A visitor to a local nonprofit organization once expressed a desire to sing the praises of a friendly woman who came to her aid there.

The visitor wanted to tell the woman’s boss how helpful she had been, having no idea that the individual providing assistance was the boss at the Surayya Anne Foundation of Oklahoma City.

DeBorah Boneta, the foundation’s executive director, recently shared that story of her interaction with a client as testament to her mission to protect dignity of visitors seeking help from Surayya Anne-OKC, 3840 N St. Clair Ave.

The reason: She’s walked in their shoes.

“Having been homeless before, having been on state assistance before, having buried a husband and knowing what it’s like to raise children as a single mom, I know our foundation serves the working poor,” Boneta, 50, said during a recent interview.

She and others involved with the foundation are preparing for several big projects in the coming days.

A free beef distribution will be Saturday and Sunday, in partnership with Sabri Foods Grocery and Restaurant, said Boneta, who also serves as director of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City’s Mercy Food Pantry.

She said the foundation also is gearing up for the second annual “Sisterhood Through Diversity: A Fashion Experience” set for Sept. 30 at Surayya Anne-OKC. Boneta said the fashion show will feature food items from different cultures and fashions in various styles and traditions, including American, African, Turkish and Pakistani.

The event will be a celebration of cultural diversity but “more important than that, it’s about sisterhood,” she said.

Mission to serve all

The Surayya Anne Foundation was founded in 2008 after a group of Muslim women in Tulsa decided they wanted to provide a haven for women in need. The nonprofit offers transitional shelter for women and children and also assistance for individuals experiencing other types of crises.

The Oklahoma City arm of the foundation opened 17 months ago and offers a variety of assistance, including food, utility assistance, counseling, clothing, life and interview skills and bus passes. Boneta said funds raised through the Sept. 30 fashion show will go toward the foundation’s program designed to help formerly incarcerated women successfully re-enter society.

She said the foundation’s goal is to help people gain independence and stability. For example, one man recently needed assistance because he had obtained a job but would not get his first paycheck for another 30 days. Boneta said the foundation provided him with food and fuel cards to get him back and forth to work until he got paid.

She said the foundation provided more than 10,000 assists since January, and about 90 percent of the foundation’s clients are non-Muslim, although about 95 percent of its funding comes from Muslims.

The foundation’s volunteers are 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent non-Muslim.

Boneta said such diversity is a good thing.

“It’s all about serving humanity,” she said.

Mom on the move

Boneta has won accolades in recent months for her compassion and her efforts to move Surayya Anne-OKC forward. In March, she was named “2017 Muslim of the Year” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter.

She said she has been on an interesting journey since converting from the Christian faith she grew up in to Islam 10 years ago.

Boneta said she grew curious about the Islamic faith after reading faith literature left at her home by Muslim friends of her first husband who visited him before his death. Boneta said by reading about Islam, she found answers to her questions about faith, who she wanted to be and who she was.

She said she reached out to the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and made the decision to convert.

Boneta said she worked for the state of Oklahoma for about 20 years, however she needed to quit her job to care for son DeKharai, who is quadriplegic. Boneta said she was the secretary for Imad Enchassi, the Islamic Society’s founder and senior imam, for a while before becoming leader of Surayya Anne-OKC.

Currently, Boneta juggles her duties as mom to DeKharai with her role as leader of the foundation and Mercy Food Pantry. She said her three other children, who are grown, often assist her.

Boneta said she has medical issues of her own, but they have not stopped her from continuing to help others. She said she battles congestive heart failure and systemic lupus.

“I tell people ‘I have it. It does not have me,’ ” she said of her health issues.

Meanwhile, she said one of the rewards of leading Surayya Anne has been building relationships with people who need assistance.

“I don’t see them as clients, I see them as extended family,” she said.

“A lot of them don’t even know I am the executive director, and that’s good. I think titles are good for cans of soup. I don’t think they are good for people.”

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