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River Dave’s Mission Of Ukraine Mercy

The founder of River Dave’s Place, a popular online community with deep ties in the Lake Havasu boating community, Dave Johnson wears his heart on both sleeves. One sleeve just isn’t enough to handle the many passions of his big ticker, whether it takes the form of co-hosting an event such as the upcoming Super Cat Fest West happening in his hometown of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., or simply floating down the Colorado River while enjoying a couple of cold ones with friends.

River Dave’s Place founder Dave Johnson had no idea how much 249 pallets of individual meals was until he went to see them in Puerto Rico.

But sending 200-plus pallets of MREs—that’s “Meals Ready to Eat” in civilian parlance—to Ukraine and Turkey two weeks ago? That’s something even those closest to Johnson weren’t expecting.

Truth be told, Johnson wasn’t really expecting it either.

“My father-in-law, Rob, is an adventurous type—once he actually bought a barge and drove it to Alaska,” Johnson said, then laughed. “He likes to go on these government GSA (General Services Administration) auction websites. So one night he’s sitting here and he tells me he saw this auction lot for 500 pallets of MREs and we should buy it. That was two-and-a-half years ago during COVID, and I’m thinking it wouldn’t be bad to have some serious food on hand just in case things go really bad. But we ended up not buying it.

“About a year later, another one of these auctions came up with 249 pallets,” he continued. “We were just hanging around, drinking a few beers, and we end up winning the auction. It was like $26,000 so we split the cost.”

But there we a couple of catches. Johnson and his father-in-law had to retrieve the pallets of MREs from the GSA warehouse storing them within 10 days of purchase. And the warehouse was in Puerto Rico.

“In my mind, I didn’t envision how much food 249 pallets of MREs actually is,” Johnson said, then chuckled again. “We had to find a company in Puerto Rico that could haul five semi loads of MREs and load them on a ship. Then we had to haul them from Florida to Arizona, where we could put them in storage.

“It was quite the adventure,” he added.

And one that turned out to be just beginning. During the shipping process, a gentleman from war-torn Ukraine reached out to Johnson about buying the pallets. Johnson had decided to simply donate them and was ready to make that happen.

“Long story short, the guy just vanished,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but he just disappeared and I never heard from him again.”

Johnson stored the pallets in two facilities, one in Lake Havasu City and another in the Phoenix area—and storage wasn’t free. The MREs were good for three years before spoiling, so he began looking for places to donate them. While a few local charities said yes, larger entities including the Red Cross said no.

Johnson eventually discovered David Fowler, the president of the Springfield Rotary Foundation in Illinois. Fowler and his fellow Rotarians in the service organization from other parts of the country had developed a distribution system for surplus food such as the 203 remaining pallets—some 119,628 MREs—sitting in Johnson’s warehouses.

In addition to donating food domestically, the group has been donating to the Ukraine and Turkey, which is where Johnson’s pallets are being sent.

“Next thing I know, semi-trailers are showing up in Havasu and Phoenix to pick up the food,” Johnson said. “That started two weeks ago. It should be all gone by the end of the month.”

Ever the gamer, Dave Johnson sampled the goods when he visited Puerto Rico.

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