The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority is making a bright future with a nod to the past

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

Editor’s note: Each Monday, Alabama NewsCenter is highlighting stories from the Alabama Power Foundation‘s annual report. Each story spotlights an organization or initiative the foundation supported in 2019.


Brad Kimbro is the kind of volunteer every town needs – the sort of fellow who treats his nonpaying job like a full-time job. He is also a professional who keeps the momentum going as chief operating officer at his official office. In other words, the town of Ashford is getting from-the-heart dedication as Kimbro leads the way toward a revival of spirit and structures.

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The attention comes at a good time. Ashford, population about 2,100, isn’t what it used to be. And not what it’s going to be, either – yet. So Kimbro, chairman of the Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority, along with many energized town residents and an all-in mayor and City Council, are making it their daily business to turn things around.

After two years of plotting and planning, changes are beginning to show.

“You could go anywhere in town and point, and there would be something that needed doing,” Kimbro said. “We’ve already renovated a downtown park with green space and a pergola. And we just purchased a building, which was the biggest eyesore in town. We’re tearing it down and using the lot for much-needed parking – and the downtown is already better.”

A bit of history helps. Around the late 1880s, Ashford was a thriving railroad town with a depot now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Turpentine, cotton, fertilizer and sweet potatoes were moved to market by trains until the times and needs changed. Even when the railroad runs ceased, the town continued to forge on.

The downturn culprits were the shopping malls in nearby Dothan and the rerouting of a major highway that turned Ashford into a town of vacant storefronts and quiet streets. “If a building doesn’t have life, it doesn’t have spirit,” Kimbro said. “Add the addition of those shopping malls and big-box stores and our town was suddenly different.”

Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority is putting on the charm in southeast Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Hugh Deese, florist/owner of The Petal Pusher, has seen it all – and is enthusiastic. “I believe good things are coming,” said the businessman whose family moved to Ashford when he was 8 months old.

“I never once thought about moving,” said Deese, who has been in the same shop location for 44 years. “I remember when Saturday streets were filled with people – you couldn’t find a parking spot – and retailers were here, loving on people and giving them what they wanted. I have to believe, in my lifetime, that people are going to start yearning for the connection they get at the mom and pop stores.

“I want to see things vibrant again. There are folks here rolling up their sleeves and opening their wallets to make it happen, and good people like the Alabama Power Foundation are helping us along. Positive things can happen.”

Kimbro agrees the town has “a lot of momentum.”

“The Alabama Power Foundation Good Roots grant has given us something tangible, right on Main Street across from City Hall. We’re creating a new green space where we will plant white Southern crape myrtles, using them for beauty as well as to form a ‘fence’ hiding the backdrop behind,” he says. “The Alabama Power Foundation is helping us realize our potential from the start.”

Fast-forward about three years, Kimbro said, and visitors will see not only a revitalized Ashford but a destination, a place for people to flock for the small-town atmosphere, unique restaurants and shops, and a totally nonmall approach to living. First up is the need to attract new businesses to fill buildings and revamp facades, a campaign to play up the innate charm of a town that never completely lost its charm and to qualify for the Main Street program.

“Being designated as a Main Street city has many advantages,” Kimbro said of the national program that has helped revitalize about 1,600 downtowns and commercial districts through preservation-based economic development and community revitalization. “They have ideas and resources to guide us. This, to me, is a big deal.”

Another big deal is the recently established clinic that offers internal medicine and pediatric services from the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan. “Third- and fourth-year students will train in this facility. Staff includes a nurse practitioner, neuromuscular specialist, and radiology and lab technicians,” Kimbro said.

The time is now. There’s the opportunity to capitalize on being east of Dothan, the development-rich side. And to become an attractive bedroom community to the larger neighbor. And to bring in new businesses that complement quality operations already in place.

Kimbro’s wife, Judith, owner of The Courtyard gift shop in the heart of town, welcomes her future neighbors. “I want to bring things to this town where I grew up, something so special that people won’t need to go elsewhere to shop,” she said. Additions will enhance places like the Broadway Café with its Southern buffet; Wendy Jones Photography, which attracts clients from around the Southeast; and Wiregrass Pharmacy with its old-time soda fountain serving milkshakes and floats.

Brad Kimbro can envision the future clearly. “You’ll see Ashford as a destination town that’s going to add 30% to 40% new residents, a place where families will feel safe and others will want to visit. And thanks to the Alabama Power Foundation’s support and encouragement, this can happen.”

