ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
“Don’t stand in the way when God’s doing a big thing.”
Those words from a fellow employee eased the trepidation Judy Hiebert felt late Thursday afternoon when a television camera crew rolled into the parking lot of Golden Heritage Foods to report on the company’s efforts to send emergency supplies to Baton Rouge, La., for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Hiebert, employee relations coordinator at GHF, had been leery about drawing public attention to the company itself. All it was doing was trying to provide a way for the broader community to respond to the enormous needs of people in Gulf Coast region.
But the words struck home.
“My perspective became a whole lot different,” Hiebert said.
Indeed, the original plan, hastily pulled together over two days, had envisioned sending one truck of emergency supplies-bottled water, diapers, toilet paper and baby-wipes-to the affected area immediately and then send a second truck with non-perishable goods donated by the community about 10 days later.
“This is not about Golden Heritage,” Hiebert said late last week even as the plan was changing almost by the hour. “It’s about how this community can make a difference. We’re just trying to be the pipeline to get it there.”
But by Thursday afternoon, that pipeline had grown far beyond those initial ambitions. The convoy of emergency supplies now included three semi-trucks; by mid-Saturday, a fourth truck was on its way as well.
“It’s just amazing,” Hiebert said Monday.
The sense that a larger power was at work occurred to Hiebert and GHF president Brent Barkman when they found out that each of them had concluded on their own that something needed to be done to help the hurricane victims and that Golden Heritage could be the local facilitator.
“I was traveling on Tuesday, listening to the radio and thinking, ‘What can we do about this?'” Barkman said. “One of the needs that’s obvious is that people need water. I thought, ‘Let’s get a load of water and just send it down there.’
“I got home from traveling and wasn’t in the house 15 minutes when Judy calls me and says, ‘I’ve been out mowing the grass and started thinking we ought to put together a truckload of stuff to send down south.’
“I thought, this is just really strange that we both got the same idea,” Barkman said. “We talked about it a little bit and decided that our business is God’s business. We just felt like this was God talking to us in a particular way, giving us both the same idea at the same time.
“I really didn’t feel like we had any choice in the matter,” he added. “It was the direction that we were being given.”
By noon Wednesday, Golden Heritage officials had decided they were going to send one of their company trucks loaded with bottled water down to Baton Rouge.
“We started looking around for a place where we could buy the water,” Barkman said. “We had offers of all kinds of things. People said they would bottle the water if we would bring them the bottles-things like that.
“We thought, that’s all well and good, but we felt like we needed to get it down there as soon as possible.”
After calling several regional distributors with no luck, a call to the Alco store in Hillsboro led to a connection with Alco’s distribution center in Abilene.
“They had a load of water we could get,” Barkman said. “We decided we’d top-load it with some toilet paper, diapers, baby wipes and things like that, and fill the truck.”
He said “excitement was pretty high” when the team of employees at Golden Heritage was informed of the connection.
“I told the team members, ‘I have confidence God is going to make the donations come in here for this truckload of water,” Barkman said. “‘In fact, I have enough confidence that I’m going to buy a second load. We’re going to match that first load and just send two loads right away.”
On Thursday morning, Barkman received offers from two Hillsboro businesses, Ag Service/ Ag Power and Container Services, to pay for one of the two truckloads.
With those expenses covered, Barkman said he decided to see if they could fill a third truck.
“We just happen to have a truck,” he said. “One of our independent truck drivers who drives for us a lot asked me, ‘Do you guys need some help?'”
In the end, Suhler Trucking Inc. from Lyons provided a truck and driver. All three trucks were loaded Thursday afternoon at the Alco/ Duckwalls main distribution center in Abilene, then driven back to the Golden Heritage plant for a send-off that included company employees, pastors from Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church and community guests.
After dedicatory prayers by the pastors, the trucks began the 850-mile trek to Baton Rouge.
Joining Barkman as drivers were Golden Heritage employees Gary Slater, Kevin Billbe and David Paper and independent driver Mike Casjens of Bowdle, S.D.
