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Toby Keith Foundation Provides Comfort for Healing Familes

Tracy Knoche, American Farmers & Ranchers mail room, and Karen Little, AFR property underwriting, spend time with young patients and their families at the crafts table in OK Kids Korral dining room.

A simple, hand-written note from Coltrane’s family expressed gratitude for a fun day.  Life hadn’t been much fun for Coltrane since he was diagnosed with cancer, but on this day a respite in the form of a Christmas party by employees of American Farmers & Ranchers, brought joy to the 2-year old.

Coltrane and his family were guests of The Toby Keith Foundation’s OK Kids Korral, a cost-free home away from home for pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment in Oklahoma City.

Opened in January, 2014, OK Kids Korral is located near the OU Children’s Hospital.  It is the single focus of the Toby Keith Foundation.

The idea for the 25,000 sq. foot home sprouted from an experience of a band member’s family whose young child was stricken with cancer.

“We accept anyone from newborn to 18 years of age, receiving treatment for cancer,” said Juliet Nees-Bright, executive director of The Toby Keith Foundation.  “As long as the child needs us, we will be here to help them.”

With 16 rooms, OK Kids Korral operates at about 80 percent occupancy.

“The number of families we serve has doubled since we opened.” Nees-Bright said. “Oklahoma is a rural state and many families have to drive long distances for treatment. “Our goal is to provide a service to as many families as possible.”

Oklahoma is a rural state and many families have to drive long distances for treatment. Our goal is to provide a service to as many families as possible.

Juliet Nees-Bright, The Toby Keith Foundation

It’s not just Oklahoma families benefiting from the generosity of The Toby Keith Foundation. 

“We’ve had families from Arkansas, Texas, Kansas and even foreign countries,” Nees-Bright said.

Like similar facilities, OK Kids Korral depends on volunteers to make them a success.  AFR employees have worked with OK Kids Korral from the beginning.  In fact, with 15 to 20 employees volunteering each month, AFR is the number one volunteer group for the OK Kids Korral.

“This is a perfect fit for us as we consider public service important,” said Paul Jackson, acting CEO.

Each month AFR employees will cook dinner for families staying at the OK Kids Korral.  During holidays and other special occasions, employees will often provide party decorations and other gifts to ease the families’ burdens.

“We receive such joy and blessings from helping these families,” Jackson said.

Paul Jackson, AFR State Secretary and interim AFR Insurance CEO, helps prepare a meal at OK Kids Korral.

In addition to the social support families receive by staying at OK Kids Korral, there is an economic benefit too.

“For a family of four, we estimate the daily savings is $160 to $220,” Nees-Bright said. 

The average length of time for each family is five days, and Nees-Bright said they see, on average, each family five times a year. 

“Some kids undergoing a stem cell transplant are with us anywhere from 60 to 90 days. We are forming very, very deep connections with our families.”

The strong connections make it difficult when a child does not recover from cancer.

“It’s a very difficult process for us and we’re still learning how to deal with it,” Nees-Bright said.  “You think you’re prepared and then realize you’re not as prepared as you thought.”

The home’s main benefactor and namesake is a frequent visitor.

 “We never know when Toby is going to drop by for a visit,” Nees-Bright said. “The kids get excited, but the parents get really excited when Toby drops by.”

With an annual budget of approximately $500,000, the home depends on annual fundraisers, including a golf tournament to raise money.

“We’re meeting our current needs with the fundraisers,” Nees-Bright said.  “We encourage people who are interested to learn more about OK Kids Korral.

Sonja Smith holds her late son, Coltrane, during cancer treatment at OU Children’s hospital in Oklahoma City.

She said people often ask “what do the families need?” 

“Anything that makes the families’ lives a little easier,” Nees-Bright said. 

For example, she said they recently installed a Keurig coffee machine.

“Many times our families grab a quick cup of coffee as they head out the door and this is perfect.  It’s not a necessity but it’s something they really appreciate.”

The holidays are an especially important time to help the families.

“One of our donors gave each one of the families staying here at Christmas a gift card that allowed all five of the families staying here to buy something special for Christmas.”

Tucked away on N.E. 8th Street in a nondescript neighborhood near the hospital, it’s easy to drive by the home without knowing this tremendous resource exists.

“We just want more people to know about OK Kids Korral and all the services provided to families here in the area.”

 OK Kids Korral is part of a larger family of organizations dedicated to easing the burden of cancer patients and their families.  Nees-Bright rattled off a long list including the Ronald McDonald House, Oklahoma Brain Tumor Foundation, and Sunshine Kids Foundation.

“There are so many groups working to make sick children’s’ lives better.”

For the short time Coltrane stayed at OK Kids Korral, his life was better, as we discovered in a letter from Coltrane’s grandmother, Tracy Smith. The letter informed AFR employees how much Coltrane’s family appreciated their efforts.

“The time we spent at Kids Korral was some of the the best times we had had,” Smith said.  “It was so nice to have them fix a meal and talk with us. 

View the full issue of AFR Today

Summer 2016

The History of Cooperation, Toby Keith Foundation, Scholarships, Youth Advisory Council, More