Operation BBQ Relief Aids Hurricane Sandy Victims
October 31, 2012
It never ceases to amaze me how kind and generous the barbecue and grilling community can be when others are in need. A perfect example of this is Operation BBQ Relief, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation created to lend support to the town of Joplin, Missouri following the destruction caused by the 2nd deadliest tornado in US history. I caught up with one of the organization’s co-founder, Stan Hays, as he and the team prepares to provide much needed relief to the victimsof Hurricane Sandy (PLEASE VISIT THEIR SITE HERE TO VOLUNTEER OR TO DONATE TO THE RELIEF EFFORT).
Let’s start with the basics, Stan. Tell us a little about Operation BBQ Relief and how it came to be.
Operation BBQ Relief is a not-for-profit corporation (501c3 status pending) founded in May 2011 in response to a need for relief efforts in tornado-stricken Joplin, Missouri. In the wake of massive destruction, competition barbecue teams from eight states answered the call to help feed displaced families and police, fire, National Guard and emergency personnel. The group was able to serve over 120,000 barbecue meals in less than two weeks. As a result of efforts in Joplin, Operation BBQ Relief was born. The Joplin operation will be used as a model for future disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods and other tornadoes. We are ready to respond to natural disaster emergencies across the United States.
What inspired you to create this program?
Because of the success of the operation in Joplin, and because we came away with life-changing experiences while serving the victims and first responders, we decided the same model could be replicated on a national level whenever natural disasters strike in the United States. We were all so moved by our experience in Joplin that we wanted to help others in their times of need, so Operation BBQ Relief, Inc. became a reality. We have, in fact, replicated it once on a smaller scale – after the Susquehanna River flooded due to the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. OBR once again rose to the occasion and fed over 5,000 meals in three days in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Our efforts there were led by Jim Knepper of Harrisburg. Jim came to Joplin to help and saw firsthand how OBR operated.
Who are the founders and some of the sponsors?
Founders: Jeff Stith (Big Creek BBQ), Stan Hays (County Line Smokers) and Will Cleaver (Sticks n Chicks BBQ). Although we don’t have permanent sponsors, we do have companies who are committing to help us with donations when possible. Some of those include Sam’s Club, OK Foods and Western Wood.
What has been the reaction of the people you have fed? Are there any stories that stand out in your memory?
For the first responders and emergency personnel, when they came to our location, it was almost like the weight of the world came off their shoulders. We were located about six blocks north of the path of destruction and for these people, coming to have a meal at our site was a return to some degree of normalcy in a time of unbelievable destruction, even if only for a half hour. For the victims we fed, it was that and more. Many arrived at our location looking completely shell-shocked. Often, we were providing the only hot meal these people had eaten in days. Some had lost everything. Some didn’t talk much at all, so you didn’t really know their stories, though the look of appreciation on their faces for something as simple as a meal was something none of us will forget. As part of their healing process (according to a local doctor), a few Joplin residents, including some who had lost everything, came out and actually helped us serve barbecue. Some of these people have developed great friendships with our volunteers and the OBR organization.
How many people have you fed and in how many locations? How many pounds of BBQ do you think you’ve gone through?
We fed 120,000 meals in eleven days according to our calculations. During lunch and dinner, we fed people not only at our cook location but also in five or six shelters including the Humane Society (over 100 people working around the clock to help with rescued pets to patch up injuries and locate owners) and the triage makeshift hospital St. John’s Medical Center had set up (their hospital took a direct hit from the monster tornado). Additionally, the Salvation Army was picking up between 3,000 and 4,000 meals per day from us to deliver themselves. Finally, we had several groups of volunteers load up food and water in their vehicles and drive out into the lesser-damaged areas to deliver it to citizens right in their homes. In many cases, these folks could not leave their house because they had no vehicles remaining. And even if they did, they did not dare leave for fear of losing more possessions to looters. In adding up the meat donations from Sam’s Club and OK Foods, we have determined that we went through close to 60,000 pounds of barbecue meat.
What does it take to coordinate a BBQ relief effort of these proportions? How many volunteers did you need and how did you assemble them so quickly?
We couldn’t have done this without social media. Facebook was our lifeline out of Joplin to the rest of the world. We were able to round up enough volunteers through our Facebook page and relied on the coordination of a few people back in Kansas City who scheduled the arrivals of daily workers. Will Cleaver is an excellent project manager and we were able to utilize his skills in keeping everything coordinated on the ground. We also had Randy Heimgartner, a barbecue restaurant owner from Lake of the Ozarks who ran the cook area like a professional kitchen and kept everyone busy and on task. During the course of eleven days, we estimate we had approximately 250 volunteers from eight states. Joplin is an extreme example. We don’t anticipate that many natural disasters will be of the magnitude of Joplin but either way, we plan to be ready. Basically, it takes the ability to secure a location to set up, and to round up sufficient volunteers. Most importantly, it takes finding companies who will partner with you to provide food to cook. We had countless companies help in Joplin. They are all listed on our website. We appreciate all of them because without them 120,000 meals would not have been possible.
How can the Grilling.com community get involved in the current Hurricane Sandy relief effort and future projects?
We need volunteers all across the country to sign up for our database through our website. We can use anyone, whether you are a cook, judge, organizer or just someone with a love for barbecue and for helping those in need. The reason we feel we’re perfect for this type of relief effort is that competition and catering barbecue cooks are used to setting up in parking lots in less than desirable conditions many weekends throughout the year. We have cooking and catering supplies readily available and often already packed in our vehicles. We can respond in a moment’s notice. The people who sign up for our database at www.OperationBBQRelief.org should be willing and able to take a shift or two during the duration of any operation in their area or region to which OBR launches during natural disasters. Additionally, we can always use cash donations and donations of barbecue related products and supplies.