Delivering the goods
Key to the viability of the project was finding a reliable distributor for the goods in Baton Rouge.
“It was another one of those things that had nothing but Divine leading in it, because we went on the Internet and looked up churches in Baton Rouge,” Barkman said. “We picked a big one that had a Web site.”
They had found Comite Baptist Church.
As it turned out, on Tuesday night, the congregation had decided it could not become a refugee center because it operated a day care and academy on its campus. But they decided to use the facility as a distribution center of supplies.
Their only problem: the church had no idea from where it might get the needed supplies.
Hiebert’s call from Golden Heritage came to the church office the next morning.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Barkman said.
The convoy of three trucks made the long but uneventful 18-hour drive to Baton Rouge, arriving around noon on Saturday. By that time, the city had electrical power and some telephone communications.
Two of the trucks were unloaded at the River Center, one of two primary distribution centers in Baton Rouge.
The GHF team drove the third truckload of goods to nearby small communities that had been hit harder by the storm.
“It was really interesting to see how God was working in the whole thing, and putting us in the right position with the right people,” Barkman said.
At the River Center, some 7,000 refugees were being cared for with hot meals and decent sleeping accommodation. Even so, Barkman said, seeing so many people with such significant needs was powerful.
“It was really pretty humbling,” he said. “You see it on TV, but it’s just not the same as when you get into that same room with them. They have what they could carry out-and that’s all they have.
Aside from the material losses victims incurred, many of them were dealing with relational losses as well.
“They had a microphone and loudspeaker set up there and were interviewing people, trying even to get families together. Families had just been broken apart as they were rescued and taken out.
“There’s a lot of sad stories like that, a lot of people in turmoil down there because of that,” he said.
A fourth load
While still in Baton Rouge, Barkman received a “grocery list” of needed supplies from the church staff and called it in to the office in Hillsboro.
Hiebert spent her Friday evening buying a semi-truck load of goods from Sam’s Club in Wichita.
“I’ve never shopped at Sam’s with a forklift before,” she said.
Included in this inventory were pallets of stews and soups, toilet paper, diapers-including pre-mie diapers-peanut butter, crackers, juices and toothpastes.
The goods were loaded into a donated Mayflower moving truck and volunteer driver Bill Frey of Moundridge headed toward Louisiana on Saturday.
The precious cargo was successfully unloaded in Baton Rouge by Sunday noon, Hiebert said.
The one part of the original response plan that has remained more or less unchanged is the goal of sending one more truck to Baton Rouge Sept. 15.
Golden Heritage Foods is inviting the community to donate goods from a list of appropriate non-perishable items (see sidebar) to fill up the truck.
“We’re just going to be a facilitator for that,” Barkman said. “People can donate money or they can bring canned good and things like that here and we’ll be the collection point.
“We’ll box and palletize (the donations) and put everything together in a way that it can be shipped down there. We’ll store it here until we have that truck load.”
By Monday morning, sufficient donations had come in from area businesses and individuals to cover the cost of the goods delivered by the first three trucks-about $19,500 total.
Donations are still needed to cover the cost of supplies in the fourth truckload, which came to nearly $24,000.
As of Monday, Golden Heritage Foods was sticking with its plan to take one more load of donated goods to Baton Rouge. But Barkman indicated that plan isn’t set in stone either.
Given the way things have gone so far, he isn’t willing to limit the generosity of the community.
“We’re willing to do however many truckloads (of materials) come in,” he said. “If we need two truckloads or three truckloads, we’ll ship them down there.”
Both Barkman and Hiebert said the project would not have been possible without the involvement of a broad spectrum of Golden Heritage employees who were committed to the same goals.
“One of our goals at Golden Heritage Foods is to be a servant to the community and to provide servant leadership to the community,” Barkman said. “That’s important to us.
“We want to make sure that what comes out of this is that it’s a community effort. Golden Heritage Foods is just a facilitator for an act of kindness from the community.
“We want to make sure the community has a way of doing something good.”