When I heard about the Joplin tornado, I was in Washington, D.C. enjoying beautiful Summer-like weather. Eat, Write, Retreat!, a food bloggers conference, had just wrapped up. My husband had just flown in to spend a few touristy days with me after the conference. We returned to our hotel room on Sunday evening after a bike ride through the monuments to read Facebook and Twitter messages from friends in the Joplin area, saying they were okay but that things were crazy. One of my cousins posted that she could not locate her dad, a Joplin resident. What had happened? Tornadoes happen in our area often enough, but this time it seemed so much different. The next morning we turned the TV on to see Sam Champion, Al Roker and other national weather folks had arrived in Joplin. It looked bad.
The images on TV brought back memories. Eight years ago this month, the tiny turn-of-the-century cottage my husband and I lived in was struck by an F4 tornado. It rained inside our house, the roof peeled away by the tornado. Our attic was cleaned out, courtesy of Mother Nature. Our cars were left without glass, nothing to drive. But we were safe, both of us tucked tightly beneath the fire chief’s desk with our three dogs at the fire station next door where we sought safety when the tornado siren sounded. Picking ourselves up and moving on was a challenge–and that was with damage that is incredibly minimal compared to what the folks in Joplin are dealing with.
That tornado changed how I view many things. It did not change how I view food. If anything, it deepened my connection with food, what I believe to be the common denominator amongst all of us. I can remember after the tornado, while camping in a tent inside of our damaged house, wishing I could cook a hot meal, wishing that our utilities could safely be turned back on. I have warm memories of the hot meals friends and complete strangers prepared for us as we got back on our feet. I was living without dietary restrictions, there were no medically-necessitated limitations on what I ate, yet it was challenging. My thoughts turned to those in Joplin who live with Celiac disease and gluten-intolerance. How would they eat in an emergency shelter? Where would they purchase gluten-free food? For those of us who cannot tolerate gluten, it is better to not eat if it contains gluten than to deal with the aftermath of vomiting, diarrhea, pain…I can’t imagine adding that challenge to everything else that is happening in Joplin.
I knew I wanted to help the gluten-free community in Joplin but had no idea how. I searched on-line for a gluten-free support group in the area and could not find one listed. The closest I could find was in Kimberling City. I sent an e-mail to their group leader, Barbara, and promptly got a message back that there is a relatively new Celiac support group in Joplin. She put me in touch with Rita, an amazing lady who still has her home but was faced with the challenge of not being able to buy gluten-free food. From our first phone call, it was obvious to me that Rita was much more worried about others in her community than about herself, she was ready to help any way she could. I asked about a food pantry where a dedicated gluten-free area could be established. She knew of one at her church. Through happenstance on Twitter, I learned that a pastor new to her church is gluten-free and he helped to point Rita to the person in charge of the food pantry. Rita and her husband got to work contacting folks at their church (which is no small task in the midst of the tornado aftermath).
My plan was to drive to Joplin with a few bags of gluten-free food. I posted here on my blog, on Twitter and Facebook asking my readers and friends if they would like to contribute. I made a phone call to my favorite bread company and grocery store. What happened after that gives me goosebumps. The outpouring of love overwhelmed me and tested the suspension system in my van–the quantity of food donated was HUGE! The generosity of folks who live gluten-free as well as those who know little about Celiac disease was amazing.
|Little packets of Udi’s granola. How perfect!|
|Paula from Whole Foods, loading up their donation|
The super folks at Udi’s Gluten Free Foods sent many cases of granola, hundreds of little single-serve granola packets and more cases of their yummy new cookies. The Whole Foods Market in Overland Park donated cases of cereal, rice chips, bars. My friends Sarah and Karen sent money for me to shop with, hoping I would know about this gluten-free thing. I do–and I was able to match up sale items and coupons to stretch their donations into three grocery bags full of food. My friend Sheila works in the catering department with Sodexo at William Jewell College and quickly worked to obtain a donation, which was essentially their entire gluten-free inventory. In the rain, she waited for me on a loading dock with a cart full of cereal, crackers, croutons, cookies, oatmeal.
|Sheila at William Jewell|
|Jim with his amazing donation|
It just kept getting better. A friend who I have not seen for 21 years said he was driving an hour to KC with an SUV full of donated food. And he wasn’t kidding. He has a child with Autism who eats gluten-free and had a great understanding of the need. He purchased many of the GoPicnic gluten-free boxes, which seem like an ideal post-disaster box for those with dietary restrictions. He also brought pasta, cereal, crackers…I was overwhelmed with the generosity. Thank you, Jim.
The day before I left, a lovely family contacted me about a donation from their family and another family they know. These folks had a terrific insight into those living with multiple food restrictions, as they have a daughter who cannot eat gluten or peanuts. They met me at Whole Foods with a very generous collection of food, much of it safe for those with multiple sensitivities and allergies. Thank you, Margaret!
|Margaret and Family with their donation|
|Jane with her donation|
I was just leaving Whole Foods and thinking what a blessing all of these folks are when my cell phone rang. It was a lady named Jane. I didn’t know Jane, but she had heard about the gluten-free food collection for Joplin on-line and called to see if she could meet me somewhere with her donation. I met her in a grocery store parking lot where she gave me two bags stuffed full of gluten-free goodness and a big hug. I stood there in the rain trying to absorb all of this, so amazed at the generosity of the community to help others they don’t know.
Back home to bake a couple batches of gluten-free cupcakes, tuck my essentials into the van and have a quick sleep. Off I went, bright and early Sunday morning. I got just one exit down the road before getting a text message from my husband. The neighbors across the street, early risers, had just delivered another donation. I turned around, zipped back home and picked it up. For many reasons, it is terrific to have a Celiac neighbor across the street and one with wheat allergy next door. I believe I live here for a reason (and it was because of that tornado 8 years ago that I live where I do now). Thank you, Earl and Marqueta.
