The Wire

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


    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


    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


    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.

4 months ago

Plant Gaston APSO members cheer special-needs children with fishing days

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

Most anglers head to the lake for relaxation and sport: Even on a bad day of fishing, one leaves in a better mood. Catching some fish – big or small – gives a feeling of accomplishment.

Multiply that feeling by 100. That’s the joy felt by special-needs children from six elementary, intermediate and high schools, including Jemison, Vestavia Hills, Thorsby and Wilsonville.

The past two weeks, school systems have bused special-needs classes to Wilsonville, where Plant Gaston members of the Alabama Power Service Organization hosted children and school staff. Across the highway from the plant, a bucolic scene awaits. A 3-acre pond holds bream and bass up to 2 pounds and more, perfect for holding by small hands.


Gaston APSO hosts Jemison kids in fishing from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

More than 60 APSO members, including several employees from Local 2077 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), helped during the six fishing events. Gaston folks helped youngsters bait their fishing poles with bits of hot dogs and helped them reel in the catch.

(Courtesy of Alabama Newscenter)

5 months ago

UAB Health Disparities Research Symposium aims to improve health with multi-level approach

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

“You’re in the belly of the beast now.”

That was the response of a Birmingham cab driver in welcoming author and health and social welfare policy expert Dr. Jonathan Engel to Birmingham. Engel, author of “Fat Nation: The history of obesity in the United States” spoke to about 65 health experts at UAB’s 14th annual Health Disparities Research Symposium.

Indeed, Engel’s mission was to spotlight the numerous health problems caused almost entirely by obesity. Alabama ranks No. 5 among the nation’s 10 fattest state populations.

“Overweight is highly correlated with type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension, arthritis and other health issues,” said Engel, a professor at Baruch College at the City University New York (CUNY). “Too much weight puts enormous stress on joints and on the heart. It’s a long-term, chronic strain on the body.”


Engel said more than 50 percent of meals are eaten outside the home, a huge departure from American norms as compared to the middle of the 20th century. Noting that he and his wife made concerted efforts to ensure their four children ate healthily, Engel said it’s much easier to control what you eat by cooking your own food and avoiding processed foods.

“My main message is the obesity epidemic is largely environmental,” Engel said. “We’ve created a food environment where it’s very difficult for anyone to be thin.”

Sponsored by UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC), the symposium included oral presentations and poster sessions featuring original research by academic investigators, scholars and community partners in the fields of basic science, clinical research, social and behavioral science, and community-based research.

“Your environment has a huge aspect on your behavior and health,” said keynote speaker Dr. Karen Glanz. A member of the U.S. Task Force on Community Preventive Services for 10 years, Glanz’s research focuses on cancer prevention and control, theories of health behavior, obesity and the built environment, social and health policy, and new health communication technologies.

“We know that physical activity can prevent heart disease, cancer, depression and cognitive decrease across the life span,” said Glanz, director of UPenn Prevention Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are real disparities in areas of the South and Southeast, which fare less well in physical activity.”

Glanz recommends design changes and health policy intervention to influence urban design that incorporates sidewalks and parks; encourages land-use policies such as zoning that allows residents to be more active; increases access to public parks and outreach; and adds prompts and signs that encourage stair usage.

On April 18, UAB’s Dr. Mona Fouad took part in a roundtable discussion with Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and community leaders about creating a social services hub for five housing communities in greater Birmingham.

For nearly 30 years, MHRC Director Fouad has worked to reduce health disparities in vulnerable communities, whose troubles are compounded when located in food-imbalanced areas.

“Areas without grocery stores are more often found in underserved communities,” Fouad said in 2017, and are often created in part by residents’ lack of purchasing power and transportation to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Researchers share their findings

About 20 researchers shared their studies in breakout sessions: policy and system influences of health; disparities measurement and methods; and social and environmental determinants of health.

Brittney Davis, a postgraduate fellow in the UAB studying in the HudsonAlpha Genomic Medicine Training Program, dreams of doing research that will bring positive health outcomes for Alabamians. She discussed her findings diagrammed on a poster.

“I want to learn how to use pharmacogenetic data in making clinical decisions,” said Davis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UAB and her doctor of pharmacy degree from Samford University in 2018. “I have learned a great deal about how drugs work at the molecular level, and how they can be profoundly influenced by genetic factors.”
During a breakout session about clinical and social factors of excess hypertension risk, Dr. Suzanne Judd said diet definitely matters. The disparity for stroke is worse, at younger ages, for black Americans. Among 30,239 white and black participants, a high-fat and high-cholesterol diet was the most powerful risk factor for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, cancer and cognitive decline.

“There are reasons for geographic and racial differences in stroke; African Americans have more strokes,” Judd said.

