The name suggests that food is involved in a place or time where it is sorely needed. You would be correct in assuming that as truth. As you read this, you will find out that the continuing—and growing—story of Mercy Chefs is so much more. And this story cannot help but touch your heart. It is also a very important part of Panama City’s story of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Mercy Chefs had its beginning in the aftermath of a different hurricane—Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana in 2005.
Gary LeBlanc saw his home broken and bleeding because of Katrina and the massive flooding the storm incited. As an established chef with a satisfying career, he decided to offer help in feeding the hungry folks who desperately needed food for their survival. He saw that food was being distributed, but it wasn’t being done with a passion for the people or the food, concern for safety, or planning for efficiency and presentation. Gary felt led to lend his expertise and experience to help the effort.
He was so completely dedicated to this cause, that he spent many sleepless nights filling notebook after notebook with ideas and ways to implement them. When he presented what he had developed to the people in charge of the operation, he was told that it wouldn’t work because it was just too difficult and too expensive to be possible.
Gary and his wife Ann continued to think about the issues involved and devised plans to make it possible and practical to give hungry people needed sustenance following natural disasters in their communities. Whenever or wherever it was so bad that local organizations and volunteers could not manage what was needed, they formulated a way to provide life-saving food in caring, creative, and loving ways.
Just two weeks before Gary’s 50th birthday, they began to execute the plan that completely changed the path of their life together. They have also forever changed the people around them who feel the impact of their loving purpose. These humble beginnings and this basic premise became the foundation for Mercy Chef’s and their motto: FEEDING BODY AND SOUL.
The first time their plans were put to the test was during deployment to Conklin, NY, following a flood. It was a family affair. The LeBlanc children, aged 6 and 9 at that time, were an integral part of their outreach team. Both the kids, who are young adults now and very involved in the Mercy Chefs organization, remember that they shucked pallet after pallet of sweet corn in a seemingly endless contribution to the effort! Lessons learned by each member of the family helped them refine their plan and strengthen their resolve to continue in the direction God was leading them.
Mercy Chefs grew very slowly at first—and that was a good thing. Neither Gary nor Ann had experience in fundraising, so they simply charged all of the expenses on their personal credit cards. When they got back from a deployment, Gary wrote letters to everyone he knew and everyone he could think of that might help with the project. When it got bigger and more difficult to get money from friends and family, they realized that they needed help and a better plan.
The changes in growth have been astounding. Just three-and-a-half years ago Chef Gary LeBlanc was the head of the organization with the help of a part-time assistant. Today there is sixteen permanent staff, including three staff chefs and twelve to eighteen volunteer chefs who work intermittently as needed. The paid staff are joined at each deployment or permanent site by a veritable army of volunteers. Mercy Chefs considers its volunteers the lifeblood of the operation. Staffing the facilitates and the prep and serving the meals are done by the many volunteers who are always ready to help.
Mercy Chefs has deployed to more than seven foreign countries (including Haiti, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Guatemala, and the Philippines), twenty-four states, and Puerto Rico. There are permanent Mercy Chefs kitchens established in Haiti and Puerto Rico. Locals have been trained and are able to continue the outreach largely on their own.
There is also a community kitchen in Virginia, established by Mercy Chefs. Children from low-income families who are “food insecure” eat meals there. They and their families are part of an extended education program intended to show them how to eat healthily at a very low cost. The Lonesome Dove Ranch in Texas is a summer outreach camp established and run by Mercy Chefs for kids in the foster care system. With the “teach a man to fish” principle at work—many people benefit in countless ways.
When asked about where things are going in 5-10 years, Chef Gary laughed his wonderfully deep, contagious laugh and said, “I’m afraid to put things like that in words or on paper because things are happening so fast, I’m afraid it’ll happen tomorrow! It’s like riding a wild pony. You just hold on and see where you go!”
Several things that he’s seen as future goals have already come to fruition due to needs recognized—and Mercy Chefs’ ability and availability to work things out.
Funding is still a big part of the story. About 93% of expenses are met through private donations. As the reputation of the organization grows and the original mission is expanded in such positive ways, Mercy Chefs has garnered some corporate sponsorships. Increased donations in both areas would help as funding is the only real obstacle they face, according to Chef Gary. The importance of being good stewards of monies donated is at the forefront of decision-making. For the ability to feed bodies and souls and to continue to honor the hearts of donors, the funding must be used wisely.
Now that you have an idea what Mercy Chefs is about, it is important to understand what all that means to Bay County.
Hurricane Michael was big and bad. He left behind a trail of devastation as he raged through the Florida Panhandle and on into Georgia. The damage was so complete that there was no way for local organizations to meet the needs of the people left in the rubble. It was just the situation that speaks to the heart of Mercy Chefs—and they have answered that call in big ways.
Only a few short days after the storm, the caravan of trucks and the big white trailer full of ovens and equipment struggled through blocked roads, tried out a temporary site and finally found its “home away from home” in the parking lot of Emerald Coast Fellowship in Lynn Haven.
Many of the staff had not been home for two months because of hurricanes in the Carolina’s and Texas. Their deployments followed closely one after the other. Despite missing homes and families, these tired but dedicated workers provided food to more than 2,000 people each day.
The people came, telling their frightening stories of living through Michael, and they left with amazing food, plus the knowledge that people cared and had shared their love and hope for a better future. ALL of that was needed more than ever before.
Normally, Mercy Chefs provides food for the immediate needs of the people and leaves after three or four days, or as soon as local people and programs can take over. They stayed at the Lynn Haven site for three weeks, knowing that the infrastructure of the area could not provide what their organization was giving. The void left by Mercy Chefs’ departure after only three days would have been impossibly large. They felt they just had to stay.
