A volunteer helps prepare food during Hurricane Florence efforts.
Jeremy Lock/Operation BBQ Relief
October 15, 2018 09:03 AM

Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and species — or none, according to David Marks, one of a group of volunteers from the competitive barbecue circuit banding together to help disaster survivors.

“I’ve seen it firsthand,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’ve seen a hot barbecue meal save people’s lives.”

In fact, as chief marketing officer for Shawnee, Kansas-based Operation BBQ Relief (OBR), he’s seen such a scenario many times and expects to see it again throughout the nonprofit organization’s stay in Florida’s Panhandle.

Arriving late Thursday night volunteers set up two stations in Tallahassee and Panama City, near the spot where Hurricane Michael hit idyllic Mexico Beach on Wednesday, making landfall as a high-end category 4 hurricane with 155-mph winds and leveling much of the area’s structures.

Operation BBQ Relief set up a station during Hurricane Michael efforts in Panama City, Florida.
Operation BBQ Relief

By lunchtime Friday, the Panama City team had served 3,000 meals and each station began cooking 30,000 meals to be served Saturday. They’ll likely continue that pace for the next few weeks until area restaurants and grocery stores reopen.

Speaking with PEOPLE late Friday night while the teams continued to set up, Marks recalled a poignant experience while delivering meals to victims of Hurricane Florence in a North Carolina neighborhood, where the nearby Cape Fear River was rising, just weeks ago.

“From out of the darkness, I see a Chevy Silverado 2500 heavy lifted truck drive up, water splashing,” said Marks. “This man comes out and starts to tell me how he’s exhausted, he’s just spent mentally and physically and can’t do it anymore. I talk to him for a while, he eats a hot meal and after about 10 minutes, he says, ‘Okay, I’m going back in.’”

That man was Greg Lovell, who, in just one night, saved 33 families in his powerless, flooding neighborhood. Days later, talking again with Marks on the tailgate of his truck, Lovell gave a stunning admission.

“Greg said to me that he really was done that night,” said Marks. “He was not going back into the water to do another rescue. But that barbecue meal and a few words of encouragement gave him what he needed to go back into the water, into the dark and save those people.”

One volunteer got creative with his makeshift cooking station during Hurricane Florence efforts.
Jeremy Lock/Operation BBQ Relief

Firing Up the Grill

Operation BBQ Relief began in 2011, prompted by relief efforts following a catastrophic EF5-rated multiple-vortex tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, late on a May afternoon, killing upward of 160 people and causing $2.8 billion in damages.

“I went to school in Pittsburgh State,” says OBR co-founder Will Cleaver. “If you wanted to go out on a nice date, you’d go to Joplin.”

When he learned of the devastation wreaked upon his favorite date night spot, he immediately thought, “We’ve got to do something.” And he knew exactly where to turn.

RELATED VIDEO: Hurricane Michael Made Landfall As A Destructive Category 4 Hurricane 

Though competition can be brutal, there’s a brotherhood among the barbecue set, Cleaver says. So, he called up friend and fellow competitor Stan Hays and the two headed out with their trailers, smokers and grills, setting up in a parking lot to feed displaced families and first responders.

“They figured they’d be there for two days, cook a couple thousand meals and go home,” Marks says. “They were there for two weeks. Other barbecue guys and gals started joining them and they cooked 120,000 meals having no idea what they were doing. But they quickly realized they had something cool and different going on.”

Volunteers pack up meals during Hurricane Florence efforts.
Jeremy Lock/Operation BBQ Relief

The group’s impact since has grown tremendously. Since 2011, they’ve rallied more than 6,700 volunteers; spent nearly 300 days deployed to disaster situations in 52 communities in 25 states, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the Northern California wildfires; and served more than 2.1 million hot meals.

Major corporate sponsors have stepped up. Seaboard Foods-owned Butterball and Prairie Fresh provide turkey and pork products, Ole Hickory Pits has donated commercial smokers and Mercury One, a charitable foundation started in 2011 by media personality and New York Times best-selling author Glenn Beck, has proven a consistent financial supporter “since the early days when we were literally running this thing on our own personal credit cards,” Marks says.

On Friday, the Lowe’s donated $10,000 — “That’s just for today,” a representative told Marks.

According to a social media post, the Zac Brown Band sent their mobile kitchen to help OBR in Tallahassee, Florida. 

Don’t Call Them Heroes

For his efforts, Hays last year was recognized as one of CNN’s top 10 Heroes of 2017. It’s a title he’s reluctant to accept.

Instead, it’s simply about “the powerfulness of a warm meal,” he says, recalling a recent experience delivering meals door-to-door.

“You walk three houses down, look back and families from the two houses you just passed are sitting together on a front porch or a tailgate, sharing a meal.”

“It’s not two million hot meals we’ve cooked,” Marks adds. “It’s the one hot meal that made a difference for somebody that we’ve cooked two million times. Yes, we provide people sustenance — something that makes a caloric difference in the body. But then, they start to think about family get-togethers, reunions, backyard barbecues, tailgate parties, their grandfathers — just good times. And they start to realize that they’ll be there again. It becomes a catalyst for people to say, ‘I can get through this.’ It begins a healing process. What we really provide is hope, friendship and compassion at the worst time in someone’s life.”

To donate or volunteer, visit OBR’s website.

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