“The Southern diet score is the most potent mediator of the black/white difference in hypertension risk, accounting for 51.5 percent of the excess in men and 25.8 percent in women. We can attribute the Southern diet as the biggest factor for hypertension and diabetes.”

Dr. Peng Xu discussed the mutational landscape of cancer patients with overweight and obese tendencies, whose findings were part of a cancer study led by Dr. Zechen Chong of the UAB School of Medicine.

“There’s a contribution of excess body weight to different cancer cases,” Xu said. “We found more endometrial cancer in obese patients and more somatic mutations of BMI in cancer patients. BMI was higher among the different cancer patients.”

Healthy diet, physical activity equal healthier future

Wallace said it’s important for everyone to know their health numbers, such as blood pressure and blood sugar readings, and cholesterol levels, and to take control of their diet and increase physical activity.

“We need to do these things before the person presents at the ER with high blood pressure,” she said. “Our state is called ‘Alabama the Beautiful,’ but Alabama can also be healthy, Alabama can be well.”
Decreasing health disparities in Alabama

UAB MHRC has a track record of improving areas where residents live, work and play through policy systems and environmental changes. Sometimes, the barriers seem nearly insurmountable, said Dr. Theresa Wallace.

“About 20 years ago, lots of emphasis was placed on the individual and their choices, but we know and appreciate that individuals live in a larger context,” said Wallace, program director for UAB Preventive Medicine. “The determinants of health include many things. We look at the context of where health happens – at home, school and work.”

She said physical activity, eating healthy, and prevention and wellness are the three pillars of good health. Those tenets are the building blocks of UAB’s “Healthy Alabama 2030: Live HealthSmart” Grand Challenge, in partnership with 90 state and federal agencies and groups.

She believes the program has the makings to propel Alabama from the bottom of national health rankings to the top.

“It takes partnership and everyone being at the table for the collective good of the community,” said Wallace. “Right now, our state is always at the bottom, 48th or 49th, and that’s just unacceptable. It’s time to change our trajectory through our policy systems and improvements. Our goal is to put Alabama at the top, healthwise.”

Courtesy of Alabama Newscenter

5 months ago

Foxhound Bee Co. in Birmingham enjoys ‘honey of a success’

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

Just call Adam Hickman the “bee whisperer.”

After five years in the beekeeping business, Hickman has learned most of the secrets of the trade. While some folks see beekeeping as a farming practice that’s fallen out of vogue, Hickman recognizes that managing bees is necessary to food production. He calls beekeeping a needed skill that’s as on-trend today as it was 50 years ago.

“We need more honeybees for our environment,” said Hickman, who fell into the business naturally. His great-grandfather in North Carolina kept bees.


“When he passed away, I got his old equipment,” said Hickman, who set up his first hive about eight years ago.

Through Foxhound Bee Co. of Birmingham, Hickman teaches beekeeping classes and tends bees for multiple clients, in addition to his own hives. He sells equipment such as the boxes to hold honeybees, and the suits and smokers used by beekeepers for tending their hives.

The business has been very successful, said Hickman, who earned a business degree from UAB and a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales. He also is a recipe developer and tester for a national food media brand. He and his wife, Stephanie, have two children and run Foxhound Bee Co. as a team. Though they sell raw honey made in Homewood and Hoover as a secondary product, their business is built on sales of equipment, tools and classes. Foxhound Bee Co. products include beekeeper suits, smokers, and long-lasting Cypress wood hives and stands.

“Our business has expanded each year as more and more customers come back,” Hickman said.

‘Honey do’: Creating apiaries for homeowners

In April, Hickman created an apiary for a Trussville homeowner whose woodsy acreage intersects near Camp Gertrude Coleman, operated by the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama.

He said that beekeeping from one’s home often isn’t practical, unless there’s enough space and plenty of flowering plants to support the hives. Wide-open areas are best, allowing the insects to make a “beeline” to and from their home.

“It’s got to work for the neighborhood, to set up hives in a community,” said Hickman, who manages hives in a subdivision in eastern Hoover, a local university and two other clients.

With some help from Daniel McCurry, a project manager for Father Nature Landscapes in Birmingham, Hickman set up a stand for two hives. He carefully measured the area, ensuring that it was level, then centered the wooden stand on which the hives would rest.

“Each hive has about 25,000 bees, with one queen that lays all of the eggs,” he said of the installation. “The worker bees take care of all the eggs, taking care of the young bees and going out and getting nectar and pollen, and coming back to the hive.”

Bees are kind of on “automatic” and take care of themselves, increasing in size during spring. One of a beekeeper’s main jobs is to manage the hive and ensure the bees aren’t overcrowded.

