PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Merle Pershall was working the feeding line in Pensacola, Fla., like a stand-up comedian working a crowd, dishing out bottled water from a huge steel bowl, taking snack treats to the boys and girls standing in the hot sun, offering wide smiles to parents and words of encouragement to seniors. His routine almost took away the sting at having to stand in the heat of the noon day for nearly an hour to get a hot meal.
Rising before dawn, Tonya Glass, 44, whipped up dozens of eggs with ham and threw bread for toast into a convection oven. In the middle of the day, she painstakingly chipped away the burnt grime from the oven’s floor. Working until late at night, she made preparations for the next meal. The long, arduous day failed to take away the smile on her face or the twinkle in her eye.
The volunteers stationed at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola were part of an Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief team, the first mobile kitchen to respond after Hurricane Ivan struck the city.
They were the first sign of hope for a battered town, said Olive pastor Ted Traylor. Pointing to the mobile kitchen’s printed list of locations and dates from previous disaster deployments, Traylor noted, “All of the people on this list have made it. This is a great visual to our people that we, too, can overcome this tragedy. They have brought us hope.”
While Hurricane Ivan was the first deployment for volunteers Pershall and Glass, both Oklahomans said it won’t be their last.
“I’m getting such a real blessing out of helping others,” said Pershall, a member of First Baptist Church of Bethany, Okla., “especially the little kids when I see them smile. I know these last few days have been hard for them.”
“I’ll go every chance I get,” said Glass, a member of First Baptist Church in Mustang, Okla., “It’s so rewarding to do this. But in a way, I don’t want to be here because I know that I’m here because these people can’t cook and have hot meals in their own homes.”
Wearing “a blue cap” that indicates he is the man in charge of the feeding unit, seasoned veteran Rusty Gilbert from Oklahoma City has served in the aftermath of floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks. The “Boss” tells him when he can go on a disaster response trip, explained the self-employed mechanical contractor. “It was tough to go the first time, not knowing how it could affect my business. But my boss is God and I have learned that if I go when He calls, He’ll take care of me. It’s amazing.”
John, Leah, Blake and Grace Atteberry were among the families who came to the feeding unit at Olive Baptist. John had spent the day delivering oxygen to needy homebound patients. “After driving through this traffic all day, we didn’t feel like going home and fixing supper,” he said. “When we heard on the radio, we decided to eat here.”
Grace, 4, had chosen the feeding unit over McDonalds because she wanted to eat where everyone was eating food from the boxes, she said, pointing to the Styrofoam containers being filled by the Oklahoma volunteers. Her parents chose the unit because their expenses in the aftermath of the storm were slowly mounting.
The electricity is still not on at their home. Blake, who was to turn 8 the following Saturday, was only asking for one present for his birthday, said his mother — air conditioning.
Molly Warner, 69, came to the feeding station to pick up a meal of shredded chicken, corn and cookies and to say “thank you” to the Baptist chainsaw crews for cutting trees and picking up limbs from her yard.
“Oklahoma came to my neighborhood today,” she said. “And it’s like new. With their bright yellow shirts and shining faces, they were wonderful. They gave us hope for tomorrow. We have been stuck in today for the past four days.”