By Lisa Readie Mayer
During the coming months, perhaps, even by the time you read this article – Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) will have served three million hot barbecue meals, with a side of friendship, comfort, and hope, to communities and first responders in the wake of natural disasters.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 2011 by Stan Hays and Will Cleaver after a tornado devastated the town of Joplin in their home state of Missouri. Seasoned competition barbecuers, Hays and Cleaver reasoned that their experience barbecuing at cook-offs, without access to water or power, prepared them well to man a disaster-field kitchen. So they rallied some competition buddies and the group cooked and served 120,000 meals over 13 days in Joplin, for shelters, hospitals, senior living facilities, and animal rescue groups.
Since then, OBR’s efforts have snowballed. It’s nearly 7,000 registered volunteers have responded to 54 disasters in 25 states over 317 days, serving more than 2.9 million meals. In 2018 alone, OBR cooked and served 1.1 million meals – almost double the number of meals served in 2017 – during deployments to North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Alabama, Missouri, Oregon, and California, in the aftermaths of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires.
“There were more disasters in 2017, but the disasters were of significantly greater magnitude in 2018,” says Hays.
This year, the organization will expand its reach further through its new Always Serving Project. The program is dedicated to fighting hunger and food insecurity, and supporting the military, first responders, volunteer groups, and other grassroots organizations that consistently serve communities across the country year-round.
“These are organizations we work with in times of disaster, but the need is great all year long,” says Hays. “This expanded focus fits in with our mission to provide the healing power of barbecue. When we started almost eight years ago, I never imagined the need would be this great, or that we would grow to this point.”
The Mobile Command Center for Operation BBQ Relief.
And grow they have. In late 2017, to support the increased meal requirements, the group acquired a NASCAR-style hauler-trailer and semi, and turned it into a Mobile Command Center. A separate 53-ft. flatbed trailer, outfitted with five, high-capacity, Ole Hickory smokers and nicknamed the “Boss Hogg,” is now on board to handle the growing volume of meals cooked at each disaster. A new customized truck is equipped with a generator, gas pump, and welding equipment that allows vehicles, trailers, and other gear to be repaired in the field.
To manage the increasing size and scope of the organization, Hays left his insurance-industry day job in July 2018, to become OBR’s full-time CEO and Operations director, and is responsible for all disaster-related efforts. (Co-founder Will Cleaver continues to devote countless volunteer hours to the organization.)
OBR has added two other full-time employees. Kim Groneman handles day-to-day administrations, and Jarrid “Jay” Collins, who joined the group last December, oversees all non-disaster programs under the Always Serving Project.
Collins understands the concept of “always serving.” He recently retired after 22 years in the Army, 18 of them as a Green Beret Special Forces medic. In 2007, Collins sustained severe injuries while serving in Afghanistan, ultimately resulting in the loss of his leg. With grit and perseverance, he battled back, passing all the physical tests required to remain on active duty, one of the only Green Beret amputees to do so. He has represented the United States competing in track, cycling, and wheelchair rugby in the Invictus Games and Warrior Games.
Collins may be a tough guy, but he is humble and has a tender heart. “I am blessed beyond belief. People have been there for me and helped me when I needed it,” he says. “We all have times when we can’t pull our fair share and must rely on others. Now it’s my turn to give back.”
Collins, a motivational speaker, first learned about OBR when a volunteer from the organization approached him after a talk. That led to a dinner cooked by OBR volunteers for 1,000 Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg, and a commitment by Collins to join the team as director of all non-disaster programs, including military and first-responder give-back and hunger-relief support.
He points out the parallels between OBR and the military where he spent his career. “Both come together to serve, support, and help when things go awry. We move around the world with big equipment. But, to me, it’s the people that are the most impressive and similar. They have a servant’s heart. It’s pretty amazing what (OBR does). I’m thankful to have the opportunity.
“As part of the Special Forces, we broke bread with people all over the world to build bonds and bridges,” Collins continues. “With the Always Serving Project, we want to bring people together, and inspire and serve communities through the healing power of a hot barbecue meal. People talk about the divide between citizens and the police or military – but we have to focus on what we have in common. If we can do that on an ongoing basis and show people we care, think of how much good we could do, and also how we could grow our volunteer base. We can impact people and communities one hot meal at a time.”
On May 1, OBR will launch the Always Serving Project with the “Breaking Bread Tour,” during which Collins will run, bike, and hand-cycle approximately 58 miles a day for 50 days from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay, Florida, to bring awareness to the new program and OBR’s efforts. Along the route, the tour will stop in communities with military bases and medical centers, connect with first responders and service organizations, and revisit places such as Houston and Panama City, where OBR has previously served.
“I hope to invite first responders, members of the military, service organizations, and brother and sister athletes to share the course with me,” says Collins. “It’s about the mission; it’s the message that matters. With unity, we can overcome adversity. I was taught the value of hard work as a farm kid from Montana. The work of OBR has been amazing and I think we can do a lot of good for a lot of people, year-round.”
Hays says every deployment provides reminders that validate how meaningful and sustaining the barbecue meals OBR serves can really be. As Katrina Helm, whose family endured days without power and water after Hurricane Michael, noted, “(The meals) tasted like hope… These meals and the people providing them gave us hope in some of our darkest days. The BBQ was delicious! Thank you for sharing this food with us.”
Many on the receiving end of OBR’s efforts, including Helm, have themselves gone on to volunteer with the organization. Hays says 600 new volunteers registered in Wilmington, North Carolina, during the 18 days the group was deployed there.
“They were living in tents on a soccer field, but wanted to help,” he says. “Our hashtag is, ‘The Healing Power of Barbecue.’ Everything we do is about feeding people physically and emotionally in (their) time of need. It lifts them up and it’s also really good food. We like to say, we serve the one meal that matters, millions of times.”
Recently, the group has received extensive national recognition. In 2017, Hays and OBR were nominated as part of CNN’s Heroes Program. They have been featured on Fox News and Anderson Cooper Live, and many other local and national media outlets. The group has teamed with celebrity chefs such as Guy Fieri, and has formed alliances with other national organizations, such as the Salvation Army, on deployments to expand its reach through more “boots on the ground” in disaster areas.
OBR has benefited from the support of corporate sponsors and benefactors, including those from the barbecue and hearth industries. “The (barbecue and hearth) industry continues to come through,” says Hays. “The association has been amazing. (HPBA Communications director) Emily McGee has come out to volunteer. (HPBA president) Jack (Goldman) came to our Walter Reed Medical Center event and helped serve meals. Heatilator has been the sponsor of our vehicle for the last five years. That is ending, so there is an opportunity for other companies to step into that role.
“Big Green Egg has supported us since the beginning, as well as Primo. Kamado Joe’s executive chef was with us in Florida. Blue Rhino has partnered with us for years. That relationship grew from being at Expo and is growing stronger every year. Jøtul makes a donation to OBR when consumers trade-in old stoves for new, efficient models – that effort raised around $10,000 last year from their exchange programs. Schott Glass and Bull support us. Jøtul has become one of our biggest supporters. Brad Barrett of GrillGrate runs promotions for Memorial Day and Black Friday and makes a donation for every sale. So many more. We hope to continue to grow our involvement with HPBA members this year.”
According to Hays, specific needs include more volunteers to help during deployments, as well as cash and in-kind donations to support both the disaster-relief efforts and the Always Serving Project.
At the Walter Reed Medical Center.
To learn more about OBR please visit www.operationbbqrelief.org or contact Stan Hays at email@example.com.