OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Stan Hays always gets the same question – Did you have any idea your trip to Joplin, Missouri, to feed people after the tornado would lead to a nonprofit and a new, full-time job?
The answer is no. And rightfully so. How could the Pleasant Hill man have predicted a somewhat spur of the moment volunteer effort with his competition barbecue teammates would lead to Operation BBQ Relief? The organization now has 25 employees in 11 states, plus trucks and smokers on standby in Texas, Georgia and California in case of a tornado or wildfire.
“The amazing part of the organization is how it’s continued to grow, community after community, and people paying it forward,” Hays said from the nonprofit’s Peculiar headquarters.
Hays is the co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, which provides barbecue to volunteers and victims of disasters. The group has served more than 9 million meals and responded to more than 80 disasters across the United States, like Hurricane Harvey in 2018.
Around that same time, Hays left his job at a corporate insurance company to work full-time for the organization. CNN recognized him as a Top 10 Hero of the Year.
“I’m here guiding the ship, but it’s the people who make the difference,” Hays said. “Our volunteers – the heart, the sweat, the tears they give is the difference that’s made.”
Hays is working to guide the organization to make an impact the 290 or so days of the year its workers are not responding to a disaster. The charity has made teaching barbecue part of its mission.
So far, it mostly works with veterans and first responders across the country. This summer, the charity will host its first cooking series for children, and Hays is preparing to launch a new, virtual instructional series. The ultimate goal is for people to learn how to barbecue and then volunteer with the organization should a disaster hit their area.
“A pulled pork sandwich is much more than a pulled pork sandwich,” Hays said. “A pulled pork sandwich is that symbol of things are going to happen again. People can remember that last barbecue they had at their house and can see their neighbors having it again.”
He’s spread that message of hope during the COVID-19 pandemic as the group pivoted to launch Operation Restaurant Relief in the Kansas City area last year.