Sonya McCoy lives in a cottage at a local homeless shelter. Sonya cares for her three grandchildren, ages 9 months, 3 years and 10 years. When her rent became too high for her income, she started looking for resources and found help at Food and Shelter in Norman, where she qualified for one of the cottages.
When veteran Eric Wilson needed help paying for mental health treatment, he turned to American Legion Post 88 for assistance.
“They got me that mental health help that I needed, and that was all due to my service officer here at the American Legion,” he said.
Amber Freeman was homeless and had addiction issues.
“It’s really hard to ask for help,” she said. “I tried to get sober on my own many times, and it never really worked. I am in Cleveland County’s treatment court, and they were the ones that recommended the Virtue Center to me. I got my family back.”
When tragedy, suffering and hardship strikes, one of the best things people can do is to start with the question, “How can I help?”
Cleveland County has answered that call, leveraging American Rescue Plan Act dollars to assist the robust network of Cleveland County nonprofits already working on the front lines to improve the health and welfare of our people.
Currently, The Virtue Center serves 2,000 people like Amber each year who suffer from behavioral health issues. Due to $500,000 in ARPA money received through Cleveland County, the number of people Virtue Center can assist will more than double over the course of the next few years.
“This funding is extremely important to our mission and the impact that the pandemic has had on our community and the county. We are seeing more and more severe cases,” said Virtue Center Executive Director Teresa Collado.
Cleveland County commissioners saw how the pandemic affected the lives of county residents during and after the COVID-19 surge, starting with loss of life, loss of jobs, increase in mental health issues and substance abuse, loss of services, and supply chain shortages. Today, inflation continues to impact working-class families.
When the county leadership learned Cleveland County would receive $55 million in ARPA funds, the process began to determine how to spend that money to benefit the most people. County commissioners literally asked, through at dozens of stakeholder meetings and a countywide survey, “How were you affected by the pandemic? How can we help? How do you want to see this money spent?”
From that feedback, the county developed three funding priorities: public and behavioral health, infrastructure and economic impacts. Nonprofits submitted applications for ARPA funding, and the county looked at other services and programs that were needed.
Following this long public process, the first announcements were made in October, starting with The Virtue Center.
“About 52% of our clients are reporting active trauma symptoms,” Teresa said, emphasizing that alcohol abuse, meth and heroine, including heroin with fentanyl, continue to be major threats to public health throughout Oklahoma. Fentanyl, in particular, can be deadly, she said.
“We’re even seeing people use fentanyl purposefully as a way to cope with their mental health issues.”
Another early beneficiary is American Legion Post 88 in Norman. Post 88 received $330,000 to pay for wiring and structural upgrades of their facility and to support the food pantry.
“When we got the notification that there were funds that were going to be available, the first thing I thought is, we’ve got to get this post something to help us out,” said Post Commander Ernest Martin. “This building was built in the 1930s by the WPA. We have wiring that’s not the best in the world. It still works, but it needs to be upgraded. We’ve got plumbing that needs to be upgraded.”
Post 88 has helped qualified veterans, service members and veteran families receive more than $8 million in benefits since 2019.
Cleveland County has $500,000 available to veterans service groups. While American Legion Post 88 was the first to receive funding, several others have applied for county ARPA funds and are on the list to receive money.
On Dec. 8, county commissioners presented Food and Shelter with $1 million in ARPA funds.
“The work we do at Food and Shelter is pretty simple. We feed people who are hungry and we help people who have lost their homes find their way back home,” Food and Shelter Executive Director April Doshier said.
“Without food, people can’t really live to their fullest potential, so we really give the most basic of human needs to help people get through the day and start to make some big steps for tomorrow.”
April said the ARPA investment by Cleveland County will go a long way to bolster the services Food and Shelter offer.
“We often see people who are facing eviction,” April said. “They’re worried about how they are going to pay their rent, and so they come to us looking for resources. Our goal is to keep those folks housed.
"The majority of people who come to us are just struggling people," she added. "They’re moms and dads and kids and seniors and veterans who have limited income. They’re struggling to pay those bills, and they turn to us to make those dollars stretch through our food pantry or through our emergency services.”
In addition to living in one of the cottages, Sonya works in the kitchen and the food pantry at Food and Shelter. She said she found a warm, safe place to live with her grandchildren, and she’s appreciative of Cleveland County awarding funds to the agency.
“It’s a blessing that they were willing to give. It’s going to help a lot of families,” she said.
Requests for county ARPA dollars are vetted carefully to meet federal qualification guidelines and some requests are still being processed. The county has also allocated funding for infrastructure and mitigating the economic impact of COVID.
To learn more about Cleveland County’s ARPA plan and the distribution of that funding, check out their ARPA Recovery Program page on the county website at ClevelandCountyOK.com/384/ARPA-Recovery-Program.