"These folks are still hurting pretty badly."

Like many relief organizations, Mercy Chefs were in place ahead of the storm, ready to feed those in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. For over a decade, the non-profit Mercy Chefs has shown up in the wake of natural disasters to provide the most basic of needs—food. And not just any food, a warm meal, cooked with love.

Along with the rest of us, the folks behind Mercy Chefs were surprised just how severe the wrath of that storm truly was when it made landfall on Florida's gulf coast on October 10th. But they were ready. Under the helm of founder, Louisiana born Gary LeBlanc and his wife Ann, the chefs moved in as soon as it was safe to do so and set up several locations in the Panama City area to feed hot meals to so many who had lost so much. LeBlanc and his mighty team of chefs and volunteers were feeding nearly 18,000 people a day in those first days post storm. And when Southern Livingpaid them a visit in their Lyn Haven location a few weeks later, they were still serving 6,000 folks a day. LeBlanc's philosophy is simple. They show up in the worst of times to show love to people when they need it the most and the lead the way for neighbors to begin helping neighbors. "Amazing things happen over a shared plate of food," he told us.

After just over 3 weeks, Mercy Chefs reluctantly left the area on October 31st, but with the promise to return and return they did. They went back a few weeks later to serve a Thanksgiving meal. "It was hard coming back. We're still seeing an incredible amount of damage and debris down here. These folks are still hurting pretty badly," LeBlanc told Southern Livingin a phone call. He added that the amount of damage is "unlike anything I've seen in 12 years of Mercy Chefs."

LeBlanc also pointed out that there is good news. Many of the homes with roof damage have been fitted with the proper tarps, the roadways are clear, and the power is back on most of the main roads. "It is still fairly startling in some parts of the city how dark it is. Not because they don't have power but because the homes aren't occupied, the businesses aren't occupied so they don't have the parking lot lights on."

Upon their return, Mercy Chefs once again set up in four different areas in and around Panama City to serve a joyful holiday meal. They served turkey and gravy, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, baked ham, green beans, cranberry sauce—the works for a hearty Thanksgiving feast—complete with a pumpkin dessert. Each location had a plethora of family-friendly activities like bounce houses, craft tables, face painting, and even pony rides at one spot. The generous chefs weren't just handing out dinner. They had toys for the kids and gift cards for parents to help with the Christmas shopping this year. There were even Christmas trees constructed out of wooden pallets and debris.

Wooden Christmas Tree Mercy Chefs
Credit: Mercy Chefs

"I think people sometimes need to know that it's OK to feel better. You know you get in that mode that it's horrible, it's hard, it's difficult. And little celebration sometimes allows them that freedom to say, you know what, we are gonna be OK. This is going to get better," he said.

There were many happy reunions for the chefs and the people they'd served just a few weeks before. LeBlanc recalled one couple that really pulled at his heartstrings.

"We saw a couple that ate with us here every night during our time here after the hurricane. We found out later that her husband was beginning to have symptoms of dementia and that routine was so important in his life to keep him well and in the aftermath of a hurricane there was absolutely no routine. But that they could come and eat every day with Mercy Chefs created a routine that he could thrive and be Ok in. We say them on Saturday and that was an incredibly reunion."

They also heard about a tent city that is housing close to 600 people in the parking lot of a church. The heroic chefs turned up there too to provide dinner, gifts, and a little comfort. "It's the most amazing thing to share a meal with somebody and just to say that it's a promise of hope and recovery," LeBlanc said.

After that weekend, LeBlanc and his team are aware of just how bad the circumstances for so many are, and they are working on long term plans to help the region. They know that mission teams and construction teams will be there to help rebuild and recover for at least a year and Mercy Chefs is planning ways to become a resource for those groups. "We'll work down here as long as we can and do as much as possible."

As we are nearing Christmas, in a time when so many Americans are feeling generous, LeBlanc urges us all to not forget about the people in Panama City. He said that prayers and volunteering are always needed, but that if you can, monetary donations will go a long way. "Folks just need to know that there is an incredible need that is still here that is not being met and can only be met by the generosity of fellow Americans around the country."

If you would like to help the mission of the Mercy Chefs and help our Florida neighbors get back on their feet, you can find more information on how to volunteer or donate here.