BBQ to the Res-Q!

By Andrea Brown Ross | Photography courtesy of Operation BBQ Relief

Operation BBQ Relief is a welcome site during natural disasters. The non-profit organization has provided more than 2 million meals since beginning in 2011.
There are moments in life which can have a profound effect on us… a time when we realize we will never be the same. For John David Wheeler, a volunteer with Operation BBQ Relief, his time came about three years ago. While working as a first-time volunteer serving hot meals to tornado survivors in Moore, Oklahoma, he caught a glimpse of something that he couldn’t shake.
“I saw seven crosses erected for the students and teachers who had lost their lives. It was like the crosses kept looking at me, even after I returned home. At that point, I knew I wanted to continue to help with this great organization,” explained Wheeler, who lives in Southaven, Mississippi.
Operation BBQ Relief has provided nearly 2 million meals to displaced residents and emergency personnel during times of disaster since being founded in 2011. Classified as a disaster relief organization, it is run completely by volunteers. Beginning with providing relief efforts in Joplin, Missouri, the organization has now responded to disasters in more than 24 states and utilized over 6,000 volunteers.
As Wheeler explained, the organization began by a group of volunteers showing up to help. They didn’t call anyone ahead of time per se. They just came, set up, and started feeding the displaced. Now recognized as a reputable relief organization, corporations often donate supplies, including food and equipment. Wheeler, who currently serves as one of the heads of “deployments” or relief efforts, elaborated on how the organization responds to a disaster.
“I get there as quickly as possible and begin setting up generators, lights, and smokers. We prepare to meet semi-trucks from our corporate sponsors supplying particular food items,” he said.
Wheeler continued,” It’s amazing how big our footprint can be. Sometimes we take up as much as two football fields with supplies, volunteers, and trucks. We sleep wherever we can, whether it be personal RVs, campers, hotels, church classrooms, or even pitch tents.”
Having completed 12 deployments thus far, Wheeler commented that the organization has to be ready for anything.
“On my second deployment, to Washington, Illinois, we pulled in with 70-degree weather. When we woke up the next morning, it was about four degrees! This created a unique challenge trying to barbecue. Everything was frozen or trying to freeze, including some of our equipment, along with the food.”
            A spectrum of disaster relief opportunities happened in 2017 – from the wildfires in California to the hurricane and subsequent flooding in Florida. However, the organization’s largest relief effort was in August 2017 in Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas. Dealing with the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane, known as Hurricane Harvey, and 40 inches of rain, Operation BBQ Relief provided 371,760 meals in 11 days.  
            “Our average cost is about $1 a meal. We call in for more supplies as warranted and as available. We also will cook donations from the locals. For example, we had a deployment where a local grocery store had lost power. They brought perishable items to us, and we prepared those. We feed citizens, first responders, and other people who may be involved with cleanup efforts,” Wheeler explained.  

Volunteers stay for as little or as long as they can. For some, this may mean one day; for others, they may volunteer almost two weeks.
            “I’m not in the same situation others are in,” said Wheeler. “Being self-employed as a home builder and restaurant partner, I have the flexibility to go and stay as needed. While we were deployed in Houston, I actually came home to attend an alderman meeting on a Tuesday evening. I saw my kids, slept in my own bed, and then headed back on Wednesday.”
            Wheeler stressed that volunteer efforts are appreciated regardless of their duration. And while not everyone is a barbecue pit master, they may lend their talents and time to other aspects of the organization, such as marketing or as a warehouse volunteer.
            “After you’ve been doing this a little while, you find your niche. You also gain an ability to recognize when a community is poised to get back on its feet and become more self reliant. Usually, it takes about a week, two weeks max, for a community to get that process going,” he shared.
            For those who have not experienced a disaster, participation in this organization can be eye-opening. Wheeler shared that he was in the U.S. Army back in the 1980s and early ‘90s before the Persian Gulf War. While he never saw combat, military friends have told him that a natural disaster is in some ways worse than a combat zone.
            “In combat zones, the areas may be somewhat contained or limited to where a bomb or missile struck, but a natural disaster seems to go on for as far as the eye can see,” explained Wheeler. “When I first became involved, my family had already donated clothes, but as I watched television coverage of the Oklahoma disaster, I kept asking myself what else I could do. I had heard of Operation BBQ Relief and gave them a call. We fed 144,000 people the first day I volunteered. I thought it was fantastic!”
            Wheeler has an immense gratitude for the opportunity to serve.
            “It allows me to serve others. My teenage children have accompanied me on deployments on occasion. It’s helped make my son a good influence on other kids. We’ve even had local scout groups become involved. He’s a better kid for it. I’m a better person for it. Thank goodness!” laughed Wheeler.

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