Deese said, “We’ve gone from thriving to sad to hopeful, yet never wavered in the product we deliver. I’ve seen Ashford up and I’ve seen it down. I much prefer up. And I do think the good times are ahead.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind smashes barriers for students, adult workers

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

A young student who is blind grins from atop a horse, feeling for the first time an entirely new rhythm. Elsewhere on the campus of Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), a child who is deaf plays a drum, nodding with the beat, lost in the sensation. Another student, an adult going through vocational rehabilitation, learns the skills to resume his career after the loss of his eyesight.

The unexpected becomes possible at this place where the keyword is “limitless.” People here knock through barriers of doubt; they experience, achieve and grow, and they learn to be independent and successful.

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AIDB is a world of possibilities, empowering more than 26,000 Alabamians each year through its four campuses in Talladega: Alabama School for the Blind, Alabama School for the Deaf, the Helen Keller School for students who are multidisabled and the E.H. Gentry Facility (EHG) for adult vocational rehabilitation. There’s also Alabama Industries for the Blind, the state’s largest employer of adults who are visually impaired, as well as eight regional centers peppering the state from beach to mountains.

Nobody says “can’t do” here. Only “can.” The proof lives all around, on faces beaming with achievement.

Take AIDB’s passion for technology. The assistive technology at EHG is among the top 3% in the nation. For Joey Arnold, an adjunct professor at Troy University who is legally blind, EHG opened up a new world. “My vision will continue to deteriorate, so I decided I needed to learn to utilize all of my resources instead of just relying on audio,” he said.

On the flip side, at the Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians (MGH) facility, horses do the teaching. Watching a student who is deaf or blind sitting high on a horse is fun, and the experience serves to hone balance and trust, coordination and strength.

According to one student, Elizabeth, learning about riding and caring for horses also teaches life skills. “The MGH arena helped me become a better person,” she said. “I have learned responsibility, how to work with others and how to focus on learning what you want to know.” The Riders Club, made up of AIDB students from the three K-12 campuses, offers competition; and a new drill team performs choreographed routines. The best riders may even go on to the Special Olympics.

Campus life can get even sportier. The Alabama School for the Deaf Silent Warriors has won seven football national championships; in recent years the School for the Blind has supplied several players, including one determined student with a visual impairment who worked his way up to starting quarterback.

Geordan Carter, a 2018 graduate of Alabama School for the Blind (ASB) and member of the football and wrestling teams, said, “When I was in the public school, I always wanted to play sports but I was told I was a liability. That’s all I heard: a liability. At AIDB I am limitless.”

All AIDB services are free. The K-12 schools and adult vocational rehabilitation center provide residential programs for students who live too far away to commute. The regional centers serve all 67 Alabama counties through locations in Talladega, Huntsville, Birmingham, Tuscumbia, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Dothan and Mobile. Services extend to students in public schools and older people, and include interpreters plus instruction in American Sign Language (ASL). Each center provides an early intervention program for children from newborn to 3 years of age.

Julie Carroll of Birmingham was referred to Birmingham Regional Center’s early intervention program for her newly adopted daughter, Geethika, who had hearing loss. “AIDB became a part of our family,” Carroll said. “And gave our little girl the gift of confidence.”

It all seems … limitless. So does the generosity of sponsors who make each step of the growing program flourish and push the limits. Over the decades, the Alabama Power Foundation’s support has made key things happen here, starting with matching funds to begin the endowment that now covers everything from academic programs to training of staff to many student life options. The endowment sends blind students to Space Camp and Sea Lab, delivers deaf students to math team competitions in New York and keeps MGH Arena therapy programs thriving.

The Alabama Power Foundation Nursing Clinic, which opened in 2018, sets a new, state-of-the-art standard of care. The facility, which accommodates wheelchairs, features patient rooms and an isolation room so germs don’t spread. Students in the K-12 schools receive dental and low-vision services (through a partnership with UAB), as well as nursing audiology, psychology and OT/PT services.

“The Alabama Power Foundation makes the biggest difference,” said John Mascia, president of AIDB. “We’re hoping to build a new accessible playground at the Helen Keller School. And at the Joe Tom Armbrester Agricultural Center, it’s time to put in a pond, orchard and more crops.” Students at Armbrester are taught skills to prepare them for agricultural careers through hands-on learning.

