NORMAN — After a decade of dreaming, planning and fundraising, Toby Keith is pleased to see progress at the OK Kids Korral.
“I see it on paper, I see great graphics, I see the people working on it. I see our goal. ... And then you actually drive down there and pull up in the driveway and look at it and go inside and walk around in there and you just go ‘Look at this big sucker. What a beautiful facility for the kids of Oklahoma,'” Keith told The Oklahoman last weekend at his fundraiser for the project.
The country music superstar believes that the donors and fellow celebrities that have supported his goal of constructing a home-away-from-home for Oklahoma children battling cancer and their families are excited about the progress, too.
The proof is in the numbers: The Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic, along with its Denim & Diamond dinner and auction, last weekend raked in more than $1 million toward the project. By comparison, last year's fundraiser brought in $664,000.
The $8.5 million, 25,000-square-foot lodge on the south end of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center is set to open in October.
Making a difference
“There was a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of red tape, hoops we had to jump through. And we had help from a lot of people and we had some resistance from others. Now that it's up, it's the buzz of the medical campus,” Keith said backstage May 10 at Riverwind Casino, where the Denim & Diamond dinner and auction kicked off the two-day event.
“It's immaculate. It kept the lodge look of wood and rock, but it's got the modern look of 2013 put into it. And I'm just completely amazed. It's more than I could imagine and I'm very proud of it.”
More importantly, the OK Kids Korral will feature 16 guest suites, a gourmet kitchen, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a movie theater, family resource room and more. It will offer overnight accommodations for families who must travel hundreds of miles from rural Oklahoma towns for their children to receive treatment as well as dayrooms where metro-area families can relax between appointments.
“It doesn't cost them a nickel to go. It's just there as an offering of love to kids who are unfortunate. It's just God shining his light through me,” Keith said.
The OK Kids Korral is the primary project of the Toby Keith Foundation, which makes its mission to “encourage the health and happiness of pediatric cancer patients.”
The mission has been a personal one for the Norman resident since Ally Webb, the 2-year-old daughter of his former bandmate Scott Webb, succumbed to cancer in 2003.
Helping other families facing the same heartbreaking situation has made a difference in the superstar's life. For instance, he got to attend the bell-ringing ceremony when Brock Hart, the 3-year-old Edmond boy who helped Keith break ground last year on the OK Kids Korral, was declared cancer-free.
“You ring the bell when you beat cancer and they check you out of the hospital, and all the doctors come in, the family comes in, your friends. He rang the bell and walked out of there. So, we hope he never needs the OK Kids Korral, but ... we'll always remember him. And he'll always remember that we were there with him,” Keith said.
“As you get in and you start meeting these people, they become part of your life. ... Brock's amazing, man. Brock is a rock star.”
Continuing a mission
The Oklahoma native hosted his Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic just three days after returning from a 10-day United Service Organization tour. The superstar performed for hundreds of U.S. troops and their families as his 11th annual USO tour took him to the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.
“It was different because 10 years we've been in the desert. We'd do a week in Iraq and a week in Afghanistan. And a couple of years ago, they said no more Iraq, but do a week in Afghanistan and do another week in the Persian Gulf. So we started landing on aircraft carriers. And then this year ... they said, ‘A lot is going on in the southern Philippines nobody knows about, special forces guys down there in the jungle,'” he said.
“They were all big shows and great big bases and we surpassed our 200th show,” added Keith, who is already looking forward to next year's USO tour. “It's amazing. The USO does a great job. They've been doing it for years.”
Keith, 51, will embark on his summer “Hammer Down Tour” June 8 at the Thunder on the Mountain festival in Ozark, Ark. On June 12, he is due to receive the Songwriter Icon Award from the National Music Publishers' Association in New York City.
“I've got boxes full of awards, even the People's Choice and some of those crazy awards I've won over the years, the songwriting was the part of it that meant the most to me. It's the bloodline ... of the music,” he said.
“So when they honor me with something, I put it there with everything. I take a lot of pride in knowing they honored me.”
Although his tour continues into the fall, it's a sure bet Keith will be back in Oklahoma when it comes time to celebrate the long-awaited opening of the OK Kids Korral.
For more information on the projects, go to tobykeithfoundation.org.
As you get in and you start meeting these people, they become part of your life. ... Brock's amazing, man. Brock is a rock star.”
Speaking about Brock Hart, of Edmond, who helped Keith break ground for OK Kids Korral in 2012