There are few things that bring neighbors and strangers together like a natural disaster. It’s a scene that has been played over and over again throughout the years. Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and flooding ravage an area and immediately there are stories of complete strangers coming together to survive and help those that aren’t able to help themselves. We have seen the best of humanity throughout our great nation this hurricane season in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Hurricane Harvey ripped through Texas as a category 4 and Irma showed no mercy on its path through Cuba, Puerto Rico and Florida. No strangers to the devastation that hurricanes can create, many North Carolinians felt helpless and wanted desperately to find a way to help. For Jon Hansel, the answer was clear, barbecue.
As an Air Force veteran, Jon is no stranger to helping those in need. “That has always been my grounding principal, you go work for the largest volunteer organization in the world, the military, and I wanted to continue to volunteer and help people,” he said. Though his years in the military are behind him, Jon still takes his responsibility to his fellow Americans seriously. On an ordinary day, Jon is a medical device representative with an emphasis on dental implants and is considered an expert in surgical and prosthetic protocols. But even during work with dentists and surgeons, his mission is clear, “helping people get their smiles back, and more importantly, getting their health back,” he said.
Five years ago, Jon was approached by the North Carolina Dental Society about volunteering with their Missions of Mercy free dental clinic. These free clinics are held statewide four to five times per year and provide cleanings, fillings and extractions, all performed by volunteer dentists using mobile dental facilities. Jon was eager to help; however, his expertise did not translate well in this area of dental needs. One particular clinic five years ago was being held in October in Kill Devil Hills, NC. Since this is considered to be the off-season in this tourist area, many of the local restaurants were closed for business. The coordinators of the clinic told Jon that they had over 350 volunteers that needed to be fed, and many of the patients of the clinic have gone without food. They asked if he could come down and help make sandwiches. His response was simple, “I don’t make sandwiches, but I do cook barbecue,” he said. And cook he did! Jon loaded up his towable barbecue pit, collected donations from those that wanted to help and headed to Kill Devil Hills. This soon became a family affair, with Hansel’s wife, children and mother all volunteering with the dental clinics over the years.
Continuing his volunteer work with Missions of Mercy, Hansel heard about an organization called Operation Barbecue Relief. According to their website, Operation Barbecue Relief (OBR) was “founded in 2011 in response to a need for relief efforts in tornado-stricken Joplin, Missouri.” Competition barbecue teams from eight states came together to feed displaced families and emergency medical crews. When Jon heard that OBR was headed to Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina to help those affected by flooding due to a hurricane, he loaded up his cooker and his truck and headed down south to help. He spent the next four days cooking and serving meals to those who were without. During this time, Jon met other members of OBR from Memphis, Tennessee and after Hurricane Matthew hit the Fayetteville and Lumberton areas of North Carolina in 2016, Jon joined his new friends to once again help feed those in need. During those four days in North Carolina, Jon and the OBR crew served over 111,000 meals to area families.
Fast forward to August of 2017 and Hurricane Harvey has its sights set on Texas. Jon knew that he would be traveling to Texas, it was just a matter of where and when. “They called and said we’re heading down there are you available? I just told them to let me know when everyone was ready,” he said. After the first team from OBR made their way to Houston, they put out the message to all of the pit masters across the US and said they needed “all hands-on-deck.” That was the green light that Jon needed to gather his arsenal of cookers and friends and make the trip down to Texas. Not only was he able to convince two of his friends to head down there with him, but once word of what he was doing began to spread among his community, Jon saw first-hand the generosity of those that wanted to find a way to help. As a member of the Apex Sunrise Rotary Club, Jon mentioned to his fellow Rotarians that he and another member were heading to Texas for a few weeks and weren’t sure when they would be back. It was at that time that his Rotary club decided to give Jon the donation money from that week’s meeting and an additional $1,000.00 to use for expenses on their trip and to take care of themselves while they are helping others. News of Jon’s trip traveled to the MacGregor Rotary Club and they donated an additional $1,000.00. Word of this convoy also spread to Holly Springs groups and they too gave cash donations. What Jon took away from all of this was much more than money. “What I found was, and I was floored by it, people want to help but they don’t know how to help. When you see charities that you can donate to, you often wonder where does my money go, what do they do? I asked people what they wanted me to do with this money and they all said to ‘take care of yourselves. You will need fuel and food and lodging to get down there.’” And that is exactly what he did. Jon bought $1,200 worth of food in North Carolina and took it down to Texas to help feed those that were feeding so many others.
The memories and friendships that Jon came away with are ones that won’t soon be forgotten. People traveling from Florida and Arkansas just to help. Tirelessly putting in 16- to 18-hour days and never wavering from their goal. Countless donations from sponsors such as Blue Rhino, who supplied all of the propane needed to run the smokers; Bone Suckin’ Sauce, a key sponsor, donated thousands of dollars’ worth of product; and Smithfield donated thousands of pounds of pork to the volunteers, just to name a few.
Between August 30 and September 9, OBR served 371,760 meals to the residents of Houston and surrounding areas. Take a moment to let that number sink in. That is over a quarter of a million meals in eleven days. These men and women were part of something so much larger than themselves and never asked for anything in return. Some put their own safety in danger, including those that helped provide meals via an air drop to Beaumont, a town outside of Houston. Beaumont was flooded to the point that it was impossible for even the military to get to them. “North Carolina was one of the first groups to cook barbecue to get onto a Chinook Helicopter and airlifted to help the people in Beaumont,” he said. Jon’s cooler full of food was the first to be airlifted by the Texas Air National Guard and delivered to those families that were desperate for help, and he didn’t even know about it until after he returned home. “I saw the pictures and said ‘that’s our cooler!’”
For eleven days and nights, these selfless volunteers worked to help people they will never meet. People from all parts of the country and from all socio-economic backgrounds. Donations poured in from those that just needed to find a way to help. “I felt like this was America telling us to go and help our own,” he said.
Strangers became friends, and friends became family. The good in people has the ability to shine even through the darkest clouds. Jon Hansel has seen and experienced this first hand and lives his life helping others “because it is the right thing to do.” Some heroes wear uniforms, some stand in front of a class for six hours a day, and some hide in the shadows wearing an apron and cooking barbecue.