“I haven’t had the best path.” When Stacey Yarbrough ended her four years as a guest of the Department of Corrections, she resolved to make some changes. Her first stop was Sunnyside Diner, where co-owner Aly Branstetter gave her a job.
Sunnyside is a vanguard restaurant at the corner of NW 6th and Classen. In a city that seems to be in a constant state of renewal, Sunnyside was the first wave in a new effort to rehabilitate its neighborhood. The problem, Branstetter said, is that any new development tends to push the old previous tenants farther away. In this case, that means many of the city’s homeless population. In response, the restaurant started a community closet where those in need can get a winter coat, gloves and supplies. But in the summer, that’s not especially helpful. Meanwhile, Yarbrough began her own initiative. Taking a little money from each paycheck, she began putting together $10 care packages full of clothes, toiletries and other essentials and then going out and meeting people who could use them. “Sometimes I’d take them McDonald’s or we’d go have ice cream. Stuff they don’t get all the time,” she said.
But the most important thing she brings with her is compassion. Holding their hands. Listening to them talk. Showing them her face and looking into theirs. “Sometimes they just sit there and cry. Having someone come on their day off and take the time to just sit and hang out and listen means so much,” Yarbrough said. Word started to get around the restaurant and soon a group of employees who gathers on Monday evenings showed interest in helping. That’s when Branstetter got involved. “I said, ‘That’s amazing. Let’s do more.’ We took $300 and did 30 bags,” she said. “These are young adults who have jobs and homes and Stacey wanted to pass this on to them.” Going to jail wasn’t fun, but Yarbrough said there were positives. Many of the homeless people she visits don’t get their medications or a steady diet. “At least I got to go to prison and have three hot meals and a place to lay my head down,” she said. “I don’t take cigarettes or money with me. I’m just making sure they can brush their teeth and smell halfway decent. It’s mostly just letting them know someone cares.” Branstetter said it was instructive to see how most of the group was huddled together, but Yarbrough would step out immediately, offering up her hand and smiling, introducing herself. This experience is helping homeless people, but it’s also helping teach empathy to a new generation, including Branstetter’s 14-year-old stepdaughter.
Now they’re looking to expand the effort. One of the restaurant’s employees is connected to Delta Dental. They’re putting the employees who are interested in it in charge of gathering and distributing supplies. Anyone interested in helping out can follow the restaurant on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The plan is to give out 100 bags a month by reaching out to the community for assistance.