As he was preparing for work the morning after a tornado flattened the town of Joplin, Mo., last May, Stan Hays’s wife made a suggestion that would change his life. “She sat up in bed and said, ‘You need to go down there and help those people,’” he recalls.
Hays, 41, who lives in suburban Kansas City, Mo., about three hours from Joplin, is a sales director for Farmers Insurance. But he didn’t need to be an insurance man to understand the enormous scope of this disaster.
On his way to work, Hays, a barbecue competitor, called Jeff Stith, a fellow competitor from another area team. “We should go down there and cook some food and help those people,” he told Stith.
Stith, as it happens, was thinking the exact same thing.
The two divided up duties. By lunchtime, Hays had secured a spot in a large parking lot in a Joplin strip mall. Stith had erected a Facebook page called “Operation BBQ Relief for Joplin,” which called on fellow barbecuers to lend a hand. He also contacted Sam’s Club.
That night, Hays arrived in Joplin and spent the night with people he met on the barbecue circuit. The next morning, Hays went to the parking lot. By noon, several people had arrived with catering trailers, including the people Stan stayed with the night before. Others came, too. They arrived with everything from backyard kettle-type grills to offset smokers to competition trailers. “It looked like a [barbecue] cook-off,” he says.
The Southern Pride company delivered a large smoker-oven and a 16-foot trailer with stainless steel counters for prepping. Sam’s Club provided 1,000 pounds of raw pork butts and a 53-foot refrigeration truck. OK Foods of Arkansas contributed a gigantic custom-made trailer with a smoker on one side and grills on the other, and donated 55,000 pounds of pre-cooked chicken and 5,000 pounds of chicken wings.
“We looked like a compound.” Hays says.
That evening, as rain fell, Hays and others were seasoning pork butts in a small mobile kitchen. “Then we hear a siren, and we go, ‘Holy s***, is that a tornado siren?!’ Sure enough, it was a tornado siren.”
People were hurried into a basement shelter. “Forty-eight hours after the town had gotten leveled, and now here is this again,” Hays says. “It’s pretty sobering when you are sitting in a basement with people who lost their homes and some who have lost family members. And the siren is going off. And you see the look on their faces.”
In the middle of it all, a pal from the circuit named Will Cleaver, also from the Kansas City area, showed up. Cleaver immediately began organizing things. The next morning, he oversaw trips to shelters to ascertain their needs.
Meanwhile, Kookers Kare, a barbecue organization that works with food pantries, wrote a check for more than $7,000 for aluminum pans and other necessities. Sam’s Club ended up donating between 8,000-10,000 pounds of pork butts and ribs.
Over 11 days, the operation dished out pulled pork sandwiches, chicken, ribs, sides of canned green beans and canned corn, and fresh apples and oranges.
“We served 120,000 meals,” Hays says.
When they went back home, Hays, Stith and Cleaver created a national non-profit organization called Operation BBQ Relief to help after natural disasters strike. Among other towns, the group has served meals and helped fundraise in Harrisburg, Pa., after Tropical Storm Lee flooded the region last year, and in Harrisburg, Ill., after a tornado rampaged through the area.
Operation BBQ Relief has established various ways on its Web site for people to donate time or money. It has also hired a consulting firm that works with non-profits. “We need help to figure out our structure, to get things done, to raise money,” Hays says, adding that the group hopes to land a couple of 16-foot cargo trailers to fill with non-perishable items “so we’re not having to stop along the way to buy products, we can just go.”
The organization is currently working to establish better connections in the Southeast, in preparation for the coming hurricane season. In the meantime, Hays follows a storm chaser with a Facebook page who provides detailed information on potential trouble spots. “They’re calling for tornadoes around the Mississippi Valley area, from Tennessee to Iowa and Illinois, up in that area,” he says.
You can hear in the tone of his voice: Operation BBQ Relief is already getting ready.