Rescue group brings relief in the form of barbecue
May 23rd, 2013
06:00 PM ET
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For most people, a barbecue emergency would entail running out of buns or over-charring the chicken wings. For the men and women of Operation BBQ Relief, that means it's time to drive into a disaster zone, fire up their smokers and serve hot meals to people on worst day of their lives.

There is something about barbecue that brings out the best in humankind. It's an inherently generous undertaking. No one makes just enough for a couple of plates; the time and effort just wouldn't be worth it. A giant hunk of meat - a shoulder, brisket, slab or ribs or even a whole, delicious beast - is cause for celebration and camaraderie.

It also presents a built-in invitation in the form of a smoky, meaty scent that acts as a homing beacon to your backyard. If you 'cue it up, they will come.

But after tornadoes laid waste to the town of Moore, Oklahoma, earlier this week, many residents were left without a backyard to call their own - let alone a smoker, tongs or even a plate from which to eat. That's when Operation BBQ Relief rolled in.


Read AC360 411: Inside the Oklahoma Tornado Disaster Zone

The all-volunteer army of competitive barbecue teams and backyard enthusiasts banded together in May 2011 when similarly destructive tornadoes devastated the town of Joplin, Missouri, killing 140 people and injuring more than 1,000. Founders Stan Hays, Jeff Stith and Will Cleaver - all veterans of the competition scene - put out a call to their barbecue brethren: it's time to hit the road.

Competitive barbecuers are accustomed to spending their spare time, cash and passion on cooking food in quantity, many miles from home. Trophies, prizes and bragging rights are the common goal, but this time, the stakes were even higher.

Teams from eight states hauled their rigs, smokers and supplies to an empty parking lot in Joplin, set up camp and served over 120,000 hot meals to first responders, rescue workers and displaced families. If tornado victims couldn't get to them, the volunteers trucked food directly to wherever they were staying within the footprint of the storm.

It felt good. It felt right. And sadly, they've had to do it over and over again.

Under the leadership of Hays, Stith and Cleaver, the group officially formed as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation across 50 states. With the help of cash and supplies donated by private citizens and businesses across the country and partnerships with local churches and disaster organizations like Red Cross and the Salvation Army, Operation BBQ Relief has mobilized to many other disaster zones like the Colorado wildfires, the paths of Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy and the site of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

A "Founders Club" and "Grand Champion Club" of around 100 people provide yearly donations to cover administrative costs and the ground throws occasional fundraisers. All donations from the public go directly toward feeding victims and first responders.

Volunteers take vacation time from their day jobs to participate, and as soon as word goes out over the group's Facebook page and Twitter feed, they're ready to mobilize. Over 77 days of deployment, OBR has served up around 327,000 hearty, hand-crafted meals since the fateful decision to head toward the chaos in Joplin - and earned at least that many smiles, hugs and heartfelt thank-yous in return.

Amy Mills is the daughter of barbecue legend Mike Mills and co-author of "Peace, Love and Barbecue." She pitched in alongside the group's volunteers last year in the aftermath of tornadoes in Harrisburg, Illinois, and said that, "Operation BBQ Relief provides comfort in its most basic form: a lovingly prepared meal. I saw firsthand the profound impact a simple, delicious, hot meal can have during a time of overwhelming crisis."

That's what keeps Stith going. In addition to his competitive barbecue brothers and sisters, he has seen some familiar faces in the crowd. "What are also incredible to us are the storm victims themselves who often show up to volunteer so that they can pay it forward to others," he shared in an e-mail. "We have made some lifetime friends from some of these people."

operation bbq relief

But man cannot live by barbecue alone (though surely many have tried). While pulled pork barbecue is usually at the center of the menu, volunteers try to add a starch and vegetables to every meal and fresh fruit when it's available. Cooks may also feel free to get creative with the ingredients at hand. In Joplin, volunteers took pre-sliced apples donated by a local Sam’s Club, put them into foil pans with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and crafted impromptu baked apples in their smokers.

On the ground in Moore, brisket, pork and vegetables are on the menu. While victims of the storm don't know what the future holds, at least tonight, they won't have to face it alone or on an empty stomach.

