Daytonians came out in force to help each other clean up and recover after the destructive string of tornadoes that swept through on Memorial Day last year. Most volunteers shifted back to their normal lives, but Neah Rainey is one of the few people who never stopped helping her neighbors.
Over a year later, Rainey is still dedicated to making sure the tornado survivors and those struggling with poverty have enough food to eat. Her unwavering commitment to the community is why she’s our Daytonian of the Week.
To understand Rainey’s motives, we have to go back a decade to 2010. She had a good job delivering for Mikesell’s Potato Chip Company, and was known as a hard worker. A series of health issues changed her good standing with the company, and challenged her in ways she never imagined, she said.
First, Rainey became pregnant, which was a difficult condition for a delivery driver with limited access to bathrooms on her routes and restrictions against lifting anything over 30 pounds. Then she was diagnosed with H1N1, a novel influenza that spread wildly in 2009 and into the spring of 2010.
Rainey used up all her personal and sick days to recover from the illness, so when her son also got sick and had to go to the hospital with asthma, she was simply out of time off. With her husband working out of state, Rainey was put in the difficult position of having to choose between her job and caring for her son.
When she was ultimately let go after missing too much work, Rainey recalled the manager of HR telling her “This job isn’t for you. God has something else for you.” At the time, Rainey said she was offended the rep would bring God into it and was angry about the situation. It was’t long before that anger turned into depression.
As a result of her job loss, she also lost her car and home. Rainey and her family moved into Meadowlark Apartments, which offered low-income housing. Her new reality was eye opening, particularly the desperate level of poverty her new neighbors dealt with on a daily basis. “I didn’t know people’s struggle was that bad.”
Despite her deep depression and her own financial problems, she started to come up with her own programs to boost morale at the apartment complex. She became a mother-like figure to many who lived there, especially the young, single mothers.
“Even at my lowest point, I was encouraging others to try to improve their lives, to do better and be better,” Rainey explained. “They knew I was suffering from depression, but they also knew I genuinely cared about them. I wanted to help catapult them into the next level of their life.”
One of the initiatives she came up with tackled truancy, which she noticed was a rampant problem at the apartment complex. Many kids had no supervision or incentive to go to school, so Rainey came up with a solution: custom-made sweets.
On Fridays, when the kids got off the school bus, they’d swarm over to Rainey’s apartment to show her they attended class and turned in their homework. She rewarded them generously with elaborately baked desserts that were overloaded with toppings and ice cream.
After a couple years, Rainey and her husband recovered enough financially to move out of the Meadowlark Apartments. The experience changed Rainey, however, and she looks back on it as a pivotal moment in her life.
“It turned out to be the perfect situation,” Rainey told us. “Now I know why I had to lose my job and experience that. That union rep was right, God had other plans for me. I had to find out what people in deep poverty were going through with my own eyes.” Rainey says she learned compassion from her time living there.
A couple years later, in 2014, Rainey started to attend church at Greater Works Christian Center. There they had a backpack giveaway program to help feed approximately 300 kids in the community, so she naturally baked her delicious treats to add to the backpacks.
One of the ladies at church knew Rainey was out of work and encouraged her to take her baking skills and make that her career. “I remember her saying ‘how can you be broke if you bake like this?’” Rainey recalled. “She told me if I worked for myself, I’d never get fired again if my kids got sick.”
That was what Neah needed to hear to push her to start her own dessert company called “Sweet Rain Desserts” in 2015. Furthermore she wanted the proceeds to benefit the community somehow, but she wasn’t sure in the moment how that would manifest.
Fast forward four years to Memorial Day weekend in 2019. When the tornadoes hit, Rainey was immediately in her nurturing and motherly mode. “I wanted to go out that night, but my husband stopped me because the power lines were down,” she explained. “I just can’t sit back and go on with my life while people are suffering.”
At 6 a.m. she left the house, loaded down with coolers in her car. Her first stop was the bank, where she emptied her account. Then she went to Kroger and purchased as much food as she could buy including ice, water, drinks, chips, snacks, hand sanitizer and cleaning agents.
From there, she picked up her cousin, and drove around asking if people needed help. They’d see mothers with their babies crying on the side of the road. They pulled over to see what they could do to help. “I knew my life was getting ready to change,” Rainey recalled.
She tried to get into Trotwood to offer her food and help, but the roads were blocked by downed trees and power lines. She got a call that Riverside Drive was hit badly, so she headed over there. Another small group already had a tent set up and was passing out food, so Rainey and her cousin joined them.
