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Operation BBQ volunteers bring culinary help to disaster scenes across country

After an EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Okla., in May 2013, Operation BBQ Relief volunteers served more than 143,000 hot BBQ meals to victims and first responders in 12 days.
After an EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Okla., in May 2013, Operation BBQ Relief volunteers served more than 143,000 hot BBQ meals to victims and first responders in 12 days. Courtesy photo

On May 22, 2011, a multiple-vortex tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people, injuring nearly 1,200 and leaving devastation in its path.

From their homes in Pleasant Hill, Stan Hays and Will Cleaver felt called to action.

“I knew I wanted to help, and the only way I knew how to help was to cook barbecue,” said Hays, a Grand Champion pitmaster who, like Cleaver, had spent years refining his cooking skills.

Within 24 hours, these longtime friends had formed a plan. They pooled their resources, contacted fellow barbecue masters and headed to Joplin to cook and serve meals. Volunteers, including competition barbecue teams from eight states, served more than 120,000 meals in 13 days.

Inspired to do more after first disaster relief effort, Hays and Cleaver founded Operation BBQ Relief.

Since 2011, the nonprofit has grown exponentially. They’ve served barbecue to help victims at dozens of disasters, including tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires. During 2018, the all-volunteer team served 1.3 million barbecue meals to victims and first responders at sites across the country.

Last September, more than 1,800 volunteers served nearly 325,000 hot meals in 16 days during the Hurricane Florence relief effort; in October they served 808,000 meals in 30 days after Hurricane Michael.

“We all work together as a team, and volunteers are the heart of that team,” Hays said.

As of 2019, more than 7,000 people from across the country are registered Operation BBQ Relief volunteers. From Lee’s Summit to Olathe, every city in the KC metro is represented. These individuals, together with business partners and trade organizations, bring expertise and skill to the organization’s operations.

Hays says that a large number of volunteers come from restaurant and catering professions — or are retired from that industry. Some are photographers, IT professionals or food bloggers. Many are mechanics who come from fields like aircraft or auto body work.

“The blue-collar volunteers are in extremely critical roles, because they can fix things,” Hays said. “From smokers to generators to powers washers, there are always a lot of repairs on a deployment.”

The Robinson family, owners of Copper Express, a Dallas-based transportation company, bring their expertise in logistics to deployments.

“When the 2015 tornado hit in our hometown of Rowlett, Texas, (Operation BBQ Relief) came to the rescue,” said Luke Robinson. “The hope they gave, and their generosity, inspired us to do the same for other communities suffering from disaster.”

In their role, the Robinsons frequently begin strategy on transportation logistics ahead of the disaster.

“We can actually start planning a response before a disaster occurs, especially in terms of weather events,” Robinson said. “We can coordinate and dispatch equipment and supplies into an area, even before the event has hit.

“However, in most situations, we have very little time to react. Our volunteers go above and beyond to move resources into these areas as quickly and humanely as possible.”

Operation BBQ Relief’s rapid, organized disaster response also requires behind-the-scenes planning and preparation, year round.

“There’s so much more that happens behind the scenes before, during and after a disaster than people realize,” Hays said. “There are volunteers you never see on the ground at a deployment, or who never get recognition, but they’re so important.”

At Operation BBQ Relief’s Shawnee location, volunteers organize fundraisers and community service events. They also oversee the financial operations.

At the 4,500 square-foot warehouse in Pleasant Hill, a large team manages operations there. These volunteers are often called on to organize deployments at a moment’s notice. They can pull supplies and equipment, load trucks and get them on the road in less than two hours.

Jim Rude, of Overland Park, began volunteering at the warehouse last year, after learning Hays and Cleaver had been selected as CNN Heroes.

“Working with people that care so much about others has opened my eyes,” he said “They’re not looking to gain anything and just put everything aside to help others.”

Like Rude, many volunteers experience the positive impact of their service at the frontline of disaster. David Marks, owner of five barbecue restaurants in Pennsylvania, is Operation BBQ Relief ’s marketing manager and has worked at numerous disasters.

“We help people at the worst time in their lives, people who’ve lost everything and don’t know what their next step will be,” Marks said. “When they have that first hot meal, it gives them energy. It reminds them of good times they’ve had, and that those times will return again.

“When we serve them meals, we’re holding the hearts of these people.”

Learn more about Operation BBQ Relief and the organization’s volunteer opportunities at operationbbqrelief.org.

Looking for a local barbecue experience? The Olathe BBQ Championship is coming to Stagecoach Park March 16-17.

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