“AIDB is Alabama. It’s kind, it’s compassionate, it’s respectful. It has high expectations,” Mascia continued. “The Alabama Power Foundation is one of our largest cumulative donors and believes in the power of people to achieve their goals. They are our ambassadors and help tell our story.”

And there’s always a good story to tell here, where the possibilities are, indeed, limitless.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Auburn University Rural Studio brings architectural vision to Alabama’s Black Belt

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

The Auburn University Rural Studio movement started as a brilliant notion by the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and the late D.K. Ruth, with faith and early support from the Alabama Power Foundation. “The truth of the matter is that the foundation pledged a large gift at the beginning and without it we wouldn’t be here today,” said professor and Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear.

What’s ensued over the past 26 years is architectural history and a game-changer for the people of Hale County and the Black Belt. “They took a big chance on us,” Freear said. It’s a chance that changed lives, improved landscapes and landed on pages of journals, papers and awards podiums across the world.

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Yet this wasn’t all about the architecture. Mockbee and Ruth did challenge the stuffy, academic do-it-our-way world to take students from drafting tables and blueprints to a real (and needy) world, turning their designs into structures.

But they also took on the mantle of social responsibility, identifying under-the-radar people in tiny Mason’s Bend and creating homes specifically for them. Not just any homes, but miracles of architecture like the now famous “Hay Bale” House (aka Bryant House). “People knew they were getting something unique,” notes Freear of the structures that often employed recycled elements, like a house of carpet tiles and the glass chapel created from windshields.

Mockbee, Ruth and their groundbreaking successor, Freear, have maintained that architecture is not just for the wealthy. Where Mockbee concentrated on houses for the unwealthy, Freear has advanced the program to embrace and enable students to build public structures, including a firehouse, a town hall, baseball fields and parks.

Auburn University Rural Studio lets student architects bring their designs to life in rural Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Every project stems from ideas and dialogue people bring to Rural Studio. What results is beautiful architecture and usable spaces for the grateful recipients. “I frankly like nothing better than people coming up to us, sharing ideas and giving us the chance to work with them,” Freear said. “We don’t have an agenda beyond that, other than quality.”

Frances Sullivan, Newbern’s former postmaster, wasn’t shy about telling Freear what her town needed. “I pestered him,” she said. “When he came in to get his mail, I’d say, ‘What about a library, Andrew?’ I think he was interested from the start, but he had a firehouse and a town hall ahead of this.”

Today, Freear’s voice softens as he talks about the completed Newbern Public Library, sitting like a jewel alomg Alabama Highway 61. “I’m probably as proud of that project as any one we’ve ever done,” he said, recalling Auburn Rural Studio’s more than 200 projects to date. “It’s very respectful of an old bank that had basically sat vacant since the 1930s. You can’t believe this place. It’s stunning.”

Sullivan believes. And she appreciates every aspect of the building, complete with its statistics: 975 days of construction, 362 sheets of plywood, $63,000 worth of donated materials, more than 7,000 donated books, and a team of four skilled and forward-thinking Auburn architecture students.

“The kids on the team were amazing,” she said. “It was their baby from the beginning. They did so much research, traveling to other libraries to see what worked, learning how to establish a library in Alabama, so much. What commitment they had. Even when they graduated, the students stayed around to complete the construction of this project.”

Sullivan and her husband, Mike, housed some team members in their home for two years and consider the Rural Studio team family. “We were part of the process and we definitely had a voice,” she said. “Occasionally we disagreed. Sometimes they won, sometimes we did. I resisted the Children’s Book Nook, they prevailed and now it’s a very popular part of the library.”

Rural Studio’s collaborators are pleased to see the evolution of the library into a community center. “The Knitting Club meets here on Saturdays; two Rural Studio students always come,” said the librarian, Barbara Williams. “We once had a photography workshop where people went out and shot photos, which we exhibited in the library.”

Project Horseshoe Farm fellows conduct weekly programs, mostly for seniors. Summer children’s programs have featured a meteorologist, outreach from Birmingham’s McWane Science Center, a science, technology, engineering and math teacher talking about robotics and a well-traveled local who brought photos for a worldly show-and-tell. Rural Studio students assisted third graders in researching people to portray in a Black history showcase.

