On August 8, 2023, the west side of Maui was unprepared for the swift destruction of deadly wildfires which scorched the island within hours, causing panic among the residents. After 17 years of disaster relief, wildfires remain some of the most ruthless and devastating. Hawaii’s governor stated that the fires were “likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history.”
In retrospect, they have made a painful scar on Maui that will not soon be forgotten. The fire that consumed the historic town of Lahaina erupted from a small fire to an out-of-control inferno in a matter of hours.
Mercy Chefs arrived within 72 hours of the wildfires and promptly began serving hot meals and distributing groceries. The people we served were in shock; many fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs and would return to a pile of ash. Lahaina was the main area to be completely burned, and our primary goal was to get to the heart of the need.
Thankfully, Citizen Church Maui has been a church partner with us since COVID-19 when we began grocery box distributions for struggling families on the island. Because of this faithful partnership, we were able to get to them in Lahaina and soon found a commercial kitchen for use at the Plantation House - the only place with working electricity at the time. We consider these open doors as miracles.
When there seems to be no way, God makes a way for us to just go feed people!
The victims we served blew us away with their strength and heart to serve even in the midst of their own loss. Brad, a 40-year resident of Lahaina and the owner of a local construction company, has built dozens of homes and buildings across Lahaina—including Citizen Church Maui, where we distributed meals on the west side. We met him standing in front of his home that he built with his own two hands. He narrowly escaped the wildfires, his truck catching on fire four separate times as he made his way to safety. While his family was safe, the memories of their former home lay in ashes.
Despite all of this, he kept reminding our team that “It’s just stuff. It’s family that’s important.” With this positive outlook, he shared the very truck that caught on fire to transport Mercy Chefs meals to those in need.
Inspired by local cuisine, we included SPAM, along with fresh produce, seafood, and more combinations of hot, nutritious meals that our Maui Ohana would see, feel, and experience the comfort of a home-cooked meal.
After surpassing 35,000 hot meals served on Maui, our team on the ground saw a rising need for groceries in the community. Many homes went from supporting just four people to a dozen or more. When we notice families beginning to rebuild their lives, many simply want the opportunity to cook fresh meals for themselves if they can.
That’s why Mercy Chefs increased our relief efforts with our Family Grocery Box Program, which is ongoing today. These boxes are packed with produce, fruit, canned meat, pasta, rice, sugar, flour, and more. We received generous donations from Maui Food Bank, Maui Gold Pineapple, and Aloun Farms Hawaii to make this a reality. Local volunteers from Citizen Church Maui and the surrounding area assemble these boxes regularly, and we will continue this effort as long as there is a need!
The Category 3 Hurricane Idalia slammed Florida’s Big Bend on August 30, 2023, with record-breaking winds and storm surge not seen in that area in 125 years. Once we found our base of operations at Suwannee Middle School in Live Oak, Florida, our team jumped right into serving hot meals and setting up distribution runs to the surrounding counties. The largest obstacle this hurricane provided was the widespread nature of the destruction from storm surge and extended power outage across the area.
One of our main providers, to whom we sent thousands of meals, was the Florida State Guard, to carry love in a box into the most unreachable places. They not only came to pick up meals but also helped us prepare and pack them! We were so honored to serve side by side with these heroes, working tirelessly to provide relief efforts amidst the destruction of Hurricane Idalia.
Imagine being reduced to a single suitcase and sitting on a cot in a middle school auditorium, having no idea whether or not your home has been obliterated in a hurricane. These were some of the thoughts haunting Mary Anne.
Two other survivors we met were Billie and Tori, a couple that lives a few hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico, where Hurricane Idalia made landfall. Six feet of storm surge burst through their back door and filled their home with several feet of water. When the rain finally subsided, they returned to find their refrigerator floating on its side in the living room. They rushed to the garage to try and close the door and keep their belongings from drifting away, but the water reached up to their necks.
Billie’s prized guitar had been swept away in the wreckage. When he saw a post online about someone who had found his guitar, he was shocked to realize that it had turned up over a mile away.
Tori has a sensory processing disorder and has been unable to stomach the unnatural texture of the MREs that her community was fed. She had to drive over 30 minutes in each direction to get food three times a day, all while spending the rest of her time digging muddy debris out of their home. Mercy Chefs had the privilege of delivering the first hot meal she had been able to enjoy in her hometown.
As Shabbat was coming to a close on October 7, 2023 the terrorist group Hamas launched an unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on the 50th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. This is a moment in history that the world won’t soon forget, and while war often inspires fear and hopelessness, Mercy Chefs moved swiftly towards the heart of the need.
Within 48 hours, our advance team was on the ground setting up a secure base location to provide hundreds of grocery boxes and vital resources to victims. From here, we served a full Shabbat and completely kosher dinners to families still living in the towns near the border of Gaza.
Shabbat is a weekly Israeli practice of rest and celebration that begins on Friday before sunset and ends on Saturday nightfall. The first meals we served carried immense significance since just a week prior, Shabbat was tragically interrupted by the horrific attacks. We stood alongside our local partners to join hands and bring light to so many families in the middle of this nightmare.
The kitchen in Israel was a vibrant melting pot, with individuals from nine different nationalities coming together to prepare delicious meals! A miraculous and special moment for this deployment was when we had the pleasure of hosting a kind and generous Rabbi who visited our base camp and blessed our kitchen, making it Kosher-certified. Our local partners were amazed by how remarkably swift this Kosher certification process was, something they had never witnessed before.
Our Mercy Chefs team continues to provide grocery boxes, chef-prepared meals, and resources to families who either have evacuated their homes or are still residing near the frontlines of the war in Israel.