“Honeybees are really livestock,” Hickman said. “Sometimes they have a mind of their own. That’s what makes beekeeping interesting, because when you think you understand everything, that’s when they throw you a curve ball.”

Demystifying the ‘swarm’

Hickman compares the trade to farming, with honey as the delicious product.

“Beekeeping is like any farming – sometimes, if there’s a drought or it rains a lot, it’s more difficult,” he said. “There’s a moment for every beekeeper, when you have to say, ‘Is this what I want to be doing right now?’ because they’re less happy with you taking their honey.”

Hickman checks his hives every two to three weeks in the summer, especially when they are expanding.

During spring and summer, bees begin to “swarm,” with the queen leaving with half the bees. It’s not uncommon for homeowners to discover a swarm has made themselves a new home under a deck or in a tree. It’s best to call in experts to move a hive – some beekeeping club members will help relocate bees.

The good news is that there are no Africanized bees in Alabama. Hickman manages his hives, which he numbers, to prevent overcrowding of the hive and to ensure they have enough space.

“As a beekeeper, I’ve got to know the season, and know what they’ are going to do before they even do it,” Hickman said. “You’ve got to stay ahead of them.

“It’s really natural for them to divide the hive,” he said. “When bees swarm, they are the most passive they will be in their lifespan. The goal is to reproduce and spread their genes as they divide. Bees must swarm, or separate the colony, to reproduce. When the queen lays eggs, that’s the equivalent of our bodies making cells. They reproduce by swarming, not when the queen lays eggs.”

Hickman manages his hives conservatively, so the bees have what they need to make it through the winter. Harvesting the honey in late summer, he usually gathers enough honey to sell about 500 bottles starting in August, depending on the year and the number of hives. The honey usually sells out by November.

“I’ve got to plan for winter and make sure they have what they need to survive the winter, that they have enough food, so they don’t starve,” he said. “They don’t make honey for you and me – they make it for themselves to eat so they don’t starve when plants aren’t blooming.”

Sharing the love of bees

Beekeeping is an art that reaps delicious rewards, but it requires knowledge and skill to be successful.

To that end, Hickman teaches short and one-day beekeeping classes. His three-hour class covers the basics of setting up a bee hive, tools and the annual life pattern of bees in the Birmingham area. The one-day class provides students with the fundamentals to go from knowing nothing about honeybees to leaving prepared and excited about a new adventure. The 1.5-hour “beekeeping experience” allows the would-be beekeeper to suit up and experience the industrious, secret lives of bees.

Hickman’s focus is on teaching sustainable beekeeping practices that help safeguard the country’s troubled bee populations.

“I need to make sure I’m a responsible beekeeper and the bees have all their needs met first before we meet our own needs,” he said. “Part of being a good beekeeper is being a good steward of your bees.”

Foxhound Bee Co. can be found online and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

On a wing and a prayer: Alabama Gold Wing Association motorcycle riders on trip of a lifetime

(C. Brown/Alabama NewsCenter)

There’s nothing like riding the highway, the sun on your face, the wind at your back … just you and your buddies:

“Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way …” – Steppenwolf, “Born to be Wild,” 1967

More than 100 members of the Alabama Gold Wing Association, including cyclists from other Gold Wing Road Riders Association (GWRRA) chapters, are taking the ride of a lifetime.

On March 25, the Gold Wing motorcycle enthusiasts met in Wilmington, North Carolina, for the annual GWRRA cross-country tour. Some Gold Wingers came from as far away as Iowa, New Mexico, New York and Quebec, Ontario, to join in the 2,776-mile trek from Wilmington to Chula Vista, California.


Ten years ago, GWRRA’s four original bikers rode from Wilmington to Phoenix in only four days.

“We’re on our “40 to Phoenix’ trip,” paralleling I-40 from Wilmington, North Carolina, all the way from Arizona and into Phoenix,” said longtime Alabama Gold Wing member Danny Baker. “We’ll take 10 days, though.”

During the journey, club members will sleep in eight states, including North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Dave Whortman, a rider from Elizabethton, Tennessee, said the trip is part of his “bucket list.”

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the club,” said Whortman, who retired from Edward Jones Investments after 35 years of service. “One of the items on my list was to do some type of long-distance trip on my Gold Wing. I was reading about last year’s trip in the GWRRA magazine and I thought, that’s my ‘in.’ I knew that people in GWRRA are good, nice people, and I knew I’d be with others in the event that I would have a break down or whatever.

“I get to see this beautiful country of ours, one day at a time,” the former investments counselor said. Before leaving the Volunteer State, Whortman had a complete tune-up on his Gold Wing motorcycle to make sure it could handle the mileage.

