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Food from the Heart. Good for the Soul

Tuscaloosa, AL – When Renee Foster and some of her friends came into the Red Cross shelter, their noses told them right away that something good was coming.

Foster owns Robertson’s BBQ, a landmark in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for more than 17 years. Today, she decided it was time for more than 600 people – folks she’s never met, never served and never known – to taste how good pulled pork and chicken legs can be. Foster donated that food to the American Red Cross.

“I hope everyone that can get a hot meal today can enjoy it, ” Foster said in an understatement that belied all the work going into doing a good thing for neighbors who were in need.

Most people are familiar with Styrofoam take-out containers that you get when you ask for a doggie bag at a restaurant. -in the food business, they’re called clamshells. There was one in every hand of a line of volunteers preparing more than 600 orders to go.

It looked like a cat’s cradle; hands over hands, passing white trays down the line. Empty clamshell containers got a scoop of potato salad, then baked beans. In a flash, a set of tongs would drop a chicken leg or some pulled pork, then the coups de grace: a ladle of BBQ sauce and a slice of bread to mop it all up.

Tanisha Booker had a keen eye on those clamshells as they moved down the line. “Need more chicken over here!” she called out. In a minute, the pans were refilled – the line never stopped.

It was Booker’s first day as a Red Cross volunteer and she loved every minute of it.

“We’re sending trucks out into the communities where people cannot get over to shelters,” Booker said. “They don’t have food, and that’s what this food is for.”

From the line, those clamshells were stacked in boxes and loaded into the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) driven by Ralph Kammer. Ralph’s an 18-year Red Cross volunteer – he’s been in 9/11, Katrina and other disasters. A man of few words, Kammer tells you in short order what his job is today. “I drive an ERV, and I deliver food to people who need it. That’s what I’ve done the whole time I’ve been with Red Cross. It’s all I want to do. Today, I’ll give folks chicken and water and coffee and snacks, soft drinks -- you name it. If it’s in the truck, they’ll get it.”

Out in the neighborhoods, Sue Allen stood in her driveway, and saw the Red Cross truck move slowly down her street. Kammer and his crew were handing out BBQ and cases of water to people who still looked shocked, trying to focus on finding the parts of their lives that weren’t already ripped to shreds, or tossed in a neighbor’s yard or hanging from a bare, barkless tree.

“All I’ve got right now is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Allen said. “I’ve been eating them for days.”

Across the street, Sam and Pam Burkhalter held the first hot meals they would eat in days. Pam looked around her street, thinking about the people you always see on television when you watch a disaster happen somewhere else. Now she was one of those people.

“It’s happening to us,” she said. “Now we’re understanding a lot more about what it’s like to be without the things you don’t think about, like hot food.”

Jason Price was down the block clearing trees. He runs a tree service company, and when he first came to the neighborhood after the tornado struck, it was to help a relative clear their yard. He’s been in that neighborhood ever since, working to help others get some sense of order back into their lives; lives filled with shock, lives without power, without comfort, but filled with a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We’ve been eating them and this that and the other since I got here, but a warm meal is way better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I can tell you,” Price commented. And then he didn’t waste any more time talking. His clamshell was open on the tailgate of his truck, and he dove right into to a pile of pulled pork and sauce. “This is my first hot meal thanks to the Red Cross,” he said in between bites. “You’ve really been a big help. Y’all don’t know how much we appreciate a hot meal right now.”

Back in Sue Allen’s driveway, she began to cry. “I’ve been donating to the Red Cross for years, and now it’s come full circle” Allen said, her voice cracking as she finished her thought: “They’ve come to help me after all that time I’ve tried to help them.”

Miles away, in the shelter, Renee Foster was on the BBQ line and felt much the same way, even though this was the very first time she had ever donated to Red Cross. She said it felt good and would be back again tomorrow. When asked why she did this, she paused with a pair of tongs in her hand, her voice choking. “I’m just hoping I can give back to the community what they’ve given to me.”