Thanks to our dedicated local partners, we acquired a new tilt skillet for our kitchen, which enables chefs to produce hot, nutritious meals at a higher volume and continue feeding body and soul without wavering.
As the war continues, Mercy Chefs is committed to long-term recovery and provision through grocery box distribution. Our team was able to train local pastors and leaders representing seven different churches from across Israel to assemble 1,000 boxes within hours to distribute for the Week.
And the most miraculous part of this accomplishment has been the unity among the volunteers working together. A woman named Jayleen, who is the event coordinator of our primary partner, Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries, was able to speak to this profound occurrence. After our first training event, she shared that the protestant and charismatic Christian communities are usually very independent from one another, but since the massacre on October 7, she has seen pockets of believers work together that she had never seen interact over the past 11 years she’s lived in Israel.
People of every age, working alongside Mercy Chefs staff, redistributed 16 pallets of goods within one afternoon. These completed Family Grocery Boxes of shelf-stable dry goods were then picked up over the next two days and distributed to those in need all over Israel.
The training event has brought about replication. Since then, three different churches in three different locations have held their own grocery box event, each producing 500 packages, resulting in 52,500 meals in total being distributed in one week alone.
From northern communities to the West Bank to communities near the border in Gaza, your support, prayers, and the grace of God have allowed us to stay and serve. We can’t go unless you send us—so thank you for sending us.
A Mercy Moment
This is Silvia, a faithful mother we met in Honduras, where she was sleeping under a tarp with her four children. After our team prayed over her, our local church partners stepped in to find a better home for this family in need, funded through Mercy Chefs and our faithful supporters.
Even at her lowest moment, she told us, “I know God, and I know that He is my provider.”
As we revisit her story a few months later, we’re excited to share how far she has come!
Thanks to your support, the local church rented a home for this family to keep them safe from rain and wind. She now has a brand-new refrigerator and sewing machine. She has been taking sewing classes so that she can maintain long-term employment, and she recently enrolled in classes to learn to read and write.
We are honored to not only feed Silvia but to play a part in strengthening her as a powerful woman and mother. Stories like this one compel us to “just go feed people.” We never know what that first meal might lead to.
In addition to Silvia, we’ve met countless women, men, and children in Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, empowering them to not only eat well but to cook well in an environment that often doesn’t provide ideal conditions. As we build ongoing relationships in various countries, our hope is to teach, train, and equip people to make hot, nutritious meals for themselves and their communities.
One of the locations Mercy Chefs Global has built a lasting relationship with is a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, where hundreds of families are living in transition as they await legal access to the United States.
From the shelter kitchen, we train and equip women to cook three meals a day for everyone there— to do so following sanitation and health guidelines to keep this community healthy and well fed.
During our most recent trip in October 2023, our Global team took family photos for those living in the shelter. Many of their stories are heartbreaking as they either fled for their lives from the cartel or lost loved ones and have begun their journey to a fresh start. We realized many, if not most, of them did not have a family portrait of any kind, and we knew we could offer this simple gift.
This year, our dream of adding more community kitchens became a reality! In July 2023, we launched our Dallas Community Kitchen in partnership with Youth World. Then, in October 2023, just two hours from our headquarters in Portsmouth, VA, we opened our Richmond Community Kitchen.
Our vision for community kitchens first began with CoFounder and President, Ann LeBlanc, when she felt the call to not only feed people in response to natural disasters but to feed them in our own backyard where many of the American population live in food-insecure communities.
We provide food service to further the mission of local organizations with after-school programs, resources for single mothers and their children, holiday meals, and more to actively create a measure of stability for families who do not know where their next meal will come from.
On October 17, 2023 CEO and Founder, Chef Gary LeBlanc, officially cut the ribbon to announce the grand opening of the Mercy Chefs Richmond Community Kitchen, standing alongside Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond and the wonderful team from The Kitchens at Reynolds!
The community of Richmond, VA, holds a special place in our hearts, and we are excited to work alongside local volunteers to bring hope in the form of a meal. Here, our chefs will have a permanent place to impact lives through childhood nutrition, teaching classes, and job skill training.
We are excited to see all the ways our brand-new Richmond Community Kitchen will partner with local organizations and residents to impact lives through Food.
A MESSAGE FROM THE FOUNDER
Mercy Chefs is all about heart. I often tell our team that what we do is not a job; it’s a calling. It’s not a “9-5,” it’s a feed the person right in front of you—until the line is gone. Our staff is in this to serve with all their heart, mind, and strength because it’s what we have been called to do.
Every year, I ask God for a “word for the year,” and as much as I wanted that word to be “rest” or “nap,” it was “PERSEVERE.” He really does have a sense of humor. But He was spot on with this word, because 2023 has been a year of enduring and staying faithful to the call more than I could have expected. We’ve been to what I thought were unreachable places in the world, overcome unforeseen circumstances, stepped through miraculous open doors, and had to walk by faith and not by sight for so many big decisions for the future of Mercy Chefs.
But in all those trials and tribulations, our team has held fast to this scripture from Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.” We’ve pressed on because we know that every meal changes a life. It changes mine every time I give one away! There is something special about what we do at Mercy Chefs, and it’s because we do not give up because of the support of friends like you.
The last 17 years have left me astounded. The fact that our total meals served exponentially grew in the past five years from 3 million meals to 25 million meals this year, is only possible because God made a way. Our mission is to serve millions and millions more, and we are growing our operations to do that with excellence. With Mercy Chefs Global and domestic relief, a Storehouse, community kitchens all over the country, and an ever-growing team, Mercy Chefs is committed to continue serving areas of great need, wherever that may be.
I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support and sacrifices you make to see this vision come to life. We couldn’t do any of this without you.