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Baptists serve thousands of meals

Rusty Gilbert is used to having large numbers of unexpected guests for lunch and dinner.

BY PJ HELLER | DEL CITY, Okla. | May 13, 2003

"I get a personal satisfaction knowing that I'm helping other people."

—Rusty Gilbert

Rusty Gilbert is used to having large numbers of unexpected guests for lunch and dinner. So serving up some 2,700 meals on Monday was a piece of cake.

Gilbert, team captain for the central Oklahoma Southern Baptist Convention's Disaster Relief Feeding Unit, has been coordinating efforts to feed people in the Oklahoma City area affected by last week's tornadoes.

With a crew of some 20 volunteers, the team prepares hot meals two times a day that are distributed by the American Red Cross to shelters, affected neighborhoods and relief workers.

Gilbert has a core crew of six to eight men he will normally call on to help. They, in turn, can help train new volunteers.

Working from their 45-foot trailer located at First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, crews prepare a meat dish and a vegetable dish. A third crew gets to wash the dishes as well as the trays and containers in which the food is distributed.

The trailer also serves as home for some of the workers. It's equipped with six bunks, a refrigerator-freezer, three microwaves, a 2- and 10-meter shortwave radio, and a hot water heater. It also carries 500 gallons of water.

"It's set up to do everything," Gilbert said.

The outside of the trailer has notations of when and where it has been used. Gilbert, who has been working as the team coordinator designated by the blue cap he wears helped in the 1999 tornado which hit Oklahoma, has been to Houston twice, to ground zero in New York City and to wildfires in Arizona, among other disasters.

Gilbert's group is one of five teams in Oklahoma. Other relief teams are spread across the U.S. They prepare 80 percent of the hot meals distributed by the Red Cross in the U.S. and are the second largest trained disaster relief volunteer force in the country, according to officials.

The feeding unit at Del City can serve about 16,000 meals a day but a typical day is usually 8,000 meals a day, Gilbert said.

Volunteers have faced long days since they responded at midnight to Thursday's tornado. By 1:30 a.m. Friday, they had everything set up and caught a few hours sleep. At 4:30 a.m., they prepared nearly 3,000 meals for those affected by the twisters.

Tornadoes hit the area again on Friday, causing more damage and pushing up the total number of meals to be prepared. On Sunday, they served up 3,675 meals.

Normally, the crews starting at 6 a.m. to prepare the meal for distribution around 10 a.m. As soon as that meal has been completed, they begin working on the afternoon meal, which goes out between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

"We're trying to make these meals not just something you'd eat in a disaster, but something you'd want to eat," Gilbert said.

Lasagna, beef tips, turkey tetrazinni and beef stew are among the main courses. Vegetable dishes accompany those entrees along with a dessert, usually a fruit cup or some type or pudding. New convection ovens have allowed crews to prepare different types of foods than in the past.

"We try to arrange it so it's a balanced meal," Gilbert said.

As of Monday, the feeding station was supplying meals to two shelters in Moore, two in Midwest City and one in Bethany.

Gilbert said he expected the feeding station would remain in operation for about three weeks, the same amount of time it operated after the May 3, 1999 twister.

Usually, how long the feeding station will remain in operation will depend on the severity of the disaster, he said, although that's not always the case.

"We can have little disasters where a lot of people are in circumstances where they can't feed themselves or they need help. This seems to be one of those. The May 3 tornado was much more devastating and the demand was higher, but the length of time we're going to be here will be about the same."

Gilbert said he got involved with the feeding program in 1997 after hearing about it during a men's prayer breakfast at his church in Bethany.

Although he runs a one-man business, Gilbert said his faith was what drove him to help.

"I get a personal satisfaction knowing that I'm helping other people," he said. "But I don't think that's enough to keep you doing something like this. If it wasn't a spiritual matter, I don't think you could continue doing something like this for an extended period of time.

"It's God's call," he added. "There is no doubt about it."

Jack Gillpatrick, working as a vegetable cook, said he found it difficult to explain why he would work over a hot stove all day to prepare meals for people he doesn't even know. He's been a volunteer now for about five years.

"It's something that you can't explain," he said. "It's just something you do from your heart. It's very rewarding."

And, he added with a smile, "my wife gets me out of the house."

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