A Better Understanding Of What We Can All Do To Help The Community
My trip to Tuscaoosa, AL this past week was supposed to be easy – identify ways in which RouteOne might assist and support our dealer partners in rebuilding their community in the aftermath of the tornadoes that devastated the city on April 27th. I was also in search of an organization where I might volunteer – something RouteOne encourages each employee to do. What began as a simple mission turned out to be one of the most difficult, yet rewarding tasks I have ever experienced.
I began by meeting with several dealers and General Managers from dealerships in the Tuscaloosa area: Tommy Townsend of Townsend Ford; Verta Barr of Quality Mazda VW; Barry Buckner of Tuscaloosa Hyundai, and Bart Irvine of Locklear Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram and Kia. Each had their own account about that fateful day, where shortly after 5PM, an F4 tornado cut a mile-wide path through the heart of the city – destroying homes, businesses and many lives.
They spoke of where they were that day, how some of them actually saw the tornado from their dealership, the members of their “dealership” families who lost homes, and how almost everyone knew someone whose home was destroyed or who lost their life. They also talked about the outpouring of support they had seen over the past several weeks from folks from all across the country, how everyone in Tuscaloosa had pulled together to help their fellow neighbor, and how rebuilding the city would be a long process requiring resources yet to be identified. All were also quick to point out that Tuscaloosa would rebound from this as an even stronger community.
I also asked each dealer or General Manager I met with to provide input regarding local organizations / agencies providing assistance to the residents directly impacted by the storm. “If you were RouteOne, which local organization / agency do you believe would do the most with a donation of money or volunteers?” was the question I asked. I received several good suggestions, but one organization, Project Blessings, was mentioned a couple of times. Could this be where I should spend the day tomorrow as a volunteer? I knew before making that decision I should investigate it and several other local agencies.
Before doing my research, I knew what I needed to do next was something I really did not want to do – tour the actual damaged area to gain a more complete understanding of what is needed by the residents of Tuscaloosa. I, like so many others, saw reports of the devastation on the national news in the days following April 27th. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see, but I was badly mistaken. After about a mile along the tornado’s path I had to turn the car around. The total destruction all around me, something akin to a war zone, was more than my mind could process. It was almost seven weeks later and it was difficult to tell that any progress had been made.
As I drove back to my hotel to process what I had seen and heard for the day, I began to feel overwhelmed by what my managers had asked me to do and began to ask myself questions. With so many needs evident, where should we offer our support? Should we choose one, two, three or more agencies? Was one agency really more deserving than another? What had I willingly gotten myself into? How was I going to decide where to volunteer tomorrow?
After arriving back at the hotel, I began poring over my notes, making phone calls to local agencies and using the Internet to find out more about them via their websites. After two or three hours, several questions still remained, but one thing became clear very quickly – each agency that had been recommended would be worthy of support in some way. The answer to my question about where I would spend my time volunteering the following day also became clear. It was decided. Project Blessings would be my destination. I recapped everything I had learned in an email and sent it to the managers at RouteOne.
The next morning I arrived at Project Blessings’ collection point and distribution center and met their facility coordinator, Shawn Turner. She was quick to point out that they could really use my help for the day as volunteer support had fallen off in the last few weeks. She also told me about how their founder, Marsha Sprayberry, had seen the need in the community over a year ago to provide assistance to low-income residents whose homes were badly in need of repair. Shawn also explained that while the organization is still providing those services, their focus had shifted immediately after the tornado to providing residents with basic needs (food, water, clothing, household items, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.) through this facility set up in the gymnasium of a local church.
Walking through the warehouse, I was amazed at what had been donated and also noted how they were running low on some basic essentials like toilet paper, laundry detergent, food – everyday items we all take for granted. As more volunteers arrived, we helped get everything ready for the day and were assigned our tasks. Columbia Sportswear had donated several large cartons of new clothing which we spent several hours unpacking, sorting, cutting off price tags and organizing for distribution. Working alongside my new friends (Hannah, Jenna, and Ronnie), we were able to complete this task and fill several “orders” along the way with new clothing. We also helped organize other items in the warehouse, empty a couple of outside storage “pods”, and met several folks from the community that were in need of assistance. As the day ended, we were all tired, hot and dirty, but all agreed that the experience had been fulfilling.
I left Tuscaloosa on Friday less overwhelmed than the day before, with more knowledge of agencies supporting the rebuilding effort, and with a better understanding of what we can all do to help the community. One thing is for certain - they need our help today, tomorrow and in the months to come.
I have listed several agencies below (and their contact information) should you feel the call to help the residents of Tuscaloosa, whether it is a donation of time, money or supplies. Thank you in advance for any help you can provide these citizens.
Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa
Bob Johnson, Executive Director
Temporary Emergency Services
American Red Cross
1100 Veterans Memorial Parkway
Tuscaloosa, AL 35404-5812