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Operation BBQ Relief Made It Their Mission To Give Back To Victims And First Responders

BBQ hobbyist Stan Hays felt moved to serve victims and first responders. Now, his act of love feeds millions!

Stan Hays’ heart filled with sadness as, in May 2011, he watched the news footage of the devastation left behind after a tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri—just 2 hours away from his home in the Kansas City area.

Thinking about all those people who had lost everything, Stan’s heart ached. He went to bed feeling hopeless and helpless. Then his wife, Amy, looked at him and said: “You should go down there.”

Stan was a barbecue hobbyist who, in his downtime from working in the insurance industry, competed in regional cooking contests. Amy urged him to round up several of his barbecue friends and fellow contestants, go to Joplin and grill hot meals for people hit by the tornado
She’s right, Stan thought and the next morning, he phoned his friend and fellow BBQ enthusiast Jeff Stith, who said: “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

All the food is grilled on-site for Operation BBQ Relief
Stan knew he could make a difference by providing meals through Operation BBQ ReliefOperation BBQ Relief

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Grilling up love

As the two friends shared their idea, several other barbecue aficionados quickly came together and, after gathering supplies — Sam’s Club, which hosts a national BBQ competition, donated 1,000 pounds of pork — they headed to Joplin.

Stan’s heart broke when he saw some people staying in the shells of their destroyed homes. They didn’t want to leave because it was all they had left, and they feared losing their last possessions to looters.

Operation BBQ Relief makes meals on the spot to support those in need
Operation BBQ Relief makes meals on the spot to support those in needOperation BBQ Relief

Grateful they could offer some sense of comfort, the group set up BBQ stations in a parking lot just north of the tornado’s worst damage. As word spread about the makeshift eatery, businesses and individuals started donating supplies­ — like plates, aluminum foil and trash bags — and food, including a truck full of bread for sandwiches. The volunteers then set up more food tents in damaged neighborhoods and served some 120,000 meals to grateful residents and first responders over almost two weeks.

Volunteers are humbled to help with Operation BBQ Relief
Volunteers are humbled to help with Operation BBQ ReliefOperation BBQ Relief

But as they packed up to head home, the volunteers realized Joplin wasn’t a one-time thing. Disasters, like tornadoes and hurricanes, happen regularly. And often, it takes a while for help to arrive from relief organizations.

Once home, Stan and Jeff, along with another friend, Will Cleaver, decided to fill that gap and started Operation BBQ Relief.

People thank Operation BBQ Relief workers with tears in their eyes
People thank Operation BBQ Relief workers with tears in their eyesOperation BBQ Relief

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Feeding hearts

Today, the organization has some 18,000 registered volunteers all over the country.

Michele Rusek, of Gate City, Virginia, got involved after watching reports of flooding in West Virginia. She told her husband, Joey—a retired cop who owned a barbecue food truck—to volunteer. Then, when a hurricane hit North Carolina, Michele joined him and was hooked. “The thought of handing someone that one hot meal that can get them through the day—that meant everything to me,” says Michele, 53. “It was certainly life-changing.”

Since 2011, the organization has served more than 11 million meals at natural and man-made disasters
Since 2011, the organization has served more than 11 million meals at natural and man-made disastersOperation BBQ Relief

John Wheeler, a volunteer since 2011 from Southaven, Mississippi, loves helping and the camaraderie among volunteers.“I fell in love with it,” says John, 58. “We do it and we’re like, ‘Man I love spending time with you, and I’d love to see you soon, but I hope we don’t.’”

To date, Operation BBQ Relief has served more than 11 million meals to people during times of crisis, both natural disasters and the man-made kind. Volunteers have barbecued for funerals of first responders killed in the line of duty, and they have helped victims of explosions.
In July, the organization is expanding its mission, opening a lakeside camp for injured military and first responders and their families to stay and recover.

Thousands have been fed through Operation BBQ Relief
Thousands have been fed through Operation BBQ ReliefOperation BBQ Relief

“At the end of the day, food is the greatest unifier in the world,” Stan, 53, says. “It’s humbling to have somebody thank you for something as simple as a pulled pork sandwich when they’re possibly going through the worst time of their life. They thank us with tears in their eyes. That food means more than nourishment. It means they’re not forgotten.”

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