By Robert St. John
This column might be the longest thank-you note I have ever written, but it is one I was eager to pen.
Two weeks ago I wrote a plea on behalf of the non-profit Extra Table soliciting donations for the victims of the EF-5 tornado in Smithville.
The April 29 tornado left a three-mile path of destruction, half a mile wide. Its 205-mile-per-hour winds destroyed 250 homes. In all, 300 families were displaced in a town of 900 people. Fifteen people lost their lives. Everyone else was left without a home.
The response was overwhelming and way more than I anticipated. More than 162 of you donated over $22,000 to help purchase more than seven tons of food for the residents of Smithville. The donations varied from $10 gifts, to people who bought entire Extra Table food bundles of $250, $500 and $750. One friend donated $5,000 after receiving nothing more than a text message about the project.
I received calls from as far away as California where a woman who works for the USDA, and 50 of her co-workers, wanted to know how they could help. One of our restaurant’s servers, Jenny Murchison, donated half of the tip total from her weekend shifts. At every turn, people stepped up to the plate.
I rented a huge Penske truck with a 26-foot trailer, hoping it would hold all the food that was donated. It started to fill up even before I left town, as members of the Providence Baptist Church, in the tiny community of Eatonville, made private donations of food and personal items.
The day of the delivery I loaded my 9-year-old son in the truck cab and we headed to Jackson where Sysco – the supplier-partner for Extra Table – loaded all the donated food onto the truck.
It took one guy with a forklift 15 minutes to load seven tons of food onto the 26-foot truck. It wasn’t until I was an hour up the interstate that I began to wonder if they had a forklift in the Smithville distribution center.
We stopped at the Sonic Drive-In in Winona because my son was thirsty, and it was there that I learned a huge truck with a 12-foot clearance will never fit under a nine-foot overhang. After introducing the Sonic manager to my insurance agent via cell, we were on our way.
My son and I joked and laughed all of the way up to Smithville. I drove him crazy with my repeated choruses of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” and he mostly ignored repeated requests to turn the volume down on his video game.
All joking ceased when we hit the city limits of Smithville. After living through the 110-mph devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I thought I had mentally prepared myself for what I was about to see. I had not.
One minute we were driving through the beautiful hill country of North Mississippi, and within an instant we were surrounded by epic devastation. Everything on either side of the road was laid flat. There was nothing but rubble and splintered lumber.
My contact, Linda Holden, a director at the distribution center, told me to, “Take a right at the Piggly Wiggly.” What she should have said was, take a right where the Piggly Wiggly used to be. We parked the truck at a warehouse filled with clothes, medicine, food and water, all donated by private citizens.
The accounts we heard were heart-wrenching. Stories of an elderly man who wouldn’t leave his infirmed wife’s side to get into the storm cellar with their grandson; stories of the instant terror endured by the survivors; and tales of official file documents and papers blown out of a local clinic being found as far away as Georgia.
Some of the stories were being relayed by Patty Parker, executive director of the local United Way and coordinator of the relief effort, who lost her home, but was in the distribution center side by side with all of the other volunteers, loading, unloading and offering help to those who need it as badly as she does.
They had a forklift, but the truck wasn’t the right size. We were able to get a few loads out, but the rest was unloaded by hand. Everyone from local volunteers, to trusties from the Amory jail, to a nine-year-old boy from Hattiesburg unloaded crates and boxes of food.
After we said our goodbyes and offered our well wishes, my son and I got back into the truck. The cab was silent. After a few minutes he turned to me and said, “Dad, that felt good.”
It was at that moment that I became even more grateful to those who gave to the Extra Table Smithville Project. Not only did you give – way beyond what was anticipated – to those who have monumental needs, but you also helped teach the meaning of selflessness and giving to a fourth-grader whose original excitement about the mission was getting to miss school for a day. Through your actions, I believe you have created a lifelong “giver,” and for that, I will be forever in your debt.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.