A Norman Farm Market vendor has reached beyond her booth to create a unique service that helps poor and homeless women, and their children, get back on their feet.
Kim Fields -- who makes Gringo Girl tamales, Monkey Salsas and Jellies and other products -- recently created the St. Joseph's Kitchen Project, located across from St. Joseph's Catholic Church at 211 N. Porter Ave.
Instead of cooking for meal recipients, Fields has poor and homeless women come together and collectively clean, plan meals and cook breakfast and lunch for themselves and their children, using donated kitchen supplies and produce.
St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church's Knights of Columbus helped house the kitchen project and provided them with supplies.
Also, she encourages individuals to donate supplies. Any excess supplies they receive can be given to a client who is moved into housing.
In addition, the nonprofit is an effort to teach the women life skills, help them find employment and housing and provide job skills. A support group also is offered. The kitchen is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Since opening Aug. 21, Fields said the nonprofit has helped house one woman and helped four women find jobs.
Fields said she got the idea for the kitchen project after witnessing people throwing away excess food at the Norman Farm Market. That made her want to start a food pantry and offer meals and cooking classes, but that idea eventually evolved into the kitchen project, which relies on donations and volunteers.
"A food pantry sends you on your way. Here, you have to try to move forward. We don't want to Bandaid [the problem]. We want to solve it," Fields said.
Fields said she approached Deacon Randy Hearn and Father Joseph Irwin at St. Joseph's and asked if she could use the school cafeteria space in the former day care building across the street. They agreed.
Fields said the rest of the building is empty, and she hopes, in the future, the project can expand to more of the building.
The kitchen project is a collaboration with Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Salvation Army and Food and Shelter Inc.
Fields said the kitchen project was necessary because those in the homeless community can only stay at the Salvation Army for 14 days. Then they must leave for 45 days before they can return. Also, they have to leave at 8:30 a.m. and be back at 4 p.m. to claim a room.
Fields said she once saw a woman walking miles with her baby to Food and Shelter for lunch.
"I decided, 'This is crazy,'" she said.
Fields said temperatures felt like over 100 degrees when the kitchen opened. Eighteen women arrived on Day 1. On the second day, more than 20 women came, and the number keeps increasing.
Currently, Fields said she has three active volunteers at the center and needs more.
While they are at the cafeteria, she said the women set goals, share their stories and how they want them to change, and make emergency needs lists and life plans.
Every woman who comes to the kitchen must be clean and actively work to improve their circumstances. Fields said she has already had to turn some women away because of drug and alcohol use, which is prohibited.
In addition to cooking skills, the kitchen project offers transportation to job interviews, as well as anything that will help them improve their situations. Interview clothes are available across the street at St. Joseph's thrift store for free.
Fields said during the first week the kitchen project was open, volunteers supplied cell phones to clients to help them find employment.
Once the women are employed, she said they learn about saving money and apartment deposits. Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society can pay for the first month's rent. The nonprofits involved work together to provide furniture and other furnishings after housing is obtained.
"While they are waiting for a job, they have to do volunteer hours in the community," Fields said. "It's important to teach them to give back and not just take."
After women obtain housing and employment, they are welcome to return for emotional support or to volunteer, Fields said, but they no longer are considered clients.
One client needed help filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and she is now scheduled to start college the University of Oklahoma in January.
Fields said the women regularly discuss the progress they have made and what the next steps are for their independence.
For more information about the project, call her at 551-1410.