Hepker, Visit Jackson CEO Rickey Thigpen and Jackson at a water and food distribution event Sunday.

It’s a story that, at first, may be hard to wrap your head around. 

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Visit Jackson staff and leadership were part of an effort to distribute water and hot meals to South Jackson residents.

That part is easy to understand: we love our city and want to serve in ways beyond our usual charge to promote tourism.

Here’s the inspiring part: upon arrival, we took direction from two men crewing the Forest Hill High School operation – unfamiliar yet friendly faces. 

Jeremy Hepker and Brandon Jackson came from Iowa just to serve. The pair, who run their own foundations in Cedar Rapids, were volunteering their time and energy for a city they knew little about. Inspiring.

From the back of a rented U-Haul, Hepker and Jackson loaded cases of water into cars. When they ran out, they left to find more water to distribute.

Hot lunch plates – a few left from earlier in the day and a fresh batch delivered from Chef Nick Wallace – arrived in time for an early dinner pickup. From the City of Jackson to Jackson Public Schools and Visit Jackson, collaboration has been key to the effort. 

The food – bought from Jackson restaurants like The Manship, Johnny T’s, Sherria’s Chicken Coop, Sugar’s, BRAVO! and others at $8 per plate – is funded through the generosity of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that uses food to strengthen communities. Over 15,000 meals from 15 different restaurants had been purchased by Tuesday, meaning $120,000 made it to Jackson’s economy. 

“We are fortunate that World Central Kitchen has invested in the Jackson community and supports our fantastic restaurants,” said Rickey Thigpen, President and CEO of Visit Jackson. “The ability to share healthy meals from some of our Jackson culinary giants, coupled with positive economic impact for an industry that has been impacted so tremendously over the past year, is invaluable.”

Hepker sorts meals Sunday at Forest Hill High School

Iowa to Texas, Then Mississippi

When damaging ice storms hit the south in February, Brandon Jackson said he gathered friends to form a Texas relief effort. But once he returned home, he found that Jackson, Mississippi was in need, too.

“I had a friend reach out to me on social media, saying you all were going through the same thing,” he recounted. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ We went through a similar thing (with last August’s derecho, a storm that brought damaging winds and flooding to Iowa). Being without water is huge. And we saw, (Jackson was) in need. We just came here to set an example. We’re willing to travel to help out, so, hopefully, more people pick up that we need caring people in the world.” 

Hepker’s cause back home, a foundation recently formed in memory of his niece Marisa Doolin, is a way to elicit something positive from her late 2020 murder. 

Working frequently with Jackson’s foundation, Dreeam Sports, for youth sports leagues and mentorship opportunities, too, Hepker calls it “love feeding love.” 

Thigpen and Chef Nick Wallace unload dinner meals at Forest Hill High School.

Jackson said that meeting up with World Central Kitchen, Jackson Councilman Aaron Banks and Visit Jackson, bringing resources together, has made this water and food drive possible.

It’s the same sentiment Hepker noticed, too, with so many organizations and individuals pitching in, a fact that makes their efforts worth it.

“Seeing the city and tourism and community leaders come out to participate, it tells how real and authentic you are (here in Jackson).”

Thigpen added, “Collective ambition and partnership have been the cornerstone for our navigation through recent weeks, and, this last year.”