Nick Beckman told his story to producer Ann Marie Awad for an episode of The daily rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
There were a lot of moments in Fort Myers where I didn’t really think I could go on. That’s after eight days of 18-hour days. I would sit in a car for 5, 10 minutes and get up, and just try to calm down and reset myself. And I would find myself sobbing and I would call my wife and say to her, “I don’t know how I can get up and go again.
We were 20 or 30 there. You looked around and you knew who had just come back after crying. Once in a while, you approach a friend, co-worker, co-worker, hug, shake, and move on and keep doing the work at hand.
People call me Beckman. I’m here at Mercy Chefs headquarters in Portsmouth, Virginia. I am the Director of Logistics and Facilities, which means I oversee all of our equipment, kitchen trailers and support vehicles.
Mercy Chefs is a faith-based disaster relief organization. Our goal is to cook and serve chef-prepared hot meals in the aftermath of natural disasters and national emergencies to victims, volunteers, first responders and anyone who is hungry.
I have a wife who also works at Mercy Chefs, then a young son, and two more on the way. So in the fall I will have three sons. I would say my family is my first priority, and my passion for sure. I love being a dad. I think that’s just the best thing anyone can do is be a parent. But Mercy Chefs is at the top of the list. We often say here that it’s more than a job, because it requires a lot more attention and care than most jobs.
What we do is unlike anything else in the world. If you look at the disaster areas, you see a lot of food, a lot of people making food. But often it’s hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese sandwiches. Something really easy and cheap for a lot of people to do. And that’s great. We always say that any food is good after a disaster, when someone has lost everything, their fridge is useless, the pantry may have disappeared. We believe anything is better than nothing. But we also believe there is a way to serve with excellence, and that involves many additional steps. We could go out and put cheese on bread and pass it out and call it a day, but we think a meal in a box with a hot main course, whatever it is, a fresh green salad, a piece of fruit, a nice piece of bread and dessert means a lot more to someone than a cheese sandwich or a hot dog.
Hurricane Ian hit Fort Myers in early October 2022 and we rallied. It was our biggest mobilization to date.
After two days in Fort Myers, we all got together and said, “We need another kitchen. We need more capacity. We need to do more. We burned through an entire truckload of fresh groceries in a day and a half. Again, each meal is handmade. It comes with love, and it’s a real meal and all that. Means a lot of hard work.
I believe the call time was at 4:45 a.m., and we come together, and pray for our day ahead, and the opportunity to serve people in their most difficult times. If there’s food for us, grab something real quick. And then it’s about getting food off the trucks for the day. We cook in a hurry. So when we get onions, we get bags of onions and it takes a team of volunteers to dice those onions, before they can go into a pan. There is chicken to be minced, there is meat to be smoked. You just do this, that, and all, and all of a sudden you look up and it’s 5:00 p.m. and you haven’t eaten.
There were a lot of times in Fort Myers where I really thought about giving up and throwing in the towel and saying, Mercy Chefs is too tough. I can not do it. I will not do it. I want to be with my family.
I spoke to my wife, I spoke to my coworkers, and I prayed all the way, and I say Mercy Chefs isn’t a job, it’s a calling. For those of us who are honored to hear and respond to this call, you cannot just give up when the going gets tough. Because then you drive off, and you see the faces of the people you touch with a meal, and you realize that those people haven’t given up either and they’ve lost everything. I still have a house. I still have a bed. And my family is well at home.
We always talk about Mercy Chefs. We prepare 20,000 meals a day. And it’s easy to say, yes, we made 20,000 meals today. It’s incredible. Well done team. But it is 20,000 people who have been affected by a meal. And so at the end of the day, often we get together and the question arises: Who is your one today?
In Fort Myers, for me, I was just taking a minute to myself to walk the three-quarter mile long drive-thru line we had for people waiting to eat, waving and smiling and saying hello.
There was a little boy in a car with his mother, and he had a little pencil-drawn sign that said, thank you, Mercy Chefs. He was holding it out the window in the back of that battered old car. I could tell his mother was tired. But I could also see a bit of hope on her face, waiting in the drive-thru line, that she was going to be able to feed him today. And his little note of thanks, that was really special to me, because I know what I would do to get my son to bring him food following a cataclysmic event like this, and I would wait days for a hot meal for my son.
I said nothing. I waved and smiled and carried on, but it’s something that’s going to stick with me.
The biggest thing I learned in Fort Myers is that the capacity for human endurance is incredible, but the capacity for love between us as humans is even greater. As hard as it can be to see someone having their worst day and a community ravaged by a storm like this, it’s always really, really cool to see how a community can come together and love each other. Often we see volunteers who show up to serve with us, who have no home to return to at the end of the day to serve with us. They were affected in the same way as everyone else in their community, yet they chose to come out and serve their community with us. They might be at home talking to the insurance company and sorting through the rubble of their belongings, but they’re coming out of that and serving their community.
On day 16 of my 18-hour days, I’m running with very little sleep, lots of caffeine, and very little food. My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and I say, There’s no way I can get my feet out of bed. There’s no way I can kick my feet off that air mattress and get up and put on my dirty clothes that haven’t been cleaned and go back out there and do the job. There is simply no way. And then I sit for another 10 seconds with my eyes closed and think about the previous 15 days where I actually got my feet out of bed.
For me, I think looking back is usually my best way forward, trusting that it’s been done. There’s nothing here that I haven’t done before. I know the job that awaits me. I know I did it and I can do it. It’s just kind of a mental step of telling myself that I can actually do this because I actually did this.
Nick Beckman is Director of Logistics and Facilities for Mercy Chefs, winner of the 2022 Defender Service Award, created by Land Rover. These awards recognize nonprofit organizations that provide selfless service to their communities every day. You can learn more about Mercy Chefs and their work at miséricordechefs.com.