Larry Bross doesn't like to talk about his family's hard times.
He's a proud man, justifiably so, and his office at City Care is filled with better memories: photos from his days as a Sooner, awards honoring his nonprofit work and notes and maps tied to projects both planned and under development.
He'd rather talk about those things. Not the bad years. Not the homelessness.
Not that stuff.
The troubles, though, are a significant part of the story. If every move had been successful, Bross and his wife, Masie Bross, wouldn't have had to grow. If they hadn't felt embarrassment, they wouldn't understand why people who need assistance don't always ask for it.
If they hadn't known tough times, well, maybe they wouldn't be helping so many homeless people today.
From prosperity to loss
Larry Bross, now 64, was an all-sport athlete at El Reno High. His father owned a full-service grocery store in town, but Bross wasn't fond of that kind of work.
He tried his hand at shining shoes before his entrepreneurial spirit saw a better opportunity in haying. As a teenager, he hired a crew of workers and went to work in the hay fields, his muscles growing stronger with each rectangular bale he threw.
His strength, athleticism and work ethic enabled him to walk on to the University of Oklahoma football team, backing up two-time All-American Granville Liggins. Larry wasn't the biggest guy on the team, but that was OK.
“We wanted to be quick,” he said. “We weren't big enough to overpower anybody. That worked out well for us until we came up against a team that was big and fast.”
He met Masie in their sophomore year at OU. She was pretty and positive, a former cheerleader at Woodward High and the daughter of Phil Ferguson, a wealthy rancher, banker and U.S. congressman. (Ferguson launched two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids in the 1950s, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican.)
Masie admired Larry's tenacity and brashness. On their first date, he got her to ride on the back of his motorcycle. They remember it for different reasons.
“I was absolutely scared to death,” she recalled.
“She squeezed me so tight,” he said.
They married in 1969. Masie left college for a job at Kerr-McGee.
After graduation, they moved to her father's ranch in Woodward, staying for years and producing three children: twins Lance and Shasta, now 40, and Luke, 31.
After a tornado destroyed their home, the family moved to Edmond. Larry started an oil field services company, and everything seemed to be running smoothly.
“We bought a house (with) three times more value than the house we'd left in Woodward,” Masie said. “We put our kids in Christian schools. And the oil field bubble burst.
“Penn Square Bank went under (in 1982). Oil companies out the kazoo were filing bankruptcy. We lost our home. In the next seven years, we lived in six different rent houses, and at one point we were homeless and lived with some friends.”
Helping the hopeless
The oil bust left others in much worse shape than Masie and Larry.
That was obvious by the crowd that gathered each morning for a free breakfast at City Church, not far from downtown Oklahoma City.
Larry didn't go there to eat. He went to the church for the men's
“Being able to relate to them from our experiences of losing everything — our business, our home, being homeless — he just felt drawn to them,” Masie said. “He could understand everything about them except the hopelessness they felt.”
His family was enduring a rough patch, but they were staying in the top floor of a friend's posh home. He had a college degree, a solid resume, business contacts and others willing to help. Worst case scenario, he could do as Masie did and rely on his resume to land temporary jobs.
But these people ...
“When you're homeless and in that homeless line,” Masie said, her voice thick with emotion, “you're hopeless. You don't have anything. ... And he noticed that difference.”
He volunteered to help with the breakfast and soon was put in charge of it. He and Masie were amazed by how many people showed up. Looking back over about three months of records, they found that the church had served more than 2,000 meals. The figure was shocking.
“Where did this homeless population come from?” Masie said. “How can we be so clueless? How can we be in Edmond, minutes from this place, and be so clueless?”
The problem, they learned, had its roots in poverty and education. Impoverished children needed at least two things to become successful adults: a good education and a relationship with a stable, caring adult.
“That's when we went to Denver and brought Whiz Kids back to Oklahoma City,” Masie said.
