There is no shortage of options available to people who’d like to help the less fortunate around the holidays.
But with just days left before Christmas, a Tulsa nonprofit is seeking assistance with a chronically underserved segment of the population.
“Everyone forgets about teenagers around the holiday season,” Coffee Bunker Operations Manager Scott Blackburn said. “Everyone wants to buy gifts for little kids, or help out adults, but people forget about the teenagers.”
The Coffee Bunker, a nonprofit that seeks to assist veterans struggling to integrate into society after serving in the military, has been at its 41st Street and Yale Avenue location for about three years. It advertises itself as a safe, alcohol-free place for veterans to not just spend time with other veterans, but also to receive assistance with such tasks as filling out job applications or finding a place to live.
With a never-ending supply of returning veterans who need assistance, the organization is always accepting financial donations and gifts. But right now what it needs are items for the teenage children of the veterans they serve.
“Things like clothes, headphones, mp3 players, those items are always popular,” Blackburn said. “When people think about donating toys for Christmas, they think about Barbies or G.I. Joes, little kid stuff. I think we have a total of five items for teenagers right now, and we have something like 22 (teenagers) who come here.
“We try to give each kid five presents each and our teenagers will be lucky to get one.”
Mary Ligon, Coffee Bunker’s founder, remembers what it was like to raise teenagers.
“It’s tough enough to find out where you belong, and to feel like you belong,” Ligon said. “Imagine it being Christmas and then feeling forgotten about.”
Seeking a Playstation 4
Blackburn said he knows it might be a long shot, but he’s hoping to locate a donor who’ll buy a Playstation 4 video game system for a beleaguered family the Coffee Bunker works with.
“There’s a woman who is a mentor for veterans in Veterans Treatment Court who has four kids, and she’s run into a hard time with some surgeries and stuff,” Blackburn said. “She’s a veteran from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and she’s young and she needs help. We would love to give those kids a Playstation.”
Veterans Treatment Court is a diversion program that seeks to help veterans battle addiction and mental health issues, and serves about 60 people at any given time. Though technically its participants are in the court system, graduates of the year-long program avoid jail and prison.
“We love that program, it’s helped so many, and for us to be able to help someone who volunteers there would be something we’d like to do,” Ligon said.
Open on Christmas
Blackburn, a veteran himself, knows the difficulties returning service members encounter around any holiday, not just Christmas. But for some, Christmas can be the most difficult.
“You have these veterans who come back and they already are trying to figure out how to fit back in,” he said. “Many of them are struggling with issues which have strained their relationships with their families. And every time they turn on the TV they see a Christmas commercial with happy families around the table, and it can be really hard.”
So the Coffee Bunker is open Christmas Eve, and Christmas, and the day after.
“We want to make sure they know we’re here for them,” Blackburn said. “Veteran suicides spike around the holidays. We’re trying to give everyone an option other than to sit at home alone thinking about how everyone else is home with their families.”
Prior to moving into its current location just east of Southroads Shopping Center, the Coffee Bunker operated out of a baptist church near 61st Street and Lewis Avenue. Its goal then was the same as it is now, but it was a struggle at first.
“There were days where there were just one or two people who would come in,” Ligon said. “We knew there was this great need here, but it took time to reach the people we needed to reach.”
Both Ligon and Blackburn know the struggles veterans face.
Blackburn’s brother Justin, a veteran of the Gulf War, struggled and ultimately lost his battle with addiction following his return to the United States. Ligon’s son Daniel struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression after returning from Iraq, and committed suicide in 2007. It was his death that spurred the creation of the Coffee Bunker.
It didn’t take long for the organization to outgrow its humble beginnings. But it was still a leap of faith when the Coffee Bunker left its home at Southern Hills Baptist Church and moved to its current location.
“The question was never, could we afford to move?” Ligon said. “The need was so great, it was more that we just had to do it. We had to trust that it would work.”
The building Coffee Bunker moved into needed work to fully fit the organization’s needs, so Blackburn traveled around Tulsa asking for help.
“It was literally cold calls that built this place,” he said. “I went to Home Depot and would ask a manager, ‘How can you help us?’ I just went door to door and business to business and we made it work.”
Where Ligon and Blackburn once would serve only a few people a day, they now serve 70 to 80. Blackburn said in 2015 they assisted 1,800 individuals, a number they should pass this year. All that means that it may soon be time for the Coffee Bunker to relocate again.
“We’re the most highly attended veterans organization in Oklahoma outside of (The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs),” Blackburn said.
“We’ve been successful here, but maybe too successful, if that makes sense,” Ligon said. “It took a leap of faith to get us here but maybe we need another leap of faith.”
To help the Coffee Bunker
To donate gifts or funds to the Coffee Bunker, call 918-637-3878, or take donations directly to the organization at 6365 E. 41st St. The Coffee Bunker is seeking gifts for teenagers, such as clothes, headphones, or mp3 players, and a Playstation 4 for a needy family. Financial donations are always accepted, and donations are tax deductible.