‘Heavy metal thunder’

Riding about 5,552 miles on a cross-country motorcycle tour isn’t for the faint of heart. Indeed, Whortman agreed that stamina, endurance, sheer guts and determination are required.

“It’s fun, but you need to be mentally and physically prepared,” he said, with a laugh.

On March 28, the motorcyclists spent a grueling eight hours on the road, logging 410 miles on the first leg of their journey, on the way to Conway, Arkansas. The only stops: breakfast, lunch and breaks for “a quick snack, Coke or coffee” on the road. Most of the bikers pull heavy-duty, air-ride trailers loaded with soft drinks, bottled water and high-carbohydrate snacks for brief road stops.

“The longest day we had was last Thursday, when we left from Barber Motorsports in Leeds to ride to Conway, Arkansas,” Baker said. After the long drive, club members wound down with a barbecue cookout at a Day’s Inn, where many stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, talking about the trip.

“It’s been a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime kinda thing for me,” Baker said, recalling his excitement at reaching snowy Moriarty, New Mexico, on March 31. “I had on my winter Thermosuit. I was prepared for the cold.”

Riders converged in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 3 for a tour of GWRRA International Headquarters. GWRRA has more than 72,000 U.S., Canadian and international members, with more than 800 chapters that foster safe, enjoyable riding. Alabama has 14 GWRRA chapters.

After a day of sightseeing, club members rested at a Days Inn. On April 4, they were “hugging the road” to Chula Vista, with plans to enjoy a beach weekend.

Baker plans to “dip his toes in the Pacific Ocean” and fill a couple of bottles with sand and salt water.

“I’m going to make a little memorial for my Dad,” said Baker, 68. “He saw the Pacific Ocean, but never got in.”

They visited Mexico on April 5, with more beach time planned for April 6. Finally, on April 7, riders will begin the journey home to their families.

Safety on highways and byways

“This ride is a dream come true for many of us,” said Baker, a member of the Hueytown chapter of GWRRA for more than 30 years. He bought his first Honda Gold Wing in 1986.

He enjoys helping teach the community to ride safely. GWRRA has more than 72,000 U.S., Canadian and international members, with more than 800 chapters that foster safe, enjoyable riding. Alabama has 14 GWRRA chapters.

“We promote a positive image of cycling,” said Baker, GWRRA’s state officer for membership enhancement. “I’ve rode pretty steadily since 1985. It’s therapeutic. You become almost one with the road.”

Baker has devoted much of his spare time through GWRRA in helping educate people about the importance of motorcycle safety. The GWRRA’s rider education program, Riding Safely and Sharing the Road, helps keep motorcycle riders and drivers cognizant about possible road hazards.

Baker, who sports bright, neon yellow and green clothing while motorcycling, shares safety tips with his riding buddies. To prevent traffic congestion, the bikers are riding in groups of seven, leaving at staggered times.

“Every morning before we leave, we have a little discussion on how we’re going to ride safely during the day, based on any route we want to take or anything we’d like to stop and see,” Baker said. “I say a prayer before I get on my motorcycle.”

“We look out for each other,” he added. “We have a good time together, being safe and enjoying good company while riding. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Alabama Power helps make Arbor Week perfect for tree planting

(Ethan James/Alabama Power)

With spring nipping at winter’s heels and Southern days growing longer, it’s the perfect time to plant trees.

Arbor Week in Alabama comes after some cities received up to 8 inches of rain, meaning that soil is soft and well-primed for seedlings, said Doug Sheffield, utility arborist supervisor at Alabama Power’s Eastern Division Office in Anniston.

Hundreds of residents are planting seedlings provided by Alabama Power and forestry and conservation groups in honor of Arbor Week, celebrated in Alabama during the last full week of February.


More than 150 people lined up on Feb. 22 at Jacksonville Square to meet Sheffield and his team of arborists, who handed out several kinds of trees, including native species such as dogwoods.

“As foresters and arborists, we love trees and are committed to maintaining a healthy environment,” said Sheffield, whose team of experts gave away saplings for three hours. “We do a lot of educational efforts, giving people advice on planting certain types of trees in the right places.”

While giving away more than 3,000 trees at Jacksonville Square, the team shared how to create a sustainable urban environment through tree planting. The project helped Jacksonville maintain its “Tree City” designation.

“We’re trying to get the message out about planning the right tree in the right place,” said Sheffield, who has worked at Alabama Power for 15 years. “People see this little tree and don’t consider how much it will spread across their yard, or whether it will drop acorns everywhere, as a fall hazard.

“Trees will be self-sustaining if they’re put in the right place,” he said. “Right now is a good time for planting because after the rain, it’s better for the tree.” Trees gain needed nutrients from wet soil and spread their roots more easily.