There’s no resting on laurels here. There are too many requests to fill, so many exciting projects to serve the people. Nine projects are underway, led by architectural students from across the U.S., and a few from Spain, New Zealand and Venezuela.

One group will turn an outdoor courtyard into a park for ongoing physical therapy treatments at Hale County Hospital; a shelter project at Horseshoe Farm is to house women in transition; and at Horseshoe Farm headquarters in Greensboro, the creation of a courtyard provides for youth and older person activities. A Good Roots grant from the Alabama Power Foundation will supply shade trees to accompany walls of climbing vines. Freear added, “The students’ renderings of that project are beautiful and we think it’s going to be spectacular.”

Spectacular is a word Sullivan applies to the Auburn Rural Studio’s very presence. “They give us amazing gifts,” she said. “Their energy and thoughts are beyond belief. The work they do with us is beyond compare.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Freshwater Land Trust focuses on conservation, stewardship to benefit Alabamians

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

From the ever-expanding Red Rock Trail System to protecting the habitat of the endangered vermilion darter on Turkey Creek, the Freshwater Land Trust both cares and caretakes.

“We own and manage 7,000 acres of Alabama land,” Executive Director Rusha Smith said. “We visit that land on a regular basis to ensure nothing negative is affecting the water species, the flora, fauna or anything else on the property.” The acres came to the trust through purchase, donation or conservation easements.

These conservation and stewardship efforts benefit all Alabamians in a behind-the-scenes, good-for-the-future manner.

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Other Freshwater Land Trust programs are more visible every day. The Red Rock Trail System offers dozens of trails running through 120 miles of Jefferson County. Seven “corridors” are each a main thoroughfare made up of many individual trails.

“Our goal is for every resident of Jefferson County to have access to an outdoor place in a convenient way,” said the trust’s Mary Beth Brown. “To use trails for exercise, to walk or bike to work, to access the library or church, to live healthy lives and be outside in nature where the car isn’t the only option.”

For instance, the new Five Mile Creek Trail in Gardendale connects to Fultondale’s existing trail, providing a 10-mile loop between the two cities. Plans call for extending the Rotary Trail from downtown Birmingham to Avondale and adding nearly 2 more miles to Homewood’s Shades Creek Greenway, so far the most used of all the trails.

Freshwater Land Trust strives to preserve and protect beauty all around us from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

As the newest trail of all, the High Ore Line Trail begins in Midfield, runs 3 miles along an old railroad bed and connects with Red Mountain Park at its recently opened Venice Road entrance. Closing the 20-mile loop around downtown Birmingham is coming soon. Eventually, every trail on every corridor will connect into a continuous linking of communities and outdoor possibilities, in all 750 miles lacing through the county.

People are excited. “When we build a new trail, the running and cycling groups want to be on it before we even finish,” Brown said.

Runner Tom Bartels, training for his next 50K, rejoices in the many choices. “These trails are in our own backyard,” he said. “You can get nice, long runs. I can easily do a 21-miler on the system. I’ve spent a lot of time running in other cities and, as Red Rock Trail System continues to grow, we’re going to rival some of those larger places. The terrain and beauty we have here is a match made for trails like these.”

Tom Cosby, a downtown enthusiast, agreed. “The system is burnishing Birmingham’s reputation as a truly great city. My wife and I bike from our home to the heart of the city center and throughout Railroad Park, and we hike the Vulcan Trail during winter months to see the breathtaking views of the city below. Of all the great things that have happened in Birmingham in the past 10 years, I would put Red Rock Trail System at the top of my list.”

That’s the idea behind the idea: getting people out, using and enjoying the wonders around them. A newly announced project in Birmingham’s Parkside District will draw people to reconfigured land that will include an entertainment venue for movies, music, special events, restaurants and shopping.

“The Freshwater Land Trust is going to assist with trail development through that area and even farther into the Titusville neighborhood,” Smith said. “We feel trails are vital to a community. Not only do they improve walkability and promote healthy living, they also attract businesses and residents to our city.” The project is expected to be completed in the next two to three years.

Of course, the quiet streams, pastoral lands and vistas protected by the Freshwater Land Trust remain a priority. When Turkey Creek experienced severe bank erosion, Stewardship Director Jeffrey Drummond enabled stabilization and the removal of an old dam in the midst of an 11-mile stretch that serves as habitat for the bright red-yellow, endangered vermilion darter, which is found only in Alabama. After strengthening the stream segment, “we found the fish even farther up the stream than ever before,” Drummond said.