Whiz Kids started life in 1990 as Wise Guys, an urban outreach program between the clergy and the business community in Denver. Under that name, the program provided one-on-one tutoring to 60 elementary schoolchildren in three locations.
The name changed as the program grew. Today, Whiz Kids in Denver offers tutoring in more than 40 locations and can help up to 800 children, according to www.whizkidstutoring.
In 1994, an Oklahoma City version of the program opened at City Church. Larry set out to establish City Care, a nonprofit that would offer a range of assistance to the poor and homeless. Efforts to incorporate were delayed by the Oklahoma City bombing.
Even after City Care became an official nonprofit in 1996, it took six or seven years to find a permanent space to build a transitional housing facility. The nonprofit, established to help the homeless, essentially was homeless itself.
Larry explained his
It wouldn't be a shelter, so it wouldn't have a daily rotation of strangers. It'd just be a place to help those who need it get back on their feet.
“Twenty-six places said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. But not in my backyard,'” Larry said.
The Pershing Center, the current home of City Care, Whiz Kids and other programs, finally was constructed in 2002. The city ponied up $1.5 million for land east of the fairgrounds in Mulligan Flats. Low income housing credits paid for bricks and mortar, and operational expenses come from a federal Housing and Urban Development grant.
“Many of our residents have had some incarceration time,” Larry said. “We can't accept sex offenders or violent offenders. You can only stay for two years. Ninety-two percent of our residents are employed. We really push people to get back to work, and we do the Dave Ramsey course to teach them how to handle their money.”
Would-be residents contact City Care directly or are referred by other agencies. Prospective residents meet with a case manager and undergo a background check. After clearing those hurdles, applicants meet with a peer committee, which makes a recommendation to the staff.
If they survive all that, they're in.
Residents pay 30 percent of their income to City Care. For that, they get meals and a place to live. They get anger management training. They learn how to make it on their own.
And at the end of two years, they may be allowed to move into permanent rental housing, which City Care has been building since 2006. The rent homes — 28 duplexes and nine houses — are fully furnished and all bills paid; individual rents are dependent on income.
“We have a three-strike policy,” Larry said. “We do our own in-house drug testing. If you break one of our rules ... that's a strike. Sometimes it takes people a little while to get it, to understand what we're doing and buy into it.
“If you test positive, we put you in an extensive recovery program. If you get a third strike, I'll tell you to go out and do some more (drugs) because you're not ready to quit.”
Today, City Care operates the Pershing Center, the permanent housing program and Whiz Kids. It operates the city's WestTown homeless day center (open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and is developing Crystal Lake, near SW 15 and MacArthur Avenue.
“We've cleaned it up, established 24-hour security and are developing it for all of Oklahoma City, but mainly for inner city kids who can have fun outdoors fishing, hiking, camping and learning
Masie has been director of the local Whiz Kids program since 1996. She plans to retire in June.
When Larry first asked her to take on the task, her answer was a firm no.
“No because we were just getting our lives together after 10 years of tumultuous times,” she said. “No because I was definitely afraid of the inner city; it was way outside of my comfort zone. ... No because I wasn't qualified. I didn't have any sort of education degree. I didn't have any degree. ... I felt like it was time for me to be in Bible studies and go to lunch with my friends and shop and hang out.”
But then, she said, she felt “God's spirit” and knew he wanted her to take charge. If she could get more people to volunteer, she thought, God would take care of the rest.
When she began, Whiz Kids was floundering. It was offered in three sites, but she couldn't find enough tutors. After four years, she turned to the Center for Child Advocacy for help. Former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphries and former Oklahoma County District
“That catapulted Whiz Kids into being able to meet some needs for these kids,” Masie said.
Today, the program incorporates 59 partner churches, 26 at-risk schools, more than 850 tutors and about 1,400 volunteers.
Its success is measurable in test scores and smiles.
“The biggest miracle I see,” Masie said, “is that tutors meet every week with these kids for 32 weeks of the school year, and the kids show up every single week. It is changing both lives.”