While many homeowners consider trees as being an upgrade that may increase the value of their property, It’s important to think about what you expect from a tree, Sheffield said.

For instance, consider whether you want to provide shade for your home; hide heat pumps or air conditioners; or to create privacy. Residents who desire a “windscreen” to help shield the home from the elements would do best to select evergreen trees, Sheffield said.

Contributing to communities with education, sound advice and trees

Starting in mid-February, company foresters and arborists held tree giveaways throughout the state. In Alabama Power’s Western Division, Utility Arborist Supervisor Jeffrey Poston and his team distributed 5,000 seedlings in Jasper on Feb. 15 and in Tuscaloosa on Feb. 16.

Utility Arborist Ethan James, a member of the Autauga Forestry and Wildlife Stewardship Council, helped give away more than 1,000 trees at Pratt Park in Prattville, and another 400 trees to residents at the city of Clanton Courthouse Feb. 19. Utility Arborist Phillip Lambert gave trees to Southeast Division residents on Feb. 29, and Josh Smalley distributed trees to Montgomery residents on Feb. 16.

“Alabama Power donates trees every year, and this is my fifth year to do it,” James said. “We do several tree giveaways across Southern and Southeast divisions, from Clanton to Eufaula.

“This is a good way to give back to our communities,” James added. “A lot of people think we only cutback trees, but we do so much more. We tell them to consider planting the trees a safe distance from utility rights-of-way. It helps the homeowner in the long run.”

On Saturday, Feb. 23, Vegetation Manager Scott Roddy shared valuable tree-planting information at the Chelsea Community Center, handing out Alabama Power’s “Right Tree Right Place” brochures. Roddy, a member of the Chelsea Tree Commission, advised residents about best practices for planting native trees.

Shon Walters and his team of arborists will be at Aldridge Gardens on Saturday morning, March 2, to discuss tree-planting strategies with Hoover residents.

“We want to give back to the community by providing planting tips to help ensure they have a successful planting,” said Walters, utility arborist supervisor, Power Delivery Distribution – Birmingham.

In Mobile, Eric Garrett and his three-member team of arborists will greet the public at the annual Creek Fest at Tricentennial Park on May 11. During the four-hour celebration, the team will give away 500 azalea bushes, answering questions and giving advice about how to care for the plants.

“This will be a day of outreach to educate the public,” said Garrett, utility arborist supervisor in Saraland. “We want to interact with folks and help our customers.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

APSO’s sensory room at Jones Elementary is a hit with kids, teachers

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

With the addition of the new sensory room at John S. Jones Elementary School in Rainbow City, it’s not unusual to hear peals of joy — and the excitement isn’t coming only from students.

The school’s six special-education teachers are just as thrilled about the 300-square-foot addition, said longtime Principal Tanya Clark, who has been at John Jones Elementary for several years.

Members of the Eastern Division Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) installed equipment for the new sensory space on Jan. 17-18. The room is designed to meet the needs of the school’s 80 students with autism and sensory issues.


“We are so excited, because we could have never afforded this on our own,” Clark said. “We have a large special needs population to begin with.”

“The sensory room will be a place for them to go in and explore and engage,” she said. “The sensory items in there will hopefully give students that are distressed or over-stimulated a place to calm down, to be able to come in and sit in the swings or walk on the floor tiles, listen to the sounds and see the lights.”

Eastern APSO President Varnestra Jones, with president-elect Casandra Maudsley, brought the sensory room to life. Maudsley, who researched items for sensory rooms to create the space, said she now knows how to establish a sensory room on a budget. Jones said the chapter invested about $1,500 in the equipment, which members earned through many fund-raising projects.

Eastern APSO supplied two ceiling-to-floor hanging swings, gel floor tiles that “move” with children’s steps, bean bag chairs, a calming light projector, a bubble lamp with colorful fish that “swim” in the water, a swing for two children, earphones, loads of fidget toys to keep little hands busy and five weighted blankets to calm and comfort kids.

Maudsley recruited Brad Wilson of Pier One Piledriving to install the swings. Bryan Holderfield painted the walls a pale, calming shade of blue to match other school walls, compliments of Sherwin-Williams.

Jones, who served as Eastern APSO president in 2018, was pleased to see the sensory room come together.

“We knew this is something we definitely wanted to do,” said Jones, training coordinator – Accounting, Eastern Division Office. “Everything has come together so beautifully. We are so thankful to all the people who pitched in their time and energy and donated things to this project. I can’t wait to see pictures of the kids interacting in the room, because I know it’s going to be an awesome time.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Cherishable Items: Alabama collectors deck the halls in Christmas spirit

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

Twinkling lights, brightly shining ornaments and Santa’s smiling face all greet visitors to Becky York and Mark Thrash’s home in Tuscaloosa.