The Freshwater Land Trust is looking to the future as it continues to add infrastructure to its stewardship and conservation of properties in Bibb, Blount, Dallas, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Tuscaloosa and Walker counties.

“We hope to increase the property we own and manage,” Smith said. “And to continue the trails along the connectors of the Red Rock Trail System.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

SchoolFest sets the stage for Alabama children

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.

 

Plato said art imitates life. Oscar Wilde said it was the other way around. It’s an argument that continues. However, one art form brings us face to face with the connection between art and life, perhaps better than any other: theater. It’s here people act out stories, hoping their audience forgets for a moment that it’s all make-believe. Were it not for the SchoolFest program of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), many Alabama children might never be exposed to the magic of theater.

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Every year, 40,000 students attend SchoolFest in Montgomery. From the professional actors to the costume and set design, the productions are the same as those presented to other ASF audiences. Thanks to grants from the Alabama Power Foundation and others, ticket prices are discounted and many schools attend for free, exposing students from all walks of life to art.

For some, it’s an experience they’ll never forget. For others, like Emily Prim, it’s life-changing. Prim is assistant wardrobe supervisor at ASF. She remembers distinctly when the “theater bug” bit her. “I was in seventh grade at St. James School in Montgomery. We had a field trip to SchoolFest, where we saw ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ I remember it so well, because there was a Ferris wheel on stage that was the peach, and I thought that was so cool. I was sorta thinking about theater, because of shows we had done in school and stuff, but when I came to see ‘James’ here, it made me start thinking that this is something I could do after I graduate,” Prim said.

Prim’s experience is what ASF is all about. Executive Director Todd Schmidt put it this way: “It’s really a bedrock of our mission at ASF, which is to create communities through transformative theatrical experiences. It’s a lot of kids’ first introduction to theater. It’s important to do that, especially in this time of continued cuts in arts funding.”

Shakespeare Festival’s SchoolFest puts the arts at center stage for Alabama students from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Just in the past year, students have seen productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Our Town,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.” The latter featured 24 students from Montgomery Public Schools in the cast. Schmidt chooses shows that are appropriate for audiences of all ages. SchoolFest builds many of these productions around school curricula.

“We put our programming out to schools, and then they select what they think is relevant to what they’re doing and what they want their kids to be exposed to,” Schmidt said.

What started decades ago as productions appropriate for students has continued to expand. In addition to SchoolFest, ASF offers educational programs. There are theater classes for adults and children, and summer theater camps for students. ASF has hosted a series of conversations that are tied – at least in part – to the shows. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell spoke alongside a cast member from “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.”

“These are not about our productions, but they focus on themes of the productions,” Schmidt said. “There’s one coming up that talks about women dealing with glass ceilings, working in fields normally dominated by men, which ties somewhat into the production of ‘Steel Magnolias’ and a new production, ‘Into the Breeches.’”

Lonny Harrison, director of theater at St. James School in Montgomery, has been bringing students to see productions at ASF for 21 years. “We have some students who, up to the point they’ve hit SchoolFest, have never seen a live production outside of a school play. This definitely helps get them more into the arts.

It seems like kids respond differently to every show, but whether it’s something that’s the most amazing thing to them, or something that makes them think more critically, it at least makes them think about it. When we left ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the other day, kids were saying, ‘Let’s do some Shakespeare!’ I had to tell them, ‘Small steps.’”

Harrison has a long history with SchoolFest. He saw stage productions at ASF when he was in school. His experience echoes that of many Alabamians. Were you to poll the state, you’d likely be amazed at the number of people of all ages who’ve shared the marvel of live performance in a theater at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

In Alabama, it’s a generational thing. When it comes to the art imitating life vs. life imitating art question, perhaps Shakespeare got it right when, in the second act of “As You Like It,” the character Jaques said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

The parts being played by the men and women of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival are a rich and vital service to the people of our state. These are the people who transform our children, who show them a new and lively way to understand stories, and life – its comedies and tragedies. These are the “players” who expand the minds of our young people, and show them a world that lives within their own ability to imagine.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Ozark makes a splash with new community pool, commitment to swimming education for all its children

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.

