When disaster strikes, they bring the barbecue

Story highlights

  • Grand Champion pitmaster Stan Hays uses his barbecue skills to help people in crisis
  • Operation BBQ Relief produces thousands of meals for natural disaster survivors and first responders
  • Volunteers cooked for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Houston (CNN)For many people, barbecues are a chance to enjoy a meal with family and friends. For Stan Hays, a Grand Champion pitmaster, barbecuing is a passion that he puts to the test at weekend competitions.

Yet when disaster strikes, Hays uses his skills to feed people in need. Since 2011, his nonprofit, Operation BBQ Relief, has prepared more than 1.75 million meals for survivors and first responders.
CNN Hero Stan Hays
The unique effort began in May 2011, when a massive EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, about two-and-a-half hours from Hays' home. His wife urged him to help. So, he put out the word to his barbecue buddies and headed down with his portable smoker.
"We thought we'd be there three to four days, serving maybe 5,000 meals," Hays said. "But the need was there, and the supplies kept coming in."
    Hays and approximately 300-400 volunteers worked for 11 days to meet that need -- preparing more than 120,000 meals.
    It was a life-changing experience for Hays, who had never organized any type of large volunteer effort before. While preparing to head home, he and friends Will Cleaver and Jeff Stith came to a realization.
    "The barbecue community is uniquely qualified to respond to disasters like this quickly," Hays said. "So, before we left, we put together a plan to create the nonprofit."
    During the last six years, the group has responded to almost 45 disasters across the United States, most recently Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the wildfires in northern California. More than 6,800 volunteers have joined the effort, and the group often partners with other organizations to distribute the meals.
    Hays believes that the food they prepare nourishes disaster survivors in more ways than one.
    "Barbecue is comfort food," Hays said. "If you just lost your house, or God forbid a loved one, and you get a hot meal that reminds you of the BBQs you had in the backyard and makes you forget about the bad stuff in your life. That's worth it to me."
    "We not only are giving them something nutritious, but we are giving them a little bit of normalcy."
    CNN spoke with Hays about his work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
    CNN: How does your organization mobilize when a disaster hits?
    Stan Hays: Over the last six years, we've responded to tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. Every disaster requires a different response, but our goal is always to be in an area within 24 to 48 hours. We're able to do that because we don't have a lot of bureaucracy. There's a small group that makes the decision on "Do we go?" And sometimes there is no decision -- I mean, it wasn't "Are we going to respond to Harvey?" It was "When" and "Where are we going to go?"
    Our focus is getting it done. After we know we're deploying, I email our partners for help with donations and other assistance we'll be needing and we post on social media to alert our volunteers. Then we get into logistics: finding a location, equipment, proteins, how many pounds of rub, how many gallons of sauce. Our smokers are generally up and running within a day.
    CNN: Who are your volunteers on site?
    Hays: The core group of our organization are all pitmasters or grillmasters, (but) our volunteers come from everywhere now. You can go from a small disaster with 12 volunteers to a big one where you're running 100-150 volunteers a day. There are always at least two to three people on site who have Serve Safe, a national food handling certification, and we have twice daily volunteer orientations that cover health and safety issues. We often work 18-hour days keeping everything going. But we are just a stopgap -- we only stay in the area until restaurants and grocery stores are open.
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    CNN: It's been a busy couple of months for you with the recent natural disasters.
    Hays: Oh yes. Between Harvey and Irma, we were deployed for a total of 20 days and provided almost half a million meals. During Harvey, we broke our record -- preparing 55,000 meals in one day from our two locations in Texas. During Irma, we worked with FedEx, the Salvation Army and other nonprofits to airdrop thousands of meals to the Florida Keys; I like to call it "BBQ Air."
    We are still working on ways to get meals to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It is bad down there, but there are a lot of logistical hurdles, with the lack of power, limited flights and lots of costs involved. We also recently worked with celebrity chef Guy Fieri to serve more than 50,000 meals to those impacted by the wildfires in northern California.
    CNN: What's it like being on a deployment?
    Hays: It's hard to explain the exhaustion and the exhilaration at the same time. For me, the greatest thing is people coming together. Many of our volunteers have done multiple deployments, and some have traveled hundreds and even a thousand miles. It's a very humbling experience to be with so much love and so many people that just want to help.
    Seeing the people working and knowing the impact the meals are making -- it can't help but bring a smile to your face, maybe a tear to your eye. At the end of the day, you've done something that's made a difference.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Operation BBQ Relief website and see how to help.
    To donate to Operation BBQ Relief click the CrowdRise widget below.