But the real star of the couple’s great room is more than 130 lighted Department 56 Snow Village houses, shops and churches which evoke the memories of a snowy Christmas in America’s heartland. They even had shelves specially built to hold the collection.


“My mother actually started it, with four or five pieces. But she thought they belonged at my house. I like anything that’s Christmassy,” York admitted. “Mark and I have really enjoyed the collection because it’s something we do together. The snow village stays out all year round.”

With her love of all things Christmas, York said that she’s tried to curtail her habit.

“We pretty much had to stop ourselves from buying anything else, for lack of where to put it,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean if I saw one that really caught my eye, that it would stay in the store!”

Enjoy a peek into their home, which commemorates all the sweet moments of Christmas.

Department 56 Snow Village among Alabama couple’s Cherishable Items from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

If you or someone you know has a special collection and would like to be featured in Cherishable Items, contact Alabama NewsCenter at with subject: Cherishable Items.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Kidney Chain ‘Bridge Donor’ author hopes to inspire others through personal story

(Adam Pope/UAB)

It took four long years for Kelly Berwager to build up enough confidence to share her story of kidney donation, but now she hopes her personal experiences will encourage others to consider giving the gift of life through her new book, “Bridge Donor: The Journey of a Living Organ Donor.”

In 2014, Berwager volunteered to donate one of her kidneys to a friend who was suffering from lupus, and who had kidney failure.


“I was praying that someone’s kidney would come available for my friend,” she said. “I struggled with the decision, but I felt compelled to donate.”

However, Berwager found out later that summer she was not a match.

“It was awful,” she said. “But my transplant coordinator asked if I wanted to go forward in the process of donation anyway for someone else. We went back and forth for about a month, and then I finally said yes.”

Berwager underwent her kidney donation surgery in September 2014 with Michael Hannaway, M.D., professor of surgery and surgical director of Kidney Transplantation as part of what is now the longest kidney transplant chain in the world – the UAB Kidney Chain – and became friends with her recipient almost immediately.

Sharing her story

“People began asking me to share my story of donation, and I was telling my story so much that I thought I should write everything down,” she said. “It took me four years to do it. I journaled more than I ever had before. Every time I would write, I’d come across something very emotional and had to pause.”

Berwager wants to be a light for her Christian faith, UAB and donor programs in general.

“We check that box on our driver’s license, but we don’t really think about what happens after that,” she said. “There is such a need everywhere for donors.”

In November 2018, Berwager was at a book-signing event in Albertville, Alabama, when she received an unexpected surprise from UAB Transplant Surgeon Jayme Locke, M.D.

“Dr. Locke showed up, and I was not expecting that,” she said. “She came up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘I need about 40 books.’ She’s just the humblest person, and I think the world of her.”

Altruistic donors like Berwager are a key factor in UAB’s Kidney Chain success. More than 102 kidneys have been transplanted since 2014, and it all started with Paula King of Florida.

King approached UAB with the possibility of donating a kidney to someone in need, despite not having an intended recipient. She knew firsthand the unsettling feeling of relying on a stranger to save a loved one’s life. Years earlier, her husband had needed a bone marrow transplant, and none of their family or friends were a match. “I felt as if the Holy Spirit was telling me that I should donate a kidney so that someone else would not feel that helplessness,” King said. “I could be someone else’s stranger.” Her kidney saved the life of Lornette Stewart, of Shalimar, Florida.

Since King’s donation, recipients and donors from 14 states – from as far west as Oregon and as far north as New York, have become a part of the UAB Kidney Chain.

“I don’t think she had a clue this was going to happen,” Berwager said. “What a wonderful thing she did.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Alabama Power crews, APSO help Christian Service Center Food Bank

(Brooke Goff)

Alabama Power linemen don’t only restore power.

In times of need, they put their heavy lifting skills to good use for charitable works. That was the case when several line crew personnel from the Valley/Langdale Crew Headquarters recently spent their off-time delivering 750 pounds of food to the Christian Service Center Food Bank.

The crews carried more than 1,000 cans of food and dried goods – gifts from Alabama Power employees and customers of the Valley/Langdale business offices – to the food bank in Valley.


Food bank Director Cheryl Myers was thrilled to see the Alabama Power line crewmen walk through the doors with their large boxes. She said the gifts came just in time to feed Chambers County families at the holidays.

“To see all those men here helping us, bringing in all that food was wonderful,” said Myers, who has worked at the Christian Service Center for 28 years. “A lot of that food went to families at Thanksgiving and will help more people at Christmas.”

