The typical call for hurricane relief donations often lists nonperishable items such as canned goods, crackers and peanut butter. But in the small town of Perry, Georgia, requests are going out for simple barbecue favorites like Boston butts to help feed Hurricane Irma evacuees.
“Well, we are Southern,” local resident Jessica Gaston tells PEOPLE with a laugh. Gaston and friend Kimberly Chancy have set up shop to feed hundreds of Irma evacuees that are pouring through Perry — and their focusing on delicious (and economical) Southern staples.
“When you’ve got access to those huge smokers, you can cook eight to 10 Boston butts at one time,” Gaston explains. “Break them up and it’ll make 200 plates of barbecue. It goes a long way.”
As does the $10 worth of ingredients (buttermilk, Crisco and and flour) that can yield 250 made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits, according to Chancy.
It’s a deep appreciation for Southern hospitality – and the economies of scale afforded in home-cooked meals – that has allowed Gaston and Chancy to feed hundreds in a short amount of time.
It all began on Friday, when Chancy, a stay-at-home mom of two who also is raising a family member’s four children, stopped by the local Kroger store for a single case of water.
“My sister called and said, ‘Hey, let’s cook some meals,’ ” Chancy tells PEOPLE. Twenty cases of water, 20 loaves of bread and 10 18-pack cartons of eggs later, “I realized we were fixing to help somebody.”
That night, the sisters and a few friends began passing out plates of barbecue, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, green beans and pecan pie to evacuees pulling into Perry at Interstate 75 North and Sam Nunn Boulevard.
Perry, the tiny central Georgia town with an estimated population of 16,200, has been inundated with families fleeing Irma. It’s as far as many have been able to reach due to gas shortages or simply a lack of gas money or available shelter. Local officials held off opening formal shelters until Monday and hotel rooms are booked solid throughout Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Evacuating families are camping out in their vehicles in area parking lots.
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“One lady was crying as soon as she pulled up to us,” Chancy recalled. “She got out of her car and hugged every one of us. She had her 4-year-old daughter with her and had come up here on her rent money.”
Encouraged by the response, the women posted a call for donations and volunteers on Facebook. In the days since, “It’s grown into this massive operation,” Chancy said, noting that at any given moment, there are no fewer than 10 people in her kitchen cooking throughout the day, then upward of 30 when the time comes to prepare meal boxes and bags assembly-line style. Cooking begins at 5 a.m. and the last hot dinner gets handed out at around 9 p.m.
As of Sunday, the group expected to deliver 500 prepared meals for breakfast and dinner, plus another 500 sack lunches of sandwiches, fruit and snacks. They also have pet food and treats for those who have brought their four-legged companions along.
“It feels like a humongous family reunion,” Chancy said. “Lots of Southern mamas up in the kitchen and Southern dads with their smokers and the evacuees are like our family.”
The effort has garnered scores of donations of money, food and time from individuals and local businesses and the group intends to continue efforts until the last of the evacuees is able to return home, they said.
“It’s just amazing how all these people have come together,” Chancy said. “So many hugs and so many tears on shoulders. Our hearts get filled up every single night.”