Hope amid despair: Tyson ministers to the needs of tornado victims

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Jim Huffman of Pottsville heard the threat of severe storms early on Sunday, April 27, and knew the 501 would be a prime target.

“Being a pastor, I believe in prayer,” said Huffman, who has led the congregation at Pottsville First Baptist Church for 12 years and been chaplain at the Tyson Foods Dardanelle Complex for nearly five. “I knew it was going to be bad. I prayed.

“But I had no idea I would get to see the faces of those I was praying for.”

But through the Tyson Foods Meals that Matter program, he spent most of the following week ministering to the stricken in Mayflower and Ferndale after the deadly tornado ravaged the area.

“I truly believe when you read scripture and live a life of faith, you see that God leads you to people you can minister to,” said Huffman, 52, a 1980 graduate of Morrilton High School.

After the tornado decimated parts of Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties that Sunday night and before destructive storms moved on to several other states, Tyson officials quickly leaped into action. As part of the company’s Meals that Matter program, Tyson served more than 42,000 meals in Mayflower from Monday, April 28, to Sunday, May 4, said Pat Bourke, Tyson’s corporate social responsibility program manager.

“We had 66 team members rotate in/out of our disaster site,” Bourke said. “Our Tyson chaplains also play a very vital role in our disaster relief program. (They) have responded to disasters from 9-11 to Mayflower and all disasters in between that affect our communities. Our chaplains are a huge source of comfort to not only the victims and volunteers but all Tyson team members who have volunteered to respond.”

Huffman said Tyson is “not a faith-based company, but we are a faith-friendly company.” Bourke said its outreach had grown over the years with such disasters as 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, but that after the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011, the company “made the decision to grow, further centralize and integrate strategies around our disaster relief efforts.”

In April 2012, company officials unveiled another tool for disaster response — a 53-foot semi-trailer “with enough refrigerated space to store up to 20,000 pounds of chicken, beef and pork; a 5,500-watt generator; and satellite communications,” Bourke said, adding that the trailer serves as a central supply unit at disaster sites.

“Since we are in the business of feeding people, our most natural and effective response has been to prepare and serve food to victims and relief workers at disaster sites,” Bourke said.

Eighty-five Tyson locations are equipped for such a response; four brought their cooking equipment to Mayflower. Other Tyson responses were in Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

Huffman was part of the team in Mayflower.

“After a conference call with all our facilities that determined what plants were going, they told us to go home, pack a bag and plan to be there all week,” he recalled.

He had a previous commitment to preach a funeral for a Dardanelle Tyson employee mid-week, so he sandwiched his relief work around that.

Huffman served on a cook team that supplied Red Cross workers with their meals, with more meals taken to the field, where Huffman met many of those he’d prayed for days earlier.

The stories from those encounters were harrowing — but ultimately uplifting.

On Dam Road in Mayflower, one of the hardest-hit areas, he visited a brick home that was mostly gone, with the front wall standing and a few rafters still intact. Someone had spray-painted on the house, “Praise God, Theresa Long is alive.” As Huffman and his team delivered food and water as people worked to salvage what they could from the wreckage, he asked who Long was.

“She said, ‘That’s me,’ and she grabbed my hand and began to take me through the rubble,” Huffman said.

Long showed him the door behind which she had hidden from the storm. An artist, she had painted a mural of Christ there a few years ago.

“There were many doors in the house she could have chosen, but she said, ‘I wanted to be behind that door no matter what,’” Huffman said, recalling John 10:9, “I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.”

Michael Tarvin, Tyson’s director of chaplain services, sent an email on Tuesday morning, April 29, asking his fellow chaplains to be in prayer for the “particularly touching” story of the Tittle family of western Pulaski County near Ferndale. Three members of the family — father Rob, 48; and his daughters Tori, 20; and Rebekah, 14 — were the storm’s first fatalities in Arkansas.

“Rob and his wife Kerry had heard the tornado warnings and were shepherding their nine children under a stairwell when the tornado disintegrated their home,” Tarvin wrote in the email. “Rob was doing what a man does — putting his family first — when the twister hit.”

The email goes on to refer to a Facebook post in the aftermath by another daughter, Whitney, 19, which included a reference to Job 1:21: “We have lost three of our family …, prayers would be appreciated. The house is gone, stripped from the foundation. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

On Thursday, Huffman and others took food and water to the Tittle family’s property. There he met Rob Tittle’s brother-in-law, Jeff Nice.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out their concern was for the number of people volunteering to help them,” Huffman said. “Because of their Christian faith, they knew Rob
and Rebekah and Tori were OK, but they were more concerned about the workers coming in, and they wanted the loss of their lives to bear witness to their faith in Christ.”

Huffman shared Tarvin’s email with Nice.

“You feel God saying, ‘You’re here for a reason,’” he said. “Their lives were already impacting people.”

He met Rose Tittle, Rob’s mother, and some other family members standing on the foundation of the home.

“This was a two-story home, and the tornado dropped down on top of it,” Huffman said. “There’s no carpet left, no boards. They had not found anything of the second story; that’s how powerful it was. It threw that staircase several yards back in a wooded area.”

He shared Tarvin’s email with the group and later held hands with the family on the foundation and prayed “for healing, comfort and God’s peace and grace that surpasses all our understanding and is sufficient in all things,” citing 1 Corinthians 3:11.

“Their faith is still touching lives, and they asked that it continue,” Huffman said.

As he was leaving, he asked if there was anything else he and the company could do. The family was preparing for visitation that night and three funerals the following day.

“On Saturday, volunteers were coming back out, and they didn’t know how they were going to feed everybody,” Huffman said. “I took a leap of faith and said, ‘Don’t worry; Tyson will take care of that. We prepared for 100 people.”

But he got word later that there could be up to 1,200.

He replied, “Don’t worry,” recalling Jesus feeding the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes and having basketfuls of leftovers.

“I said, ‘If we’ll bring the Lord what we have, He will take care of the rest,” Huffman said. “If the Lord could do all that with five loaves and two fish, there’s no telling what he can do with Tyson chicken.”

The community also rallied to add to Tyson’s bounty.

Ultimately, more than 800 workers came, and there was enough food to feed them all — with leftovers.

“I feel I could write a book about each story of loss of possession, death, faith, courage, survival and gratitude, but the one question for me ‘why was Team Tyson there?’ It is just like many of the decisions that the leadership of this great company make on a daily basis. All of the Tyson team members that came to serve did not have to look too far to find that answer. We just had to look at Tyson’s Core Values: We strive to honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers and other stakeholders.

“Together, we witnessed this simple statement pull up on 18 wheels to communities devastated by this storm, put on an apron, a smile and went to work wearing a khaki shirt that simply said Tyson.”