Rainbow House: Cherokees Helping Cherokees
Pictured, left to right: Ben Shoemake, Barbara Shoemake, Principal Chief Chad Smith, Lorraine Hummingbird Bates, Paul B. Thomas, Owen Scott.
LOCUST GROVE—The Rainbow House is a very different kind of place. Though filled with food, clothing and appliances, there’s not a cash register to be seen. Three days a week, rain or shine, needy Mayes County families come to the Rainbow House, stock up on essentials, and leave. They never pay a penny.
“You just have to sign for it,” says Paul B. Thomas, a Cherokee tribal member who heads up the Rainbow House project. “We’ve got food, clothing, furniture, appliances, corn seed, all kinds of things. It’s all free to any person. It doesn’t cost anything but ink.”
The Rainbow House is built on the premise of Cherokees helping Cherokees. “We’re just Cherokees helping each other,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to. We won’t count on the government to help everybody out. We’re doing it ourselves.”
Volunteers help keep the overhead at the Rainbow House low, about $500 a month. “We don’t have anyone on payroll,” Thomas says. “We sell caps and hats, and dig around in our own pockets to pay the rent. We had about 30 people at our last meeting, and they contributed $265. With these kind of people you can’t lose.”
Thomas calls one of those volunteers, Jasper Swake, “Mr. Rainbow House … he works like a dog around here.”
Swake is more modest about his contributions. “I worked all my life as a plasterer and cement finisher,” he says. “I have a good pension and social security. But some of these elderly folks, they worked, but they didn’t make any money, at least not enough for a good retirement.”
Rainbow House volunteers are branching out, trying to help people in several other Cherokee communities. “We’re working on opening a Rainbow House in Sequoyah County. We’re too far away from them in Locust Grove,” Thomas says. “We’re also working on a Rainbow House in Proctor, and working with some people in Jay.”
The Rainbow House works with an out of state ministry, which provides the inventory free of charge. “They said they’ll fill up every Rainbow House we’ve got,” Thomas said. “So we’re just finding needs and trying to meet them.”
“The ministry calls it a mission,” Swake says. “We call it the Rainbow House.”
There are no forms to fill out at the Rainbow House. No one asks questions about income, where a visitor lives or why they are there.
“We don’t ask one question,” Thomas says. “We’ve caught people selling things they got from us, but we let it go. We know there are people taking advantage of us, but that’s up to the good Lord to take care of later on.”
The volunteers focus on the people they help, rather than those who try to beat the system. “A lot of times we’re providing very basic help; formula for little babies and diet supplements for elderly people who can’t chew. We were able to provide every child two pair of jeans to start school.”
Many of the volunteers are Cherokee elders, who take their traditional leadership roles seriously. “We’re called wisdom givers,” Swake says. “We’re trying to teach people to help each other by example.”
The Rainbow House is open every week, Tuesday through Thursday. At the end of an afternoon, Thomas chuckles and sums up the efforts of the Rainbow House volunteers: “It’s amazing what old people can do.”