 

What good is a pool if you can’t swim in it? That was the problem the city of Ozark faced when a new community pool couldn’t open without specially trained lifeguards.

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The Ozark Community Pool was the brainchild of Mayor Bob Bunting, who came out of retirement to run for office on the promise of building such a facility for the community. Bunting had a personal reason for wanting a place in Ozark for children to learn to swim. He had been mayor in 1989, when an Ozark High School football star seemed destined to play for the Crimson Tide, until he was in a car accident that left the car and the passengers submerged in a pond. While the other passengers swam to safety, the promising young athlete drowned because he didn’t know how to swim.

Ozark elected Bunting again in 2016 on the promise of the aquatic center. He hit the ground running, rolling up his sleeves and working to raise money to fund the effort. Some 521 personal letters later, he had raised a significant portion of the needed funds. The Wiregrass Foundation pitched in, as did the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. The result was a beautiful new community pool and aquatics center. He was able to raise the extra money required to build a competitive-sized pool that local schools could use for swim teams. There was only one problem: Deep-water lifeguards were required.

“We found there are a lot of shallow-water lifeguards out there, but we’ve had to find and train deep-water lifeguards,” Bunting said.

Thanks to Lonnie Groomes, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Ozark, the city was able to open the pool the first year by recruiting deep-water lifeguards from nearby Fort Rucker.

Community pools its resources to put Ozark in the swim from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

To be ready for the next full swim season, the city needed to find more lifeguards and resources to provide proper training. Thanks to a grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, Ozark has water safety courses and is training lifeguards for the new pool.

“The grant will cover anything related to the training of the lifeguards,” Bunting said. “So we’ll have uniforms for them, an adult mannequin, a child mannequin, manuals … a belt for each lifeguard.”

Being able to use the pool is only part of Bunting’s vision.

“I want to make sure that every child in Ozark knows how to swim,” he said. “We’re looking at starting in the third or fourth grade. Every year, for example, we’ll teach all of the fourth-graders to swim. Over a period of time, every child who goes through our school system will know how.”

Courtney Ganz, Ozark’s new aquatic director, is tasked with developing the pool programs. “We’re just ramping up, trying to get all of our programming started,” she said. “That’s what’s making this different. Ozark had a pool at one time, oh, about 10 years ago, but we wanted something that offered more services to the community.”

As the city of Ozark completes a busy season at the new pool, the list of available classes and activities continues to grow. The facility is helping people stay in shape, with aquacise classes for seniors and swimming lessons for all ages. Most importantly, the pool is a reminder of what can happen when a community comes together for good.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Olympic gold medalist Lillie Leatherwood helping others achieve in Tuscaloosa

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.

 

Having Olympic gold and silver medals would be a crowning achievement for nearly anyone. Two-time medalist Lillie Leatherwood is no exception. But the former track and field star will tell you that being a champion in life isn’t simply about the races you’ve won. It’s also about the people you help along the way.

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It’s about young people transformed by athletic effort, a place to work and play and the right kind of coaching. Leatherwood’s Olympic career culminated in 1988 with her silver medal in Seoul for the 4×400 meter relay. But, in a few short years, she found herself back in her hometown of Tuscaloosa, where she would become an agent of truly medal-worthy change.

Leatherwood joined the police department. In 1995, she was assigned to the Tuscaloosa Police Athletic League (PAL) that works crime from a preventive angle. Now, almost 25 years later, she is transforming young people through a combination of life coaching, athletics and education.

“I always knew I wanted to work with children, and this has given me an opportunity to do that,” said Leatherwood, who became director of PAL in 2013. “To come back to my hometown and do something like this, it’s just a dream job. It just makes me feel great.”

Lillie Leatherwood is an Olympic medalist competing for the lives of at-risk youth from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

PAL programs pair at-risk youths with police officers under whose guidance they take part in athletic, educational and cultural programs, along with activities that promote self-esteem, drug awareness, community cleanup and mentoring.

About 200 students are part of the Tuscaloosa PAL – one of four in Alabama affiliated with the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues. The kids participate in transformative programs, play basketball, learn life lessons and, of course, do their homework in study hall.

PAL is designed to give students an alternative to hanging out on the streets and getting into trouble. Does it work? Ask Demario Pippen, who grew up on the west side of Tuscaloosa, where PAL is based.