Another factor played a big part in the decision to remain. The staff and traveling volunteers who came with them found the people of Bay County to be incredibly resilient, hardworking, and generous beyond belief. Many who worked for hours in the heat to help feed those arriving alone or in groups had lost much—or everything—themselves. They were reaching out to others even in the midst of their own incredible need.
Neighbors were helping neighbors everywhere. People came to get meals for friends, family, and strangers who didn’t have the means to come themselves. They told of areas still blocked by fallen trees and downed wires and asked if they could help by getting food to those folks. And they came back day after day, meal after meal, to do what they could to help. They helped Mercy Chefs’ staff to identify areas that needed delivered meals and the caravan of Mercy Chefs vehicles set out to feed even more bodies and souls.
It is difficult to articulate the feelings—which quickly became heartfelt connections—on both sides. Those serving and those receiving each felt deeply the impact of the daily interactions. Obviously, the very mission of Mercy Chefs was being accomplished on the food side of the line. The spoken appreciation for the quality of the food—many times in great surprise—and the immense gratitude for having both physical and emotional needs met was incredibly sincere and noticeably heartfelt from the receiving side. Nowhere before had feelings run so deep. Nowhere before had the devastation been so complete. The effects of the storm and the grateful, generous people on both sides of the human equation solidified a lifetime relationship and furnished countless memories.
In response to comments on how good the food looked and tasted, Chef Gary said, “We don’t do chainsaws and debris removal, so the food just HAS to be amazing!”
That explains a great deal about his unwavering commitment to quality and love. Seeing Panama City folks helping each other in so many ways made the LeBlanc’s and their team feel that they just HAD to work alongside them.
Thus began a continuing resolve by Mercy Chefs and the local volunteers who supported them to extend a helping hand over a longer period of time, and in doing so, to become an important part of Panama City’s recovery efforts.
They returned at Thanksgiving with traditional turkey and dressing meals to bring just a tiny bit of normalcy to the hurting population. They came again for all of March to feed the students who wouldn’t have lunches at school during spring break and the college students who used their spring break time to help with recovery. When they came in March, they rolled into town and set up that big kitchen-on-wheels in a different church parking lot. This time it was St. Andrews Baptist, but many of the faces were the same—both staff and volunteers. The need TO help was nearly as great as the need FOR help.
The latest Mercy Chefs effort in Panama City is the longest and biggest. Because there are approximately 5,000 students who are classified as homeless in the Bay County School District, and because many are part of financially struggling families due to damages caused by Hurricane Michael, Mercy Chefs came back again—and stayed all summer long. The mission this time—to serve all the students of Bay County and their families so that kids missing school lunches while school wasn’t in session didn’t go to bed hungry.
Families were lovingly registered and then cared for and served six dinners/week from the end of school at the beginning of June through the start of school in August. Bay County Schools agreed to let Mercy Chefs use the mothballed Oscar Patterson School. There is a full kitchen in which to create the dinners, a steam table from which to serve, and real plates to put on tables that are complete with centerpieces!
The idea is that the families come to enjoy a meal and each other’s company in a place removed from the distractions of leaky roofs, bare studs with no drywall, and fights with insurance companies. They aren’t all crammed together in a tent or a small trailer. As families came to dine each evening they saw other families and begin to recognize them as the days and weeks passed—thus meeting a secondary goal—to build a sense of community in a natural, comfortable way.
The outreach doesn’t stop there. At their own expense, Mercy Chefs began to re-purpose classrooms. The first rooms were outfitted to house the staff that would be there the whole summer, as well as those who would rotate in and out of the facility. And STILL, they kept going—until they had bunk rooms enough to accommodate up to 100 volunteers. There are church and youth groups and other organizations that came to help in Panama City, who could not find affordable places to stay. Mercy Chefs provided a place with their bunk rooms and fed the volunteers, too!
As a volunteer myself, I can tell you that these goals were already being met by the end of the first week. In the beginning, families came in, sat at tables away from others, finished quickly and left. By the end of that week, many were lingering over their meals, kids were creating together on the long table in the cafeteria covered with art supplies, and everywhere you looked there were visible signs of contentment. Families were seeing familiar faces, saying hello, and joining each other at tables to eat together. It was wonderful to be a part of that community. It was wonderful to see the hard work of so many bringing about the intended results.
The effort in Panama City isn’t Mercy Chefs’ “first rodeo.” They have accomplished many things around the world and have refined and expanded their model. The people of Panama City have been the fortunate recipients of the incredible commitment to quality and love that is the cornerstone of the organization and the outreach it provides.
Mercy Chefs has made a very positive impact on the grateful people they’ve lovingly served in Bay County. When they leave, they will take with them lasting memories, and those of us who shared a time and place with the good people of Mercy Chefs in whatever way we participated, will forever bask in the glow of the experience.
In the Eye of the Storm, published in January 2019 tells the story of Hurricane Michael’s brutal landfall along the Panhandle of Florida on October 10, 2018. A collection of poetry, stories, and images from survivors and residents, In the Eye of the Storm gives readers a poignant account of the events leading up to and in the days and weeks following the Category 5 hurricane’s destruction of the region.
In the Aftermath of the Storm, released on October 10, 2019, the one-year anniversary of the day that changed the region and the lives of its residents forever, picks up where the first book ended. Telling the stories of hope, healing, and community, In the Aftermath of the Storm captures the resilience and determination of the residents and the many volunteers who continued to make a difference long after the camera crews had gone and the outside world had moved on.
Both books are available through Amazon with all proceeds benefiting the Hurricane Michael Relief Fund, which continues to assist in relief and rebuilding efforts throughout the area. The books are also available locally at Cher’s Hallmark in Lynn Haven and at the United Way of Northwest Florida offices in downtown Panama City.