them jobs, which really makes a difference in the systemic poverty problems."

Whitaker said Cookson Hills continues to develop its programs and meet the needs of people in a variety of age groups.

For children and youth, the center offers after-school programs, job skills training and other supervised activities. The Cookson Hills Center also has a food pantry and provides special meals to help the children and senior citizens in the community who would otherwise not have enough to eat. A thrift store sells clothing and other items at discounted prices. But the true testament to Cookson Hills Center's effectiveness, Whitaker said, is that it is actually making a positive difference in people's lives.

"If the programs aren't changing people, then you're wasting your breath and your time," she said. "We see a lot of changes — a lot of recovery and a lot of people coming to church and recognizing that God changes them."

Emily Snell,  freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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This article was originally published in the November-December 2013 issue of Interpreter, www.interpretermagazine.org. Interpreter.