Photos by Crystal Bollinger
“I got started with the volunteering after a tornado thing last year,” said Crystal Bollinger, one of A Small Orange’s tech support ninjas who recently returned from feeding families who lost their homes after an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma last month.
In April of 2012, a tornado hit Woodward, one of several towns in the Panhandle Bollinger lived in as a child. She wanted to help, but didn’t know how.
“By the time the tornado hit last April, my family had all moved out of the area, but I still felt connected to it,” she said. “I found this guy randomly on Facebook who was going down there to feed the volunteers, and went along.”
Bollinger went to Woodward with Jim Kirkland, who owns Duke’s BBQ and Catering in Texhoma, Oklahoma, the Panhandle town where she currently lives. Kirkland had previously traveled to Joplin, Missouri in 2011, to help feed people through a new non-profit called Operation BBQ Relief. OBR, as it’s commonly called, relies on volunteer efforts to cook and serve BBQ meals to people in need. As soon as the tornado struck Moore, Bollinger got in touch with Jim.
“I just wanted to be able to help like that again,” she said. “A sandwich can mean so much to someone who’s cleaning up what used to be their home. They don’t have money to go out to eat, and they don’t have a kitchen anymore.”
In Moore, they served 143,000 hot meals to people affected by the tornado, including 8,850 meals that were prepared, cooked, and delivered to hungry families by Bollinger and Kirkland.
“For the first day and a half we were cooking,” she said. “On the second day we got to go out to deliver. Local people were volunteering to drive out in the damaged zones with boxes of food, cases of water, and bags of chips.”
Although Bollinger had seen tornado damage before, she said she was taken aback by the extent of the devastation.
“It was unimaginable,” she said. “There were whole neighborhoods that used to be beautiful brick houses that were now nothing more than brick and rubble. Standing on what used to be someone’s driveway and seeing a pile of bricks and sticks is completely something else.
At the same time, Bollinger was most affected by how committed people were to staying in Moore and rebuilding their homes.
“It was absolutely amazing. People had so much hope still,” she said. “One person who lost the side of their house painted on the tarp ‘Hope still lives here.’”
While Bollinger didn’t talk to anyone who was injured in the storm, she did have conversations with people who wanted to share how much their homes meant to them.
“I talked to a lot of people who had lost half or all of their house, or just their roof,” she said. “What they wanted to tell me is that they got married in the backyard, or about how their father built their house. They talked about the memory of the things they lost.”
Bollinger was particularly grateful for the support from A Small Orange’s staff.
“I was expecting to get to go for a couple of days,” she said. “Jen [Lepp, director of customer service] told me that as long I as I could get people to cover my shifts I could go.”
When she sent out an email asking for help, she was amazed by the response.
“Nick Crew and James Healy both volunteered to covered all the days I would be gone,” she said. “That’s 16 hour days for them. It just blew my mind.”
A Small Orange’s CEO, Doug Hanna, also donated $250 to Operation BBQ, which, due to the company’s matching policy, meant that the non-profit received $500 to help it pay for expenses. Although no one wants a tornado to strike again, if one touches down again in Oklahoma or a neighboring state, Bollinger is ready to help.
“If it happens again, I’ll do it again,” she said. “I want to be there. I want to help in any way I can.”