'Mama' Passarelli and Soup Ladies brings food and love to tornado victims

Ginger Passarelli stirs pasta with a sanitized shovel for tornado victims in Joplin, Mo.   - Courtesy phot
Ginger Passarelli stirs pasta with a sanitized shovel for tornado victims in Joplin, Mo.
— image credit: Courtesy phot

In Ginger Passarelli’s view, “food is love.”

After it became clear how devastating the effects were from the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., Passarelli posted on the Soup Ladies Facebook profile, “Have any of you felt a tugging to go to Joplin?”

She assembled a team. Passarelli took along Kelli West and Hersh Hoaglan to help her spread a little love to the city in Missouri. They arrived just eight days after the disaster.

On May 22, one of the most violent and deadly tornadoes in more than 50 years hit Joplin, leaving somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of the town destroyed as well as 155 dead, according media reports of the event.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, the multiple vortex tornado that was more than a mile wide  struck the southwestern Missouri city of about 50,000.

Passarelli said the pictures shown on television and printed in newspapers simply could not convey the destructive forces of the tornado, not just on buildings, but on people’s lives.

“When you go to these disasters, you just don’t know what it feels like until you actually go there,” she said. “The people we were feeding, everyone had a story, everyone knew someone who had died. Everyone knew someone whose house was totally destroyed. It was heartbreaking.”

She estimates her team served 600 to 700 meals a day for the week they were in Joplin, working in oppressive heat and tough conditions, but Passarelli said they got creative.

“You’re working on smokers and barbecues and basically cooking with anything that makes heat,” Passarelli said. “Kelli West was in charge of making pasta casseroles in big six quart pots. She put all these ingredients together in one pot... you just keep stirring it and you have a casserole.”

Speaking of stirring, Passarelli had to use a shovel at one point to stir pasta in a makeshift pot, but made sure it was safe to use.

“We went to a store and bought two driveway turkey friers so we could cook pasta,” she said. “I got back to the camp and we had nothing to stir the pasta with so I went back into the building and got a brand new shovel and sanitized it. We had nothing else to stir with. You do what you have to do.”

The Soup Ladies team bought a fair amount of items there while using what was available. To make a cold pasta salad, Passarelli explained, they picked up fresh onions, garlic, red peppers cucumbers, “anything to make a pasta salad cold, ice cold, but to have crunchy things in it.”

“What was so much fun is that you had so many people volunteering ... we had a mini cooking class,” she said. “I would teach them how to hold their knife, how I wanted things cut up, and they would say, ‘Oh, I never thought of doing it like that.’”

Think of it as disaster scene chef academy  — though Passarelli, known affectionately by many as simply Mama, doesn’t describe herself as a chef — where volunteers learned cooking skills they could take home and use in their kitchens or in an emergency.

During the week they were there, it was hot, oppressively hot, Passarelli said, 95 degrees for the first five days then 100 degrees at the end. The team worked eight hours a day feeding people, she noted, because that was as much as they could realistically do without making themselves ill.

It was also important to Passarelli to make sure that everything she prepared for those she would be feeding was safe. Whenever she gets to a disaster area or emergency scene, her first order of business is to figure out if there’s contamination, then where, so as to avoid it.

And then she got to cooking.

While the team was feeding people, or traveling through town, Passarelli heard so many stories.

There were “the sisters.” She didn’t get a chance to find out their names. Two women arrived in Joplin to find their sister, who was in her home when the tornado struck, Passarelli recalled.

“When the tornado was done, her son in laws went to look for her, and she was buried under four feet of rubble,” Passarelli said. “They had to spend quite a bit of time, as not to crush her because they didn’t know where she was, they had to pull things off of the pile slowly and carefully.”

Eventually the woman was rescued, taken to the hospital and treated, to find her sisters waiting for her when she was released.

Or there was the couple she encountered in front of the remains of a church. It was their 41st wedding anniversary and they stood looking at the pile of rubble where they had been married more than four decades earlier.

Passarelli saw a school where the wall had been ripped from the second story exposing classrooms to the elements. While wires and drywall hung where there had once been a wall, books, desks and other parts of the classroom were seemingly untouched.

Where a house once stood all that remained was a wall where someone had spray painted, “For Sale. Open Floor Plan. Natural lighting.”

But that was a respite of humor in a week of observing and responding to the pain left from the devastation.

“When you’re down there and you’re in this and you feel this cloud of grief,” Passarelli said. “You can hug somebody and they thank you and they can’t believe you came from that far away just to help and yet you don’t ever take away the grief, it’s still there, you can cut it with a knife.”

So, the team did what they do best, they offered food because it is love, because it provides some small measure of comfort, Passarelli said.

“People appreciated the fact we put so much care into what we were feeding them,” she said. “People were saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re eating gourmet food out here.’ I feel like a lot of the training I’ve had over the last four years is invaluable for responding and not reacting. You know you’re going there to do a job. You look at it and you go, ‘OK, we need to do this, this and this.’ You put things in priority.

“You start cooking, you start feeding people then you start looking to see if there was anything we could do to help out. When we go somewhere, we’re able to care for them, we’re able to meet a physical need but you’re also able to bring some comfort.”

Passarelli said she felt like she left people in Joplin feeling like someone cared for them and in return she feels like the Soup Ladies will be able to handle anything that may come this way.

“What I got from it was more confidence that we can go into these disaster areas and be able to cook and take care of our community,” she said. “Our Soup Ladies want to be prepared for any kind of emergency that can happen here and I think we can do that. We’re not going to have to think real hard about how to respond to a major incident in our area because we’ve been doing it... we know how to respond.”

In the end, the core group of 30 volunteers led by Passarelli is ready for anything, as the Soup Ladies have fed first responders for a number of years now at wild fires, after Hurricane Katrina, after the shooting of police officers in Lakewood, but every experience still has that emotional component.

That’s why the training to respond and not react is important. Otherwise these situations would overwhelm volunteers.

Like the experiences in Joplin.

“You meet people... and you hear stories that are burned into your heart and you never, ever forget,” Passarelli said. “It’s a privilege to get to do this.”



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