She said the company’s food donation helped 375 adults and 225 children in November, including many elderly in Valley and Lanett.

“We were able to feed about 60 more families in November, more than in most months,” Myers said. “We provided 19,330 pounds of food in November.”

Alabama Power linemen Chris Denney, Joseph Eldred, Clayton Huckaby, Michael Huckaby and Daniel Sides, with utility assistant Anthony Cipriano, delivered the food after they’d completed their workday.

“They not only brought in the food, they had separated much of it,” Myers said. “Then the men put it in the bins. They saved me a lot of work. It was all good.”

She said that volunteers and workers box the food, separate it and place it in bins, moving the food five times from donation to the point it’s donated to families. Through their volunteerism, the Alabama Power linemen saved Myers some leg work.

Alabama Power’s Valley Customer Service representatives Joni Hubbard, Julie Jennings and Lisa Roberts served as co-chairs for the food bank project through the Southeast Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO).

While working with customers in the Alabama Power’s drive-through lines, CSRs handed out slips suggesting holiday food donations.

“Our customers dropped by cans of food as they visited our business office,” said longtime Southeast APSO member Roberts. “There was a big assortment of food, from canned vegetables to boxed meals, to Hamburger Helper, dried beans and rice. By the end, we had so much food, none of us here could lift the box.”

While visiting her parents in Florida, Alabama Power general clerk Mary Henderson took advantage of that state’s zero sales tax to buy canned goods for donation to the food drive.

“We try to help the Christian Service Center twice a year, with a clothing drive or food drive,” Roberts said. “It’s an organization we know that helps many families in our area.”

Supported by about 40 churches, as well as businesses and individuals, Myers said the Christian Service Center is a community ministry.

“it’s the most unique ministry I’ve ever been affiliated with,” she said. “I am very grateful for the company’s donation and the assistance of the Southeast APSO volunteers.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Mobile Energizer ‘elves’ bring Christmas to Southwest Regional School for the Deaf and Blind

(Joann McKnight/Alabama NewsCenter)

Mobile Energizers members played Santa’s elves Nov. 13, shopping for students at the Southwest Regional School for the Deaf and Blind in Mobile.

The six Alabama Power retirees scoured the toy aisles at Target at Shoppes at Bel Air Mall in Mobile, searching for the perfect toy for each child. During the school’s Dec. 12 Christmas party, about 65 sight- and hearing-impaired children will receive gifts, thanks to the Mobile Energizers.


Everyone at the school – students and staff – looks forward to the party every year, said Principal Mandy Sullivan. The school’s atmosphere nearly crackles with excitement.

“The children are so happy. It’s almost the feeling of Christmas morning,” said Sullivan, who has served two years as principal of the Southwest Regional School for the Deaf and Blind. “Probably some of our students don’t get a lot of gifts at home, so this really means a lot.”

On the morning of the party, the teachers treat Energizer volunteers to a potluck breakfast. Every teacher brings a covered dish, casserole or donuts. After breakfast, students assemble in the gym, where Santa calls each child – one by one – to pick up their gift.

“No one opens a gift until every child has one,” Sullivan said. “We count down, and everyone opens their gift at the same time. Even the three- and four-year olds know, and even the new students understand this. It’s really neat to see.”

Each teacher creates a wish list for their class after talking with every student about what they want, which is provided to the Mobile Energizer shoppers.

“The children get the gift specified by their teacher,” Sullivan said. “About 99 percent of the time, the Energizers get the exact toy the child asked for. They do an amazing job.”

It takes some planning to shop for so many children, said longtime Mobile Energizer Mary Jo Hrabe, who serves as secretary. The Energizers organization is made up of retirees of Alabama Power, Southern Nuclear and Southern Company Services in Alabama.

Hrabe and her husband, Chuck, president of the Mobile Energizers, joined Carolyn Feltus, Joe Hall, Cathy Odom and Carol Mitchell in shopping from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Later, they met at Alabama Power’s West Mobile Office, where the group spent four hours wrapping the presents. Mary Jo Hrabe made special labels for the presents. Girl’s gifts were packaged in red and boy’s presents in green, for easy distribution by Santa.

“This is an event we’ve done for 12 years, and we really enjoy it,” Hrabe said. “The children are very orderly, they’re so good.

“Seeing them open their gifts brings tears to our eyes,” she said. “The Southwest Regional School for the Deaf and Blind is one of the 501(c)(3) agencies we’ve donated to each year, and it’s so worth it.”

The Mobile Energizers delivered the gifts to the school Nov. 16 for safekeeping before the party, which is always held the week before school lets out for the holidays, she said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

11 months ago

Alabama Power, volunteers partner to save Logan Martin’s School Bus Island

(Meg McKinney/Shorelines)

Logan Martin Lake and its waters have held a bit of magic for David “Bama” Smith since his teenage years.

