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The Zac Brown Band joined forces with some competitive pitmasters to lend a hand in the Smoky Mountains.

It took a chart-topping band to get the pitmasters of Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) into Gatlinburg after the Chimney Tops 2 firestorm. Zac Brown and his band had met members of OBR about a month before the fire and called to see if they were planning to come to the Smokies. That proved to be a lucky phone call.

“If you think about the nature of what we do—bringing in commercial smokers to cook large amounts of food—we’re generally not welcome at a fire site,” explained Stan Hays, an OBR founder and barbecue competitor. “Just the idea of seeing those large smokers right after a fire can make city officials very uncomfortable. So we actually teamed up with an organization called Southern Ground [a group of artists, makers, and craftspeople that Brown brought together under his lifestyle brand]. Some of Southern Ground’s own were affected by the fire, so they contacted us to see if we were thinking of going to Gatlinburg—and we were. They were able to work with the local mayor, city council, and emergency management there in the Gatlinburg area to make it possible for us to come in and do what we do.”

David Marks

What OBR has been doing since 2011 is feeding people—primarily in Tornado Alley and on the Gulf Coast—who are still reeling from whatever disaster has devastated their communities. Headquartered about 40 miles from Kansas City, Missouri, with another large base of operations in Memphis, the nonprofit has completed 35 deployments in 21 states, to date.

Though OBR began with a group of friends from the competitive barbecue circuit, Hays said they immediately attracted volunteers—500 at their first deployment in Joplin, Missouri. Aided by social media, they now have more than 4,420 volunteers across the country.

“We’re a stopgap,” says Hays, who wasn’t on the Gatlinburg deployment but stayed in constant contact with his group. “We’re not a sustainable organization that can be there for weeks or even months like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. We come in when the community needs a lift the most, and then we leave as the area starts building itself back up. Our team stayed in Gatlinburg 3 days and left when we saw lots of area churches—the ones that were not affected by the fire—and civic groups start to reach out and help. Once the local mom-and-pop barbecue restaurants start opening up, for example, we need to get out of their way and let neighbors help neighbors so that the local economy can rebuild and the community can heal itself.”

Working with Southern Ground, OBR served 13,400 meals in the Gatlinburg area. “We’re just shy of 1.2 million meals, and roughly half of those were served this year—over 300,000 to Louisiana flood victims,” says Hays, whose group has been able to dramatically increase deployments as they’ve attracted more funding and support.

You don’t have to spend much time with him to realize that OBR is about a lot more than free food: “We can’t give people their houses back. Most of us don’t know how they feel because we’ve never been through that kind of loss. But we can remind them that there are people out there who care. We can serve them nourishing comfort food that helps them think of good times they’ve had over barbecue with family and friends. It takes their minds off of what just happened to them—even if it’s just for 15 minutes—but even that much helps. Like one of our guys said, ‘We can’t change what happened to them, but we can change their day.’”

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The Zac Brown Band will join other artists in performing at a free, outdoor Mountain Tough Benefit on Saturday, December, 17, from noon to 10 p.m., at 705 Parkway in Gatlinburg. Buy a virtual ticket to make your donation to the Sevier County Community Fund at musiccityroots.com.

Want to help?

Sevier County, Tennessee: So many people lost their homes and will have to start over that relief agencies recommend giving to the American Red Cross, rather than trying to deliver goods. (In the bottom left corner of this web page, you can print a donation form, pay by check, and designate your gift for Sevier County.) While Pigeon Forge received relatively little damage, and Dollywood reopened shortly after the storm, Dolly Parton is, true to form, going above and beyond to help Sevier County. Join Dolly by contributing to her My People Fund.

Operation BBQ Relief: Volunteer or make a donation at operationbbqrelief.com.

Zac Brown’s Camp Southern Ground: Brown’s experience as a camp counselor inspired him to create a place that would give children from all backgrounds an unforgettable experience on 400 acres in rural Georgia. The camp, which is being built in phases, is financed, in part, by Southern Ground. It will place special emphasis on serving children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, social/emotional challenges, learning and attention issues, and family members in military service. Find out how to contribute at campsouthernground.org.