Learn more about Operation BBQ Relief and visit CNN Impact Your World for more ways to help.

More on food, grieving and comfort:
Chefs with Issues: 'People hurt, we feed."
Serving up comfort food after a tragedy
Boston restaurants suffer loss in wake of bombing
Serving up gratitude in troubled times
Bringing healing to Newtown, one pie at a time
Filling the void – eating after a funeral
Roasted chicken soup for the banged-up soul
Pouring whiskey in the wound – eating and drinking after 9/11

Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.

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Filed under: Barbecue • Competitive BBQ • Content Partner • Disaster • Favorites • Feed the Soul • Tornado • TV-Anderson Cooper 360


soundoff (24 Responses)
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    August 20, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  3. mountainlady

    Good people are everywhere. Goddess bless each and every one.

    May 25, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  4. achepotle

    I am praying for the victims and am giving money to faith-based first responders. The most important thing is that those touched by the storm accept Jesus as their Saviour...after that, other aid agencies should be allowed in to give them towels and pet food and whatnot.

    May 24, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • wootdude

      @achepotle, I don't want to sound like a troll or anything, but are you saying that if the people don't accept Jesus then they shouldn't be helped? Because that doesn't exactly sound very Christlike.

      May 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • mountainlady

      You would use a tragic disaster to force your religion on people? Shame on you. You should see about finding a little absolution for yourself as you've obviously lost the true spirit of Jesus. I would pray for you but I stopped being a Christian because of people like you.

      May 25, 2013 at 12:38 am |
    • Popatop

      I don't think the tornado showed any preferance to those who were praying as hard as they ever had, or to those who where damning God as the storm took their houses. I doubt any of the fine people who donate their time really care if the people of Moore have found Jesus or not. Both groups ended up in the same boat.

      May 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • What?!?

      You seem like you are trying to be a follower of Christ, and yet have no clue what he truly would have you do (or would have done himself).

      May 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  5. Erlo

    This is fantastic. I love BBQ! And what a good way to help out.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Oklahoman

    People forget that we had three days of tornadoes here in Oklahoma and some of the smaller towns that were devastated before the Moore tornado have been nearly forgotten. But this local BBQ truck is going out and feeding those rural areas: https://www.facebook.com/PurdyQ and https://twitter.com/PurdyQBBQ

    May 24, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  7. JAB

    I may not eat BBQ – I'm vegetarian – but what these folks are doing is wonderful!! Thanks to all who have participated. I am sure everyone in Moore and other affected areas really appreciate it!

    May 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  8. hkte

    Awww! What a wonderful gesture and I know so greatly appreciated! I know the Lord will bless you many times over. Thanks for your acts of kindness to these people.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  9. Debbie

    What a wonderful endeavor! A bit of normalcy and happiness in the middle of so much chaos and sadness.
    Thank you volunteers and donors. Bless you all!

    May 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  10. EastCoast trapped Inland

    I always love to hear of the kindness others bring to their fellow man. I'm humbled to know that these people give of their time, money, and love at the drop of a hat, and to total strangers!

    May 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  11. Dave

    It may seem like such a small thing to the providers – but anyone like me who has been through a disaster knows that every little thing someone does for you in a time of need is remembered long afterwards. We went through a flood in Texas in 1994 and I have great memories of total strangers opening their homes to us, taking in our pets, driving our muddy bodies around in brand new cars etc.

    I wish we had had BBQ relief back then!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  12. erin

    This article made me smile. Awesome group of people providing a sense of comfort and home for thoes who need it!

    May 24, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  13. Sam

    We were so blessed to have them in Joplin after 2011. Keep up the great work, guys!

    May 24, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  14. ohioan

    What an awesome idea. With the competition bbq people already having portable bbq rigs and trucks to haul it's a great way for them to donate their skills to help. They don't need a kitchen, just a space to park. Way to go!

    May 24, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  15. WHATUP

    WOW that is just COOL dude, real great folks here, thank God and thank all of you folks, job well done!!!

    May 24, 2013 at 9:25 am |
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