JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Two months ago, Jonesboro was hit by an EF-3 tornado.
People already struggling under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic found themselves picking up the pieces of their homes and their lives.
“Restaurants were closed. People were struggling,” Andy Shatley, Operation Full Bellies volunteer, said. “People are furloughed and laid off and what does Jonesboro do? They jump on board and start feeding people because he started this momentum.”
He is James Bickham, a photographer and videographer who had just lost a huge chunk of his business due to the cancellation of weddings and special events because of coronavirus.
He was helping others salvage what was left of their belongings when a friend contacted him and said that she had pizzas from Chuck E. Cheese to give away.
So, Bickham used his social media accounts to let people know.
"If anything, this Meredith Turley, she's the one that started this whole thing," James Bickham said.
What began with 40 pizzas grew one week later to something on a colossal scale.
"We literally had a line that wrapped all the way around Lost Pizza and went all the way down to Kum and Go on Southwest Drive," Jonathan "Juice" Smith said.
Smith has known Bickham since college.
“I was like what is going on here?” Bickham said about the line that he saw on the first night. “And then I rolled through and realized, oh! This is us! Okay, we got to figure this out. This is not going to work every night.”
Oh, but it did.
This feeding frenzy grew and grew--thanks to the generosity of local residents who wanted to help a hurting community.
Even the Governor shined a light on Jonesboro's efforts to take care of their own.
He called it "the spirit of Arkansas."
“Then, I started seeing people jump on and say I want to get involved,” Shatley said. “I’ll get involved. I’ll help. I want to donate to this.”
Even those receiving meals paid it forward and Operation Full Bellies began.
"Sixteen straight nights!" Shatley said. "No nights off. Sixteen straight nights."
"After the first 6 or 7 days, we were like Lord have mercy," Bickham said. " This is a lot! It was a lot more than I was expecting."
Bickham would spend his days coordinating volunteers, the food pick-up, mapping out traffic patterns and taking care of donations to pay for the food.
"He just totally proved his love--not just for his fellow man, but for his whole community...for people he didn't even know," Whitney Malone said.
Malone nominated Bickham for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness.
"I've seen a lot of cool things happen," Shatley said. "But I don't know that I've ever seen anything quite like this."
"3,500 meals!" Bickham said with enthusiasm.
"We blessed all these families with an opportunity you know... to have meals and to not have to cook," Smith said.
So, six weeks later, those volunteers, my friends from First Community Bank and myself are about to surprise James Bickham with the Gr8 Acts of Kindness.
Bickham is taken aback as people begin to file into the training room where he is working on shooting a video.
'Normally, I know that you like to be behind the camera," I said. "But this time, you're going to be in front of it. And for good reason. What did you do? Well you rallied the troops in a very big way! You brought about a spirit of giving when it was needed most and that is why you are the next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness."
"Four hundred, five, six, seven, eight," I count the money into his hand.
“We’re proud to present you with this check for $408 and say Congratulations for being the next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness,” Allen Williams, Community President of First Community Bank, said.
Even his parents are watching from Atlanta.
"We love you and are so proud of you," Bickham's mother said as she watched the presentation Facetimed through the phone.
“We gave people a different outlook on life. In a time of storms...we actually gave them a little ray of sunshine,” Smith said.