The small ad hoc crew handed out sandwiches, fresh fruit and water to dazed survivors who came out of the apartments without shoes and clothes. “They never had money in the first place,” Rainey explained. “They are waiting for the cavalry to come in, and there wasn’t one immediately. No one was prepared for this.”
The group purchased more pop-up tents, borrowed tables and became a source of meals to many who were displaced from the Rivers Edge and Barrington apartment complexes, among others in the area. As each day passed, the demand only grew.
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“Every day you heard different stories. There were a lot of people who took advantage of the situation, but they were not my concern,” Rainey said. “I was focused on the people who really needed my assistance.”
Financially she was not able to keep up the demand for food herself, so she reached out on Facebook to ask for help from the community. She received support from folks locally, as well as Columbus and Cincinnati. One woman from Atlanta was so moved from her video pleas, she drove all the way from Georgia to meet and help the “angel” on Facebook.
Rainey fed people every single day of the week, from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., without breaks, for weeks on end. She confessed she felt very overwhelmed, but she wouldn’t admit it at the time.
“The days were so cluttered then. They didn’t make a difference. All I knew was that it was a newer day than yesterday,” she said. “There was just no way to stop. I was tired, but all I could think about was the people worse off than I was. That kept me going. I wanted God to give me strength for another day.”
Toward the end of July, she needed a more permanent place to distribute food, so she shifted to the gazebo at Shiloh Church, where Philadelphia, Shiloh Springs and Main streets intersect. She continued to feed approximately 150 people each day from that location all the way through October.
By then the weather started to turn cold, and the church needed the gazebo back for its pumpkin patch fundraiser. Neah lost the location, which prompted her to shift strategies and start to do meal prepping for the families that she was feeding. Even though months had passed since the tornadoes, there were many families still in need.
“I knew from my past experience, it can take years to recover from losing everything, especially an act of nature,” Rainey said. “There’s this expectation to get your stuff together after a couple months. The people I helped were working so hard, and still couldn’t cover their backs. Plus they were all struggling mentally more than anything. I understood their pain.”
Rainey cooked massive amounts of food, like chicken, hamburgers, spaghetti, mac & cheese and vegetables, and divided them into plastic to-go containers that were donated by Shiloh Church. She met families at Kroger or made deliveries, to make sure those 150 families got three meals a day. Every Saturday she got a break, when Cousin Vinny’s Pizza donated 20 pizzas to help feed the families, too.
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Getting her weekends freed up from cooking was essential so she could use that time to keep up with her dessert business. Her husband was able to cover household bills, freeing up Neah’s income from the baking business to go directly into buying the food for the families she was feeding. Her initial idea of using funds from her business to help the community finally came to fruition.
The meal prepping became a lifeline for families who got struck by a second calamity: the coronavirus. With kids out of school, and not getting much-needed meals there, it was more essential than ever for Rainey to keep feeding families. She received donations, wiped them down, and then packed meals with help from her daughter.
Receiving the coronavirus stimulus checks definitely helped the families, and allowed Rainey to take a break and get restocked and focus on her baking business. “I need the baking business to continue my ministry of feeding people,” she explained.
It all came full circle at one point when Rainey went to Walmart to buy supplies. She ran into one of the women she helped at the Meadowlark apartments, who was thrilled to share that she finally got a good job. Rainey remembered the woman saying, “This is thanks to you because you fed me every single day.”
“That’s what makes me feel good,” Rainey told us. “I get to live to see the success stories. It seems small, but she will never forget that I fed her. She was so excited. I remember when she didn’t think things would be OK. I would always turn on gospel music real loud to drown out that negative internal voice. I wanted to give them something positive to think about.”
During the course of the last year, Rainey has shied away from press and stories about her. “I didn’t want awards because I didn’t think it was a big deal. It just feels natural; this is what we’re supposed to be doing. I don’t need people to know the work I’m doing.”
Now that the one-year anniversary has passed, Facebook is sending photos and reminders of posts Rainey made during those first couple weeks of feeding people. “I kinda understand now why people thought it was a big deal. I’m proud of myself. It’s just hard to see it in the moment. That strong woman I see is not how I felt.”
“I’m glad God allowed me to do this. Most people don’t understand, but this whole process helps me, too.”
To learn more about Neah Rainey and support her business, Sweet Rain Desserts, click here. She accepts donations via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.