John Wayne was getting anxious.
The young beef farmer and his wife, Sara, had watched the horrific news unfold from the safety of their farm in Gassaway, W.Va. A flood—some calling it a “thousand-year flood”—was ravaging their fellow mountaineers in White Sulphur Springs, Clay, Richwood and dozens of other small hamlets in pockets weaved into the steep Appalachian mountains of their state.
The June 23 flood brought up to 10 inches of rain in a 12-24 hour period, killing 23. It was a double-whammy. As creeks and rivers rose, the mountains started to fall as mudslides raced down the hills under the force of the water. As much mud as water filled homes, businesses and everything in-between.
“They used the exit ramps on I-79 as boat launches to rescue people,” Sara recalled, shaking her head. “We felt so helpless.”
She and John couldn’t leave their farm or their two small boys to help in the immediate rescue effort, so they began to think of what they could do. They had beef. Maybe, they thought, they could do something with that.
Eric Thomason, a field representative for the West Virginia Farm Bureau who dabbles in grass-fed beef on his small farm, had a similar idea. He contacted the Waynes, who he knew well. The trio met to pray together and discuss what action they could take. They made the initial donations on their own.
Those recovering from the devastation needed everything, including “getting ground beef (or) sausage to distribution points for families, work crews and places that are preparing meals for families still living in tents,” Thomason said.
With the addition of Wayne family friend Tim Woods, who happened to have a freezer that could hold about a thousand pounds of meat, the West Virginia Beef Relief effort began to take shape; and it was the relationships that are the backbone of Farm Bureau where the grassroots effort really got rolling.
“We started to reach out to our contacts,” Thomason said, “people we knew—friends, family, churches and county Farm Bureaus.”
And offers started to come in—of cash, meat and more. The Thomasons and Waynes, with a fully loaded Highlander, made the first deliveries at the end of July.
West Virginia Roane County Farm Bureau board members Jim and Marge Marshall heard of the effort and donated a steer in August. The Marshalls have been getting their meat custom processed at Heffelfinger’s Meats in Jeromesville, Ohio, for years, said owner Rick Heffelfinger. Custom processing is not something the Ashland County Farm Bureau member usually does, but the Marshalls are a special case.
And the request they made of him was special.
“He asked me to get one of his steers to process for the flood victims in West Virginia,” said Heffelfinger, whose mother’s family, the Gerwigs, hail from the region. So he did, and the beef relief team sent him $300 of donated money to cover his costs—a check he inexplicably held onto for a month, unable to cash.
“Something told me not to deposit it,” he said, tears in his eyes. “So I held onto it.”
He also held onto the beef as Thomason scrambled to find someone to transport it. Whomever volunteered would need to have about eight hours to spare—the drive from Jeromesville to the drop-off point in Gassaway, W. Va., being more than four hours alone. They would also need enough space to keep cold 400-500 pounds of ground beef.
Finally, he dashed off an email to his contacts at Ohio Farm Bureau. That email eventually landed in the inbox of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation state board member Roger Baker of Wooster, who couldn’t shake the feeling he was being called to make this delivery himself.
His family has roots in Clay County, W. Va., close to those most affected by the flood. Baker, whose Clay County grandmother once told him to “never get above my raising and never forget where I came from,” answered the call to help.
To transport all the beef, he borrowed one freezer. Then he bought another at a deep discount after the manager at the local Cabela’s asked why it was needed. That manager had just returned from two weeks helping out flood victims back home.
Baker met the Waynes, who had been anxiously awaiting the delivery, at the drop off point—in Gassaway, where Heffelfinger’s family is from. And it just so happens that the Waynes farm Gerwig-family land.
After learning where the beef was headed, Heffelfinger, who had already planned to send back that $300 sent to him, made a $500 donation, too.
Baker, for his part, was overcome with emotion when he thought of the pathways established to make the donation possible.
“I needed to share this…because (at) every turn there was a God moment and tears shed,” Baker said. “It’s because of…my grandmother, that planted the seeds to always go back home when called. I hope that they can rebuild their lives better than before.”
It’s an uphill climb Thomason, Woods and the Waynes have made for months now.
The beef from Marshalls’ steer is long gone. The flood is over and the media have left, but the need remains. The trio who started the effort back in July weren’t so sure it was still necessary, but then Thomason received another call, with a simple message:
“Richwood hasn’t had any protein in six weeks.”
So, on a sunny day in October, Thomason took about 350 pounds of beef and sausage, packaged in one-pound portions, from the Gassaway freezer to the town of Richwood. Baker would later recall visiting Richwood in his youth when he wanted to go “have fun.”
The once-booming coal town of about 2,000 is built on a hillside, as so many are, and was decimated by the flood. It lost its only grocery store and dollar store. The town’s largest employer, a nursing home, was destroyed. The local pantry was severely damaged.
“Before the flood, up to 65 percent of the community received government assistance,” said Rita De Mario, director of volunteer serves of Rebuild Richwood. She and her volunteer staff serve 90-100 people a day in a reopened armory on the edge of town. They are paid through the city of Richwood with funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Her nonperishable supplies at the makeshift relief center were low, and once word spread about the meat Thomason delivered, she knew it would be gone in a matter of days. But she was grateful, as were those in Clay where a meat delivery was made that same day.
But, at least in Richwood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funding was slated to run out at the end of October and De Mario was going to be out of a job and headed back home to North Carolina. There was heavy uncertainty hanging in the air the day of the delivery. The town’s pantry isn’t completely repaired yet and the dollar store hadn’t reopened. The grocery store won’t open again and the jobs at the nursing home are gone, seemingly for good.
“What are these people going to do?” Thomason asked De Mario, worry etched on his features. De Mario looked away. That day, there were no answers, but the wheels were turning in Thomason’s mind.
“You know,” he said later, as he thought about Richwood and the call to provide ongoing beef relief. “We’ve been able to donate more than a ton of meat, we’ve fed thousands of people…”
The former campus minister nodded as he trailed off, knowing in that moment that he and the beef relief effort hadn’t taken their final call just quite yet. l
How to help beef relief efforts
West Virginia Beef Relief is an effort to help victims of the historic June 2016 flood in West Virginia by providing meat for those in need. The effort raises money to pay for animals to slaughter and the fees to process them. Also being accepted are donations of beef and hogs.
For more information about the effort, visit its Facebook page by typing “WV Beef Relief” into the search bar.
You can contact coordinator Eric Thomason at ericth[email protected] or 304-516-9509.
Monetary donations may be sent to:
First Baptist Church
42 Hart Ave.
Buckhannon, WV 26201
Make check to “FBC”
NOTE: Donation must include “Beef Relief” in the memo line.