“I see disaster strike around the world and it just takes me back to Katrina. I just know I have to go help, it’s a compassion for what the people are going through and being compelled to use my skill set as a mission to help others. Something has to be done and I am in a position to do it.”
After 35 years in the hotel restaurant business, Gary LeBlanc unexpectedly discovered his passion while volunteering during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As he describes it, he watched from his television in Portsmouth, Virginia as the hurricane hit his hometown of New Orleans. Seeing people he recognized standing on overpasses in hopes of being rescued and watching the report of his daughter’s neighborhood, completely underwater, struck him in a way nothing had before. Immediately, he knew he had to help.
Gary volunteered with every agency he could find to do food service for those displaced by the hurricane. What he witnessed during his short term volunteer experience compelled him to be a part of lasting change in the field of disaster relief and ultimately changed the entire trajectory of his life.
“Katrina created a chaos that our country had never seen before - Americans fighting for their lives, city wide devastation, children without water and a public failure of our federal and state governments to respond, “ said Gary. “It was there in the midst of the chaos that I realized the incredible difference that a hot meal can make, and at the same time, I was struck by the lack of care put into the relief meals.”
In Cajun culture, food is love, and Gary grew up watching his Cajun grandmothers cook for every occasion and often for no reason at all. The contrast between his childhood experience and the food he saw being served to the victims of Hurricane Katrina shocked him. There was no love or passion being put into the meals. It was all about fast, cheap and mass quantity.
Months after returning to Virginia, broken by what he had witnessed in New Orleans, Gary was again moved to take action. He felt a personal call to, “Just go feed people.” Gary became inspired to the point of distraction by the possibility of serving restaurant quality meals in a disaster zone and on a mass scale. In just a few months time, Gary turned his passion for feeding others into a humanitarian and disaster relief organization called, Mercy Chefs.
In the nearly eleven years since, Mercy Chefs has served nearly 1.3 million meals for victims, volunteers and first responders in natural disasters and national emergencies - an average of 301 meals a day. Their work is constantly expanding across the United States and even internationally with relief aid, permanent kitchens, water projects and urban outreaches.
“Every time I see a disaster strike around the world, it takes me back to Katrina, and I know I have to help. Something has to be done and I’m in a position to do it. So, I do,” said Gary.
Gary’s entire family is involved in Mercy Chefs in one way or another, and he has taken great pride in watching his children develop compassion for others through service. When he is not working, Gary loves spending his time with his five children and three grandchildren.