“I can vividly remember when they first built the gym. I went when I was in elementary school and stayed all the way through high school,” Pippen said. “Being a young kid and having access to a gym was great. It was just a safe haven to get away, to hang out with some friends, play sports. They did little field trips for us, too, sometimes to the movies or the bowling alley. All that stuff was always cool to me.”

Pippen, now 29, mentors kids as a coach at Westlawn Middle School in Tuscaloosa. He said the PAL program saved his life. He lost an older brother – murdered on the streets of Tuscaloosa at 19 years of age – who he says was “more interested in what happened outside the gym than what happened inside the gym.”

What goes on inside the PAL gym is transformative. But, it is in the study hall that the Alabama Power Foundation has been able to make a difference – thanks in part to the vision of the former Olympian. Leatherwood saw that many kids don’t have access to computers – tools that could make a difference in completing their studies. So, with a grant from the foundation, she opened a computer lab for PAL participants.

From the time construction began on the lab, students were eager to use the improved space. For them, the cubicles, printer and 10 computers loaded with educational games and software represent a huge opportunity. Leatherwood is proud of the program.

Pippen feels the same way. He remembers the difficult lessons he learned, times when PAL coaches sat him down and talked about destructive behaviors. He remembers the long days playing sports, channeling his youthful energy into healthy efforts. The experience transformed him from at-risk youth to an adult determined to give back to his community.

“I always saw myself as someone who would give back. That was always a big thing to me, and I saw at PAL people who were doing that. The program’s main focus is giving back, and that’s one of my main focuses as an adult.”

Leatherwood shows off her Olympic hardware from time to time. Pippen remembers seeing the medals when he was younger. “Honestly, I would see the pictures and stuff of her running in the Olympics, but I didn’t understand it all at that age. The older I got, I realized, ‘Man, this is not only state or national, this is the world.’ It made me appreciate her even more. The way she carried herself and she was always so humble, down-to-earth and approachable. She was and is such a role model. I’m aspiring to be the same kind of role model.”

Champions aren’t just found on the courts and fields of international competition. They walk among us, changing the lives of those around them for the better.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Mobile Bay reefs project aims to help renew aquatic habitats, vanishing shoreline

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.

 

If you were able to travel back a couple of hundred years and visit the edge of Mobile Bay near where Helen Wood Park is today, you’d see miles and miles of marshland, veined with tidal creeks and teeming with fish and other marine creatures that look to the safety of the marsh to spawn.

At low tide, there would be vast mounds of oysters around the edge of an estuary that was about 30 feet deep at its deepest point. The marshes and oyster beds of the past didn’t only serve as havens for creatures. They reduced the ability of storm tides to erode the mainland.

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But a lot can change in a pair of centuries. The oyster reefs that used to encircle the bay have dwindled, and there is more ship traffic. As a result, waves eroded the marshes and shore.

“We’ve changed the dynamics of the bay,” said Judy Haner, marine and freshwater programs director for The Nature Conservancy, which is leading the charge in rebuilding Mobile Bay. “What we’re doing now is trying to give that shoreline a fighting chance. We want to help boost those habitats, not only for fish and birds and wildlife, but also to protect the shoreline from erosion.”

In this effort, the Alabama Power Foundation provided resources to build reefs in the brackish waters off Helen Wood Park, in Lourdes on the west side of Mobile Bay, and the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) provided manpower.

In May 2018, some 60 APSO volunteers – aged 12 to 70-plus – rolled up their sleeves, put on their boots and clamdiggers and went about the business of reef building.

In the past, The Nature Conservancy had attempted to build replacement reefs using bags of spent oyster shells – the same ingredient nature uses for reefs. But the erosive power of waves proved too intense, scattering the bags of oyster shells. Now, the conservancy opts to use “oyster castles” to construct new reefs.

Oyster castles are a relatively new way of constructing artificial reefs, using interlocking 35-pound concrete blocks. APSO volunteers developed a system using plastic “barges” to move the blocks along a human chain that snaked out into the rich brown marsh waters adjacent to a bridge over the Dog River.

Over the course of eight hours, the team of Nature Conservancy and APSO volunteers built seven artificial reefs.

“This was a new project for us,” said Erin Delaporte, an Alabama Power Customer Service manager in Mobile who is the APSO chapter president and coordinated the project. “It was a very labor-intensive day, but it was a wonderful day. It was tough work. I heard someone say they had worked eight hours on the project, but it took 48 hours to recover.

