Nick Beckman Is Fueled by the Hard Days
In the grueling wake of a natural disaster, an aid worker finds the energy to keep going
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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 that I could keep going. This is after eight days of 18-hour days. I would sit in a car for 5, 10 minutes and get off my feet, and just try to compose myself and reset. And I would just find myself sobbing and I’d call my wife and say, “I don’t know how I can stand up on my feet again and go again.”
There were 20 or 30 of us on site there. You’d look around and you’d know who had just come back from having a cry. Every once in a while, you go up to a friend, a coworker, a colleague, you have a hug, you shake it off, and you move on and keep doing the work ahead of you.
People just call me Beckman. I am here at Mercy Chefs’ Headquarters in Portsmouth, Virginia. I am the director of logistics and facilities, which means I oversee all of our equipment, all of our kitchen trailers and support vehicles.
Mercy Chefs is a faith-based disaster relief nonprofit. We aim to cook and serve chef-prepared hot meals in the wake of natural disasters and national emergencies to victims, volunteers, first responders, anyone who’s hungry.
I have a wife who also works at Mercy Chefs, and then a young son, and two more on the way. So, by the fall I’ll have three sons. I would say my family is my first priority, and my passion for sure. I love being a dad. I think it’s just the greatest thing that anyone can do, is be a parent. But Mercy Chefs is high up on the list. We say often around here that it’s more than a job, because it takes a lot more of your attention and your care than most jobs do.
What we do is unlike anything else in the world. If you look at disaster zones, you see a lot of food, a lot of people that do food. But oftentimes it’s hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese sandwiches. Something really easy and cheap to make for a lot of people. And that’s great. We always say that any food is good in the wake of a disaster, when someone’s lost everything, their fridge is useless, the pantry is maybe gone. We believe that anything is better than nothing. But we also believe that there’s a way to serve with excellence, and that comes with a lot of extra steps. We could go out and put cheese on bread and hand it out and call it a day, but we believe that a meal in a box with a hot main dish, whatever it may be, fresh green salad, a piece of fruit, a lovely piece of bread and a dessert altogether means a whole lot more to someone than a cheese sandwich or a hotdog.
Hurricane Ian struck Fort Myers in early October of 2022, and we mobilized. It was our biggest mobilization ever.
After two days in Fort Myers, we all got together and said, “We need another kitchen. We need more capacity. We need to be doing more.” We burned through an entire truck of fresh groceries in a day and a half. Again, every single meal is handcrafted. It comes with love, and it’s a real meal and all that. Means a lot of hard work.
I believe call time was 4:45 AM, and we muster, and we pray over our day ahead, and the opportunity to serve folks in their hardest time. If there is food for us, you grab something really quick. And then it’s about pulling the food off of the trucks for the day. We’re scratch cooking. 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 in a skillet. There’s chicken to chop, there’s meat to smoke. You’re just doing this, that, and everything, and all of a sudden you look up and it’s 5:00 PM and you haven’t eaten.
There were a lot of moments in Fort Myers where I really thought of giving up and throwing in the towel and saying, Mercy Chefs is too hard. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I want to be with my family.
I talked to my wife, I talked to my coworkers, and prayed it through, and I say, Mercy Chefs isn’t a job, it’s a calling. For those of us who are honored to hear that call and respond, you don’t get to just give up when the going gets tough. Because then you drive out, and you see the faces of the people that you’re touching with a meal, and you realize that these people haven’t given up either and they lost everything. I still have a house. I still have a bed. And my family’s okay back home.
We always talk about the one at Mercy Chefs. We make 20,000 meals a day. And it’s easy to just say, Yeah, we did 20,000 meals today. That’s incredible. Way to go team. But that’s 20,000 individual people who got touched by a meal. And so at the end of the day, oftentimes we’ll get together and the question is posed: Who is your one today?
In Fort Myers for me I was just taking a minute for myself to walk down the three-quarter-mile long drive-thru line that we had for people waiting to get food, waving and smiling and saying hello.
There was a little boy in a car with his mom, and he had a little crayon-drawn sign that said, thank you, Mercy Chefs. He was holding it up out the window in the back of this beat up old car. I could tell his mom was tired. But I could also see in her face a little bit of hope, waiting in the drive-thru line, that she was gonna get to feed him today. And his little thank you note, that was really special for me, because I know what I would do for my son to get him food in the wake of a cataclysmic event like this, and I would wait days for a hot meal for my son.
I didn’t say anything. I waved and smiled and moved on, but that’s something that’ll stick with me.
The biggest thing I learned in Fort Myers is the capacity for human endurance is incredible, but the capacity for love between us as humans is even even bigger. As hard as it is to see someone on 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. A lot of times we see volunteers who will show up to serve with us, who don’t have a home to go back to at the end of the day serving with us. They’ve been affected just the same as everybody else in their community, and yet they choose to come out and serve their community with us. They could be at home talking to the insurance company and sorting through the rubble of their belongings, but they step out of that, and step into service for their community.
On day 16 of my 18-hour days, I’m running on very little sleep, a whole lot of caffeine, and very little food. My alarm goes off at 5:30 AM and I say, There’s no chance I can move my feet out of bed. There’s no chance I can swing my feet off this air mattress and stand up and put on my grimy clothes that haven’t been cleaned and get back out there and do the work. There’s just no way. And then I sit for 10 more seconds with my eyes closed and I think about the previous 15 days where I did in fact get my feet out of bed.
For me, I think looking back typically is my best way to move forward, trusting that it has been done. There’s nothing here that I haven’t done before. I know the work ahead of me. I know that I have done it and can do it. It’s just kind of that mental step of telling yourself I can in fact do this because I have in fact done this.
Nick Beckman is Director of Logistics and Facilities for Mercy Chefs, a winner of the 2022 Defender Service Award, established by Land Rover. These awards recognize the nonprofits doing selfless service for their communities every day. You can learn more about Mercy Chefs and their work at mercychefs.com.