By Julie Gerke
Two women from Jacksonville have found a home away from home under a railroad bridge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they and a group of new friends help the city’s homeless.
Taylor Zoerner and Emerson Mohan, both 25, graduated from Jacksonville High School in 2016. After a move to Tulsa and a job as a care coordinator with the state-run Family and Children’s Services, Zoerner — a 2019 Western Illinois University graduate — wanted to be a more active participant in her new city.
A longtime volunteer in Jacksonville, Zoerner put her faith in action and joined Night Light, an outreach of City Lights, a program that offers resources, help and support to those without a permanent address.
For the last year, she has devoted three hours every Thursday night to wash the feet of the homeless, paint fingernails, and help other volunteers with washing and cutting hair. Community groups volunteer to staff a food line that provides a hot meal; veterinarians offer vaccines and help for the homeless’ four-legged friends. Adults and children can visit a prayer table and games area; books, clothing, pet food and hygiene products also are available.
However, she missed Mohan, her best friend since seventh grade, and eventually talked her into moving to Tulsa in September. Now, both women volunteer at Night Light.
“I was drawn to this, every Thursday,” Zoerner said. “No matter the weather, they don’t cancel no matter what’s going on. We’re meeting them where they are. I really liked that.”
Tulsa’s homeless population grew in the last year, according to the 2023 Point in Time (PiT) Count, and 1,133 people in Tulsa were without a home during the last week of January when the count was conducted. U.S. Census figures for 2022 showed Tulsa with an overall population of 411,401.
Many homeless live near the railroad bridge, which offers cover from the weather and is across the street from a large food pantry, Zoerner said.
Every Thursday program begins with an orientation for new volunteers, who are told what to expect. Volunteers are welcome to walk away from any situation, Zoerner said. “Jesus washed feet and it’s an example for everyone else,” Zoerner said. “If you think about that story, that’s how we’re supposed to impact the world. … I’ve never been grossed out. It’s all new to me. I just need to do something” to help.
Mohan was sold on the idea as soon as Zoerner shared her experiences. “I could see she really loved it and it was something I wanted to get invested in, to show them grace and the love of God,” Mohan said.
Helping others isn’t a new concept for Zoerner. She was volunteer of the year in 2020 for Jacksonville Main Street; worked with the mentally ill during an earlier job in Tulsa; now works with children and families to make them successful; and is working on her master’s degree in social work at the University of Oklahoma. She eventually hopes to become a trauma-based therapist.
“When I was working with the seriously mentally ill and someone was having a bad day, I’d give them money to go to a gas station for a soda,” she said. “I saw how something so small would make someone light up. There was a girl, I’d give her a drink packet for bottled water. When I gave it to her, her day was made. I saw how little things can affect someone’s day.”
Now, she extends those simple lessons to her daily life: She smiles at strangers, opens doors for people, offers a compliment.
“I try to hold a smile for that population,” she said. “If they feel you’re not judging them, they’ll open up to you. Painting their nails, washing their feet, listening without judgment – it’s a step in the right direction, pointing out people’s positive characteristics. Giving them encouragement has changed me completely, for sure.”
Mohan said the Night Light work “definitely makes you grateful for what you have and where you are.” She’s already decided to return to school someday, hoping to build a career in which she can help people.
“There’s really no right or wrong way to [help people],” Mohan said. “Just take it day by day and show grace to other people. They’re probably going through something in their own way, too.”
Zoerner’s mom, Melissa Hebron of Jacksonville, said her daughter is “shouting [her faith] from the mountaintops but not saying it at all. Her actions just scream it. I love that she’s going about her way and living life to the fullest. … It definitely makes my mom heart happy.”