“It was worth it,” Delaporte said. “It was one of the most unique projects we’ve ever done in Mobile.”

As for the reefs, the positive effect was instantaneous.

“We wanted to restore the vertical topography of that reef and restore the waves, and you see that pretty much right away,” Haner said.

While there will be future scientific measurement of the growth of the reefs, native fish and crabs found them soon after completion of the APSO project.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Storybook Farm uses equine therapy to help heal emotional and physical disabilities

(Storybook Farm/Contributed)

Finding a way to reach children with emotional, intellectual and physical disabilities requires a special talent, as each individual child responds differently to different methods.

But few approaches are as fascinating as the equine-assisted therapies offered by Storybook Farm.

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The name, Storybook Farm, combines two of the passions of its founder, Dena Little: literature and horses. Little sold her successful bakery in Atlanta and moved her family to a 9-acre spread in Opelika in 2001. An English major and avid reader, she found the pastoral beauty of this part of Alabama inspirational, storybook-like. She sensed the magic in the countryside. “I wasn’t intending to start Storybook when I moved here. I just wanted a smaller community to raise my family. I came down here for a visit and just fell in love with the area.”

So, she moved her family, bought a trio of horses and made a home.

About a year later, while reading the magazine Practical Horseman, Little found herself intrigued by using horses in therapy for children. The therapeutic benefits of interacting with horses have been touted all the way back to classical times. As early as the 17th century, therapeutic riding was prescribed for gout, neurological disorders and low morale. With this in mind, it wasn’t long before Little put her passion for horses and literature together to create Storybook Farm.

In 2002, Storybook Farm opened with a barn, six stalls, three riders, 10 volunteers and three horses – Willy Wonka, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. At the time, the whole experiment felt like a short story. Turns out, it was only the prologue to a much bigger effort. “We grew exponentially fast, Little said. “I had to make a decision whether I wanted to do this full time and commit. I felt like the Lord was leading me in this direction.”

Storybook grew so fast, Little had to sell the initial farm and move to what is now a 51-acre expanse with room to grow. And grow it has continued to do.

They began with a house and a 12-stall barn but have since added a three-stall barn, two riding areas and a horticultural area called the Secret Garden. The next addition? A 2-acre canine area called the Fox and Hound Playground.

At Fox and Hound, children will have six canine friends to entertain them, with names like Ann and Dan (from “Where the Red Fern Grows”), Professor Henry Higgins (from “Pygmalion”), Velvet Brown (from “National Velvet”) and Mr. Banks and Admiral Boone (from “Mary Poppins”).

The dogs will be part of a reading program in which kids read to the dogs. “There’s so much research that tells us that reading out loud is so beneficial, Little said. “And when you’re reading to the nonjudging dog, it’s a whole lot easier than reading for a teacher or your peers or something like that.”

For Tina Ledbetter’s daughter, Channing, it was all about the horse. Channing has a seizure disorder that caused her to develop more slowly than peers. Ledbetter searched high and low for an appropriate activity for Channing – something that would make the youngster feel more confident and accomplished. They tried dance, gymnastics, soccer – you name it – to no avail.

Then, Channing met Mrs. Potts, one of the horses at Storybook. “I thought, ‘This is something that is hers, that she can feel good about, Ledbetter said of horseback riding. “It’s an extracurricular activity that will build her self esteem and also help her build strength.”

Little understands. “Everyone’s equal on the back of a horse, she said. “It doesn’t matter what has brought you to Storybook. Now with three full-time staffers and scores of volunteers from Auburn University,Storybook serves some 1,500 children a year. Children with more than 140 different diagnoses have benefited from the therapeutic horse farm.

Moreover, all these children have enjoyed the experience free of charge. Thanks to the farm’s fundraising efforts and to organizations like the Alabama Power Foundation, the farm is able to serve its guests.

“Nothing is ever charged to any family, group, whatever, whoever is here, Little said. “We just want to be here to serve and be a hopeful place for families.

After so much searching, Tina Ledbetter has found a therapy that’s finally helping her daughter. In fact, Channing is so enthralled with her horse, Mrs. Potts, that she keeps a picture of the gentle, dark bay mare, by her bed. The other day Channing Ledbetter was able to ride the horse for the first time. Her mother will tell you it was a magical experience. Like something right out of a storybook.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)