The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with Oklahoma Gazette to highlight people in our community who stand out for their leadership, kindness and good deeds. Read this story on the Oklahoma Gazette website here
When she emerged from prison in 2016, Stacey Yarbrough didn’t have much of a resume. The weight of 11 felonies heavily hindered her ability to get employment or find a place to live. She happened upon the soft opening of the downtown Sunnyside Diner where a meeting with co-owner Aly Cunningham would change her life.
“No one would hire me,” Yarbrough said. “My charges range from theft and larceny and embezzlement. In short, I was a thief and a liar. My family didn’t trust me and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I was homeless. No one would give me a chance. I went everywhere and anywhere, but with that many felonies, it’s a lot. I walked into Sunnyside and all the news cameras were there covering the opening. I sat down and ate with Aly while they were filming and she said, ‘If you’re really serious, come back.’ So I went back after they closed, as she asked and she hired me as a dishwasher.”
Yarbrough worked her way up the ranks at Sunnyside Diner, moving from washing dishes to the front of the house and eventually leadership. But the trials of her journey shaped her, leaving her heart open and her purpose clear — to extend second chances and uplift those who no one else will.
“Being homeless gave me a different view on what it’s really like to be out there and not know what tomorrow holds. Just living in their footsteps for a bit, I haven’t lived as long as some of them, just a bit, but it was enough. When I’d get my paycheck, I would go get a bag and fill it with necessities like hygiene items, socks and stuff, and go find people to give them to, pick them up and go eat at McDonald’s or something and just talk to them. It’s amazing. The stories you hear of how they ended up where they ended up. The first person I ever met was an attorney out of Tulsa. His wife and child were killed in a horrible car accident. He turned into an alcoholic and lost everything, lost his ability to practice law and was on the street. You hear a lot of different kinds of stories. A lot of people don’t realize how close they are to becoming one of them,” she said.
When Aly and Sunnyside co-owner Shannon Roper learned about what Stacey was doing in her free time, they offered more help so she could reach more people. They developed a street team comprised of Happy Plate Concepts employees and community volunteers. Throughout the month, the group prepares meals and hands out bags of food, water and necessities to those in need. At the beginning of the school year, they fill backpacks with school supplies for children in low-income areas, sponsor field trips and host fundraisers for local charitable organizations such as Positive Tomorrows, Pivot, Special Care and Hope Alive. During winter, they team up with Pine Pantry and Project Winter Watch to host coat and food donation drives.
“Before COVID we would do bag drops twice a month, around 400 bags and that was just one diner. We’d make peanut butter sandwiches, chips, anything with protein. They get hand wipes and hygiene items so they can clean themselves up. We’re making a big push to get back out there. Just last night, we met up at the diner and loaded up 50 cases of water and just hit the streets. We went to the Day Center, the Jesus House, any place we could find people,” Yarbrough said.
Stacey’s practice of paying it forward doesn’t end with the street team. Her exemplary leadership earned her a store management position when Happy Plate Concepts opened a fourth Sunnyside Diner location in Edmond, allowing her to extend to others the same opportunities offered to her.
“I do a lot in drug and alcohol recovery and I’m really big on second chances. They’ve allowed me to hire felons, people who have been in lockdown for 25 years. Some of them make it, some of them don’t, but we’re that shot that we can really see if they’ve got it, and they’re going to do well. I hope to tap into their resources and have one to two sober living homes going next year. So I’ve got big plans and big goals. I think it would be amazing if we could buy a restaurant, fix it up and it be a workplace to those in sober living and transition homes coming out of prison. Because we’ve got to do better on justice reform, we just have to. We have to teach these people skills and how to reenter society and deal with their problems,” Yarbrough said.
Stacey offers a unique perspective on the realities people in homelessness face and the limited resources available to those coming out of prison. She hopes to help change the stigma, create awareness and get more people on board with changing policies surrounding mental health and increase focus on justice reform.
“When I was in prison, I learned that mental illness is a truly real thing. About 80 percent of our incarcerated, including myself, have some form of mental illness. Without the proper medications — and a lot of people can’t get medication — it only gets worse. Hearing the stories, seeing the stories and then personally experiencing the stories in prison, you learn different things about people. It’s like cooking. If they would have just had the right ingredients, they might have a completely different life … Let’s give people the right ingredients and help them succeed,” Yarbrough said.
“Not every felon that walks out of those prison gates is going to be like me, that’s blessed enough to run into someone like Aly. And of those that do, not all of them are going to make it, just like not all the homeless are going to get that opportunity and follow through with that opportunity. But if we can capture some of them, that’s just that many more lives that we’ve changed to where we have more resources to help the ones that can’t. And there’s some that just can’t, but they deserve help too.”
Learn more about the Sunnyside Diner Street Team and Stacey’s community projects at happyplateconcepts.com/community.