By Anne Getsinger | Herald Review
DECATUR – The tractor-trailer parked outside the Good Samaritan Inn during lunch Wednesday and Thursday was an unusual sight. Patrons waiting for their midday meals peeked around the building to see what was going on in back.
Inside the truck was a fully equipped kitchen bustling with volunteers cooking rice, stir fry and cobbler for dessert. The workers were part of the Mid-Illinois Chapter of the American Red Cross’ annual Illinois Emergency Services Institute, said Dennis Eller, the chapter’s executive director.
The event, in its fifth year in Decatur, will host workshops on emergency operations, sheltering, client casework, logistics, disaster assessment and a variety of other topics for more than 180 Red Cross volunteers from across Illinois and neighboring states.
Wednesday and Thursday’s lunchtime workers were part of a disaster kitchen class. New to the institute this year was the opportunity to cook inside the truck, named Henry’s Kitchen after the late Henry Fenn, the longtime volunteer who designed it.
Albert Burdette, a volunteer based out of Peoria, oversees the truck, a 53-foot semitruck converted into a self-contained kitchen that can be used to prepare 10,000 to 25,000 meals a day.
“It’s not my truck, but it might as well be,” he said. “I have all the responsibility of it. I answer direct to national.”
The truck has been deployed on hurricane disasters and is fully self-contained except for the need to connect a garden hose at the site. It’s important to give volunteers experience cooking in Henry’s Kitchen because there are many people who want to be of help, said Burdette.
Glenda Plunkett, the chapter’s manager for Shelby and Moultrie counties, was deployed to Biloxi, Miss., to help after Hurricane Katrina when she first saw Henry’s Kitchen in action. The shelter she worked out of was half of a school, and a microwave was the only cooking device available. After the microwave was broken, the mobile kitchen rolled onto the scene, greatly improving the quality of meals the volunteers were able to prepare and serve.
The institute’s disaster kitchen class cooked around 800 meals at the Good Samaritan Inn over the two days.
Robbie Buerkett, a truck driver based out of Springfield, is new to volunteering with the Red Cross. He signed up with his wife, Robin. The two were inspired to help after hearing about disasters on the news. They participated in Thursday’s kitchen class.
“I really wanted to get in and learn about Henry’s Kitchen because I’d heard so much about it,” Buerkett said. “Anything that can cook 10,000 meals a day up to 25,000 is pretty spectacular. It’s amazing how everything works in there.”