Almost to Joplin, I made one more stop to pick up very valuable cargo, the Atchley family. They live in Springfield. I know Dena because, like me, she is a balloon artist. She had been to Joplin the day after the tornado to entertain the children at the remaining hospital. She and her husband Bob and adorable daughter Kaitlynne curled, folded and pressed themselves into the van which was full to the gills with gluten-free food and balloons.
Off we went, quickly arriving in Joplin. It was great to have the Atchleys along, as they are familiar with Joplin. They helped me locate the temporary animal shelter on the outskirts of town, which was our first stop. We climbed out of the van, cupcakes in tow and quickly handed out all of the gluten-free cupcakes to volunteers. These folks at the animal shelter are heroes, caring for pets who have lost their homes and families, pets who cannot stay with their families in shelters. They are doing all of this with minimal facilities and in high heat. It was impressive to see the flurry of action. They need cupcakes and more, help them out if you can. My one regret of this entire trip is not taking vegan cupcakes, as one volunteer at the shelter asked. On my next trip, I’ll have vegan treats, too. I know how hard it is to see yumminess and not be able to indulge. I’m sorry for that oversight.
|Volunteer at animal shelter with impressive frosting mustache|
We left the animal shelter and went to the church where Rita would meet us. We were about 30 minutes early, church services were still going on. A group of children from the 4 year-old Sunday school class were on the playground so we took the opportunity to make balloons for them and their Sunday school teachers. This was the second place we had stopped to spread a little cheer and in return got hugs and lots of “God Bless You”s in return. The folks in Joplin, volunteers and residents, are so incredibly grateful.
While making balloons for a couple of volunteer gals taking a break in the shade, the amazing Rita walked up and introduced herself. Within minutes, she told me of a member of her church who had lost her adult son in the tornado (the President mentioned him here, he was working at Pizza Hut) and also her home. She has Celiac disease and had had no access to gluten-free food since the tornado. She had been living on gummy bears. Please read that last sentence again…For a full week, a grieving woman with Celiac disease had been eating gummy bears for sustenance. It was a relief to know a van full of food safe for her was waiting to be unloaded.
Rita’s church has converted their bus barn into a food pantry. Well, actually it is so much more than a food pantry as they have just about anything you could need there from food to clothes to toiletries, books and toys. It is now called Mission Joplin, which perfectly describes what that church is doing. Their pastor, John Swadley, posts the most amazing updates daily on Facebook. Each day he posts about needs in the community. I’ve noticed rapid responses, within minutes, of offers to fill the need whether it be cooking a hot breakfast at 5 in the morning, packing sack lunches for volunteers or rounding up denture creme. To see how this church is using social media to recover from a disaster has been heartwarming.
|Dena making balloons at Sunday School|
|Me with a group of 4 year-old cuties|
Rita pointed in the direction of Mission Joplin and we drove the van a block over to unload.
Rita (who, if I haven’t already said this, is AMAZING), introduced us to Mistie who was overseeing things at the food pantry. I showed her the donated food and the shelving we had brought in case they were short on space. She quickly located a spot, helped to clear it out and before I knew what was happening, the Atchley clan had started unloading the van and assembling the shelving. We were able to display about half of the donated food on the shelves, clearly labeled it gluten-free and then set off for Rita’s house, where the remaining food is being kept. Rita is going to oversee the inventory levels at Mission Joplin and replenish as needed.
|Bob and Dena spring into action|
At Rita’s house, we were greeted by her son and daughter-in-law, their two children and the friendly black lab Barney. Rita and her husband Mike had already set up shelving in their dining room, now a food pantry, and we were able to set up one additional shelving unit there. Rita had received a nice donation of food collected by a church in Springfield, including homemade gluten-free chocolate chip cookies that were vacuum-sealed and had a hand-written note along with ingredients attached to each package. So very thoughtful! She told me she was expecting additional donations, too, from folks all over the country that Barbara in Kimberling City had put in contact with her. The gluten-free community is incredible!
|Rita’s son and grandson helped unload the van|
|The Atchleys, always helping!|
|Bob skillfully displaying food|
|The gluten-free pantry in Rita’s dining room|
|And there’s even more!|
|Ted and Dondi from Minnesota|
While we were at Rita’s house, a couple from Minnesota who were checking on family nearby, dropped by with a donation. I am hoping that Ted and Dondi will be the first of many to come by Rita’s house with a donation of gluten-free food. And I hope following folks like this will be those in need of gluten-free food, whether it be because they lost their home or their job or their car. The impact of this tornado is so much more far-reaching than I could have immediately imagined. For months, folks will struggle to find or pay for gluten-free food. I am so thankful for folks like Rita who are there, helping to keep those of us who cannot eat gluten healthy.
We left Rita’s house and headed McAlister’s Deli for lunch. There are quite a few businesses up and running in Joplin. If you go to help, I encourage you to spend money in their city. McAlister’s was working with a limited menu and could not accept credit cards. I was still able to get a delicious vegetarian gluten-free meal and copious amounts of iced tea, just not a baked potato because they still have no gas with which to bake.
After lunch, we set out to find a place to create balloons for folks in need of a smile. We found that spot, a shelter on the MSSU campus. We spent a bit of time entertaining the folks there before heading back home, heads swimming from what we had seen. Two days later I still can’t completely wrap my head around the situation. I feel so very fortunate to have a home and a job and am thankful to be part of a community of folks so willing to help out with a specific food need.
|At the MSSU Red Cross Shelter|
|A Red Cross Volunteer|