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6 award-winning Southern Illinois barbecue restaurants join forces to feed health care workers
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6 award-winning Southern Illinois barbecue restaurants join forces to feed health care workers

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Hands of Hope BBQ

Workers prepare meals for health care and other frontline workers battling the coronavirus pandemic at Heartland Regional Medical Center on Tuesday, April 28 in Marion. The Hands of Hope Foundation and six area barbecue restaurants joined forces to feed the workers as a thank-you for their efforts. 

Nothing says “I love you” like a big plate of barbecue, according to The Rev. Troy Benitone, executive director of Hands of Hope Foundation. Hands of Hope is partnering with award-winning barbecue organizations to bring a little of that love to local health care workers through a program called Operation BBQ'd Hope.

Benitone’s daughter is an intensive care nurse in Memphis. She is working hard and isolating herself from her daughter.

When Benitone posted pictures of recent cooking by BBQ Heroes at Community of Faith in Marion, his daughter replied asking for him to deliver barbecue to her.

While it isn’t practical to deliver barbecue dinners to the ICU in Memphis, Benitone decided he could deliver meals to health care workers in Southern Illinois. He called Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue and asked for her help. She agreed to help with Operation BBQ'd Hope. He then called other barbecue caterers in Southern Illinois. Bob Fombelle of Great Boars of Fire near Cobden, Ryan Jeralds of Chuck’s BBQ in Herrin, Sam and Gail Blue of Big Blues Que and Blake at Rileys Smokehouse in Marion all agreed to help.

Then, they began raising money to fund the dinners. The proteins and main ingredients are provided through Hands of Hope. The restaurants bring their expertise and staples like salt, sugar and spices. Volunteers are preparing desserts.

“Each one is a certified food handler, so they know how to serve safely,” Benitone said.

Those dining will be treated to brisket from BBQ Heroes, pulled pork and beans from 17th Street and Great Boars of Fire, chicken and potato salad from Chuck’s BBQ, chicken and coleslaw from Riley’s Smokehouse, and pork butts from Big Blues Que.

They will feed about 4,000 people, including health care workers, police, ambulance personnel and firefighters through tents set up at Heartland Regional Medical Center, Herrin Hospital, St. Joseph Memorial Hospital and Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. Their first meal was Tuesday at Heartland. Other meals are planned for Thursday in Herrin; Tuesday, May 5 in Murphysboro; and Thursday, May 7 in Carbondale.

Hands of Hope BBQ

Workers from Heartland Regional Medical Center pick up free barbecue meals prepared by the Hands of Hope Foundation and six area barbecue restaurants on Tuesday, April 28 in Marion.

“I don’t get to feed my daughter, but I do get to feed people like her,” Benitone said.

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Heartland Regional Medical Center CEO Ed Cunningham said the meal made a difference even before it was served. “I will tell you, it’s raising spirits. I walk through every morning between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. and everyone was excited about the meal.”

Cunningham said everyone is working hard to fight COVID-19, and it’s not just doctors and nurses. It is the respiratory therapists, lab technicians, housekeepers and others. “The housekeepers keep us all safe by the cleaning they do,” Cunningham said.

He said the staff does hard work every day. When others pay attention, it really brings the spirits of staff up.

Cunningham has eaten at all the barbecue restaurants and called them all “amazing.”

He has been in his position at HRMC about five weeks, and has talked to the mayor, police and fire chiefs numerous times during the pandemic.

“They’re supporting us so well. We really are a family in this community,” he said.

He also thanked the greater Southern Illinois community for following the governor’s stay-at-home order.

I am impressed, at awe and very appreciative of the community for embracing it as well as they have. It is making a difference,” Cunningham said.

Benitone said they have funds for the first couple meals, but they will need additional resources to serve all locations. Donations can be made through the Hands of Hope website, hohfoundation.org, or by texting 618-663-4636. Be sure to include the dollar amount and follow instructions.

More information about Operation BBQ'd Hope is available on the foundation website at hohfoundation.org.

Coming together while we're apart: Southern Illinoisans show support, love from a distance

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