A community in need called out for help, and we got the chance to answer.
2018 saw a hurricane season that was extraordinarily active and destructive. While most of us here in Arkansas saw little to no damage, Hurricane Michael took a devastating toll on residents of Florida, particularly in the panhandle. This toll included life-threatening storm surges, catastrophic flooding, and record-breaking rainfall. As the effects of the storm became more and more clear, we felt compelled to do something about it. So, we set out to figure out just how we could do that.
One thing became very clear, very quickly: the nature of disaster relief work is sensitive. We were hundreds of miles away and had no idea where to start or what to expect. Michael Robichaud (AKA Chef Robo), our Give Fresh Program Coordinator, was charged with heading up our disaster relief team and tackling this issue. His first order of action was to take stock of our options and identify a reputable organization to partner with. What he found was HOPE Panhandle, Inc. Hope Panhandle, Inc. is a nonprofit organization formed of local community leaders to help residents of the panhandle in the wake of the destruction left by Hurricane Michael. They work with volunteer groups coming in to the area and ensure they are being used in a strategic manner to best benefit the community.
With a partnership in place, we were ferociously tackling the logistics of our trip and exactly how we could help. The marriage of our Give Fresh: The Power of Food program and disaster relief made perfect sense. We had access to fresh, nutritious food and the ability to take that in to a devastated community. Thanks to countless employee gifts, community sponsors (special shout out to Keith Hollowell and Premium Refreshment Service for providing an entire pallet of water!), and individual donors we were able to purchase food, water, and transportation for our team to make the trek to Florida.
Our team drove through the night to ensure we would be ready to set up by 8:00am in Lynn Haven. Chef Robo was on site even earlier to get the grill set up and ready to go. Driving in from Panama City, our eyes were glued to our surroundings whizzing by. What started as a normal beach town quickly turned into chaos as power lines lay flat next to heaps of debris that used to be buildings. One look at google maps showed us the landmarks that used to litter the roads we drove, now reduced to mere blips of what used to be. The damage was daunting. We began to feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the destruction, and feeling very small and insignificant. Could we actually make a difference?
This question was still lingering in our minds as we set up and started preparing food. It was barely ten minutes past 8:00am when a truck pulled in and interrupted our thoughts. It was a truck full of construction workers, in town helping re-build what was salvageable. They wanted to know if our lunch would be free, and if we had extra water to spare for their crew. We ensured them that lunch was indeed free, asked them to help spread the word, and sent them off with water bottles – it was the first glimpse in to what the day would hold. By 10:00am, we had an audience and decided we should start lunch early. People were hungry, and time seemed to become a silly matter. From then on, it was a whirlwind of grilling, replenishing the food line, and visiting with the hundreds of people who stopped for a meal. We met families, children, business leaders, other volunteer groups, people who lost everything, and people working tirelessly to take care of their families and neighbors. Together we served those who had lost so much, and yet still they had hope. By the time we ran out of food, we had served well over 1,000 people. 1,000 faces came through our line. 1,000 people received not only a meal – but support. Support from a community hundreds of miles away.
What started out as hope to provide aid blossomed into the chance to provide something far greater, and that was relief. Thank you to everyone who helped make this possible!