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Disaster Relief Team to celebrate 25 years of service

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For The Arkadelphian

June 10 will be the 25th anniversary of the organizational meeting of Red River Baptist Association Disaster Relief Team (Mass Feeding). According to the Senior Unit Leader Harold Johnson they plan to honor this event Saturday, June 11, at their building on Highway 67 South in Arkadelphia with multiple events.

First there will be a training event during the morning. That will be followed by lunch prepared by local volunteers. The afternoon will be devoted to a session concerning how the organization came to be and what they have accomplished over the years. They will hear from Rev. Maurice Hitt, who was the Red River Association Director of Missions before and after they organized. The Arkansas Baptist disaster relief director, Randy Garrett, will speak to them, followed by Sam Roberts, the state convention Missions Team Leader. The final event will be pictures and stories from the past highlighting major events and honoring some who were with them in their early years.

“We claim to have been born out of the March 1, 1997, tornado,” Johnson said. In February of 1997, a retired men’s work group was meeting at First Baptist Church. Someone mentioned that disaster relief training was to be offered at the church on two nights in late February. After some discussion almost everyone present agreed to attend the sessions. We did so along with some others from Red River Association. Nine days after the second training session, the March 1 F4 tornado did catastrophic damage to a large part of the city.”

Some of those who did not have any damage joined the Arkansas Baptist disaster relief kitchen that was sent here and helped feed those who were affected by the tornado. About 1,500 meals per day were prepared for delivery by the Red Cross, and for a large number of people who were eating at the church. The church, which had only minor damage, became the center of activity, hosting not only the feeding team but also the American Red Cross, chain saw teams from Texas and Louisiana, chaplains from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and the staff of Red River Association, whose building sustained considerable damage. This activity continued for about two weeks.

“During a work session discussion at the church someone mentioned that we now know what it is like to suffer through a disaster and have caring people come to our rescue,” Johnson said. “It was decided to request that the association call a meeting to discuss what should be done.”

That meeting was held on June 10 with about 15 interested citizens present. It was decided to organize, begin raising money, and design a kitchen trailer. Johnson became the unit director and has held that position for the entire life of the unit. The owner of a welding shop in Prescott was given the task of building the basic trailer. Once it was delivered the team did the finish work and outfitted it for use. The team’s first response was for a three-day drowning recovery operation at DeGray Lake.

During the next 25 years the team has responded to more than 40 actual disasters and “several times that many non-disaster events,” Johnson said. “Surprisingly, the majority of the disaster responses have been outside of Arkansas.” The team has been eight times to Louisiana, four times to Texas, three times to New York, twice to Colorado, Oklahoma and Florida, and once to North Carolina, Alabama and North Dakota. Some of the in-state responses have been tornado responses at Manila, Beebe, Cabot and Mena, plus several ice and flooding events. The team also stays busy doing non-disaster feeding events for Arkansas Baptists.

The team is composed of 165 volunteer members from all over southwest Arkansas. All have had six hours of training, and many have had advanced training. The team has three trucks, three trailers and a bus. They carry the necessary equipment to prepare up to 12,000 meals per day. They work in accordance with agreements with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. Basically the agreements provide that Southern Baptist teams provide the mobile kitchens and the necessary personnel to staff them, they (Red Cross and Salvation Army) provide the bulk food and the necessary services (fuel, water, ice, garbage service, forklifts, steps, food storage trailers, etc.), Southern Baptist prepare the meals, and jointly they are delivered by mobile routes and/or served at the preparation location, usually a Baptist church where the team is staying.

The team operates from their building adjacent to the Red River Association office building in south Arkadelphia. It was constructed in 2009 through funding provided by The Olds Foundation and by the churches and their members of Red River Association.

The team is actually one unit with two kitchens. Over time the unit had grown so large that it became difficult to respond to small requirements. It was decided to build a small concession type kitchen trailer that only required about four people to operate it, could move on short notice, had all the necessary cooking equipment, and could carry the required food on board. It was intended that it would be used primarily to support first responders who were responding to events lasting long enough that food and drink would be required. Thus, the designation First Responder Support Unit, (aka quick response trailer).

While they have only been used in that capacity twice, both times for missing person searches, they have supported first responder training on multiple occasions. They have fed the bomb squads of Arkansas, central Arkansas SWAT teams, and regularly support an annual search and rescue training event at DeGray Lake. Also, on two weekends during the July 2020 demonstrations in downtown Little Rock they fed the law enforcement and national guard personnel who were involved.

“The team stands ready to move on short notice to bring hope and healing to those who have had their lives interrupted by a disaster,” said Johnson.

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