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Weekend ‘tent city’ meets needs of thousands

No shoes yet.

Heather Chambers and her family had waited in line 45 minutes Saturday, but once at the front, no luck. No size 7 tennis shoes. Come back later, they were told.

No matter. People have been taking such good care of them, says Jean Morrison, Heather’s grandmother. When she was hungry Friday and couldn’t find any food, a volunteer came to help.

“I’m diabetic and I had the shakes yesterday, and that little social worker was so sweet. She carried my plate and everything,” Morison says. Without the shoes, but with X-rays and medical charts in hand, Heather, her mother and her grandmother went to have lunch.

They walked past the big olive tent, got some food and entered another tent. It looks like war, like something out of the television series “M*A*S*H,” but it’s Arkansas, and it’s real. Everywhere it’s green, green and more olive green. It looks like a warmhearted prisoner-of-war camp.

Food, clothing, shelter and more

For one weekend, 1,000 soldiers and civilian volunteers have teamed up to create Operation Care beside the Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock.

More than 2,100 people had come for something — a meal, a checkup, a coat.A giant Slinky of olive-drab razor wire rings the perimeter of the field hospital. Inside, volunteers hand out clothing, food and more. Anyone who needs it gets medical treatment, counseling, food, showers, a place to sleep. The Arkansas Army National Guard, Baptist Health, and the Arkansas Interagency Council on the Homeless are sponsoring the program, but numerous agencies participate, from the Union Rescue Mission to the Internal Revenue Service.

Organizers call Operation Care the largest field hospital the state has ever seen. It opened Friday, and by Saturday evening more than 2,100 people had come for something — a meal, a checkup, a coat. The program will be open today — its final day — from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, accompanied by a bodyguard, the only other man in the compound wearing a suit, strode in for an unannounced tour Saturday.

Tucker caught many people off guard.

“It’s, um, hey, it’s um, it’s the governor!” one man shouted, pointing, as he recognized Tucker.

Next, a dentist in fatigues jokingly hid his Milky Way bar from view as the governor came up to shake his hand.

In the next tent, the governor declined an offer for a free haircut. “Next you’ll be asking me to take a shower!” he joked. And just as the governor went to take a look at the showers, Ron Nagel of Little Rock stepped out of the tent.

“Jim— Guy— Tucker!” Nagel said, stunned.

“How are you?” the governor asked.

“I’m clean, Governor!” he said.

A long line of men, women and children — lots of children — led up to the field hospital‘s entrance Saturday morning. They stood silently, patiently, as sentries let people in, one at a time.

Tammy Chambers heard about Operation Care on TV. Free medical care, free dental care, free social services. Free food. She said the surroundings didn’t bother her at all.

“It’s military out here, but we just feel like they want to help people,” she said.

Things became tough for Chambers after a recent divorce. She doesn’t have a job. She had to move into her mother’s North Little Rock house, where she shares a bedroom with Heather.

“I’ve got a home because of my mother, but if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have no place,” Chambers said.

The three women waited in line to get into the compound for about 45 minutes Friday. Saturday, they were on their second visit. As they ate their beef stew, rice, and cookies in the mess tent, they described their adventure the day before.

After the guards in camouflage had searched their bags, Chambers, her mother, Jean Morrison, and her daughter, Heather, checked in. It was the first of the green tents. Like the rest of the compound, it smelled like canvas, military canvas.

From there, they went to the medical screening tent. Volunteers took a medical history and sent them on their way.

First, counselors offered Chambers psychological counseling, as well as help with housing, food stamps and Medicaid. Over the course of the day, all three in the family received medical treatment.

Doctors X-rayed Morrison’s hip and told her she had a pinched sciatic nerve. A pediatrician examined Heather and prescribed something for her cough. Next, the dental tent.

Fortunately, the dentist knew sign language, which put Heather at ease. The 12-year-old is a student at the Arkansas School for the Deaf.

“I was afraid of getting a shot,” Heather signs to her mother.

‘She could be my mom’

“Oh, I’m so glad I found you!” a woman tells Morrison as she peers under a flap of the mess tent.

It’s “that little social worker” from the day before. Her name is Jeanina O’Bannon and she‘s a volunteer from Family Service Agency of Central Arkansas, a nonprofit counseling organization.

“I have something special for you, Heather, and for you, too,” she tells Morrison.

After meeting the three women Friday night, O’Bannon went home to Lonoke and raided her mother’s closet, her niece’s and her own. She couldn’t bear to see Morrison shivering in the cold.

“I just escorted her over here and fell in love with her. She could be my mom.”

“I hope somebody’d do it for me if I was down on my luck. A lot of people are just one paycheck and one house payment away” from needing help, she said.

O’Bannon later caught up with the three again. She led them into a tent, and two soldiers in camouflage and combat boots brought in several plastic bags full of clothing, including jackets.

As Morrison chose a few warm coats she said, “Well, I’m gonna dress up!” Heather decided on a brown bomber jacket and a fluorescent parka.

As the family waited for more dental treatment — Heather needed to get her teeth cleaned — a Baptist Health volunteer caught up with them, grinning and carrying three boxes of tennis shoes.

Heather sat down and carefully laced up the size 8 Spaldings, making sure to loop the laces through the hole in the tongue. Too big.

Carefully brushing the grass from her sock, Heather tried on the 7’s. Just right.