KEARNEY — Dick Cochran is just getting started.
“This isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning,” he said at the dedication Monday of his Hot Meals USA trailer at St. James Catholic Church.
Craig Peshek, president of Kearney’s Noon Rotary, had a tastier description: “This is just like Thanksgiving.”
Peshek was praising the Hot Meals USA-prepared-and-served meal in the church social hall before the ribbon-cutting. Nearly 200 attendees lined up for roast pork, green beans, dinner rolls and mashed potatoes and gravy.
Hot Meals USA began a few years ago, when Cochran had awakened his wife Cheryl at 3:30 a.m. to share a dream. Cochran, a restaurateur, told her he wanted to furnish a trailer that he could take to feed victims after natural disasters all over the country. In the fall of 2017, he established the nonprofit organization.
Two years of hard work and fundraising has come together. By late August, the trailer — purchased 16 months ago and outfitted with a large cooker, warmer, sink, water heater, two griddles, a tilt skillet and hand wash sink— will be ready to feed 2,500 people a day.
Special guests at Monday’s event were Rotarians Jerry Wear of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Ron Appuhn and his wife Karen Wentz of Maryville, Tenn. Their Rotary clubs and Rotary District 6780 in Tennessee contributed $34,200 collectively to the effort.
Appuhn had met Kearney Rotarian Don Peterson at the 2014 Rotary International Convention in San Diego and worked with him on the Rotary Heart to Heart program in Mexico.
“A year ago Don told us about this trailer. We said we’d love to help out,” Appuhn said.
After devastating wildfires in late 2016, members of three Nebraska Rotary Clubs helped out in the Pigeon Forge area for three months. The fires destroyed 2,500 houses and killed 21 people.
“People from Nebraska came to help us, and we wanted to repay that,” Wear said.
Local Rotarians contributed, too. Dawn Rotary, of which Cochran is a member, obtained a $72,000 grant to equip the trailer. Rotary District 5630, which includes western and central Nebraska, donated $38,000 for the four-wheel-drive pickup that pulls it.
Other speakers Monday included Derek Rusher, president and CEO of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce. He said when Cochran met with him 18 months ago to discuss the Hot Meals USA concept, “I was floored. He had such big ideas. It’s awesome to see it come to fruition.”
When Cochran was introduced, he received a standing ovation.
He thanked his wife for her nonstop encouragement. He thanked Ron and Nita Payne of Kearney, who helped pay for the trailer. He thanked Rotarians from Tennessee, India, Argentina and all across the U.S. who have donated to the effort.
He thanked volunteers from churches, service clubs, athletic teams and schools. “We can cook food with very few people, but we can’t serve it without volunteers,” he said.
Cochran hasn’t stopped dreaming. He hopes to have seven trailers available around the country that could serve between 5,000 and 7,000 meals day. “One that could serve 50,000 meals a day is on the drawing board,” he said.