Smith spent his summers off from Woodlawn High School skiing and swimming with friends. Part of “the golden years before life responsibilities set in,” he never forgot the epic sunsets across Logan Martin Lake.

Smith and his buddies often visited a little spot – a green island covered with trees that sprouted from the lake – marked as Grissom Island on maps, but nicknamed School Bus Island by longtime residents. When the lake filled, the protruding land held an abandoned school bus. Though floods carried away the school bus years later, the name remained.


Locals say the area around School Bus Island is great for fishing. Some have stories about losing a bass “with a mouth as big as a hubcap” that could have easily topped 16 pounds.

The history between Smith and the small plot of land is more personal than any fish tale. Many evenings, he and his friends would boat to the grassy island after long hours in the sun. Happily exhausted after skiing, they’d have a sandwich and enjoy conversation around an evening campfire.

“I enjoyed being out with my friends on this little island,” he said.

Fast-forward some 30 years. Logan Martin Lake was always tucked into the back of Smith’s mind as a future home site. When he and his wife, Reneé, decided to build their “forever home,” they happened on a fortuitous find: Property about 5 miles from Logan Martin Dam was for sale. They went to see the land in April 2001, and three days later they owned it.

From the two-story home his wife designed, the couple has a bird’s-eye view of School Bus Island, 350 yards away. But Smith noticed worrisome changes during his 14 years on the lake.

“Almost in slow motion,” Smith saw his beloved getaway slip deeper and deeper into the waters. Estimating the island’s current dimensions at about 150 feet long, 50 feet wide, Smith said the island used to be about four times larger. Erosion was taking a heavy toll.

Saving a treasure

A phone call from Smith in June to Alabama Power’s Rob Coyne changed the future of School Bus Island.

Coyne, team leader at the Ragland Shoreline Office for Logan Martin and Neely Henry lakes, agreed with Smith that residents and lake visitors have enjoyed using School Bus Island for recreation for many years.

“Our Shoreline Management Team works to protect and enhance the environmental, scenic, cultural and recreation values of Alabama Power lakes,” Coyne said. “We understand the historical and recreational importance of the island to the Logan Martin Lake community.”

Coyne and other Shoreline Management team members worked with Fred Casey, owner of Tradesman Co. in Pell City, to stabilize the banks of the island. Casey’s company works on lake properties throughout the state, constructing seawalls, boathouses, piers, docks and other lake structures. For Casey, who has lived on the Pell City side of Logan Martin Lake for 14 years, the campaign to restore the island was personal.

“I wanted to see the work done right,” he said. “It’s just a pleasure to do this work. It’s almost like not working because I enjoy it so much.”

Coyne asked that the work be completed by July 4, if possible, to allow lake residents to enjoy using the island for the holiday.

Tradesman Co. placed a mini-excavator on the island. Smith’s next-door neighbor William Mann was also excited to see the project move forward. Casey and Tradesman Co. stored riprap on Mann’s land before they installed the materials around the island.

Casey and his team installed about 225 tons of riprap – stones about 6 inches to 10 inches long – to shore up the banks of the island. Workers created a beach area, leaving a small inlet to allow boats to anchor offshore. They completed the work, which began in mid-June, by June 27.

Smith, who owns Star Aerial and pilots drones commercially, documented the construction.

“This project was very timely,” said Casey, a member of the Logan Martin Lake Protection Association.

He is chairman of the board for the Logan Martin LakeFest and Boat Show, Alabama’s largest in-water boat show, held annually at Lakeside Park in Pell City. “I’m so glad that Dave Smith took interest in restoring the island – he’s been an advocate for a healthy lake for many, many years. The riprap restricts additional degradation of the island from erosion. We put in long hours to make the deadline as promised.

“I’m very happy with it because it’s encouraged people to look at the rest of the islands on Logan Martin Lake,” Casey added.

A happy ending for all

Smith said that he couldn’t be happier with the end results. He is thrilled the island has been preserved for the enjoyment of lakegoers for years to come.

“It was wonderful to see the work done so quickly,” Smith said.

With the renovations completed, lake residents responded with a July 4 celebration. Homeowners set up a treasure chest for children who visited. Kids reacted as though they’d discovered a pirate’s booty when opening the chest filled with Mardi Gras beads and other trinkets. The island remains the perfect place for boaters to stop for a picnic or to relax under the trees after a day of sun and fun.

Smith was eager to share School Bus Island with his 6-year-old grandson, Calvin, who frequently visits with his parents.

“I want Calvin to be able to enjoy the island for years to come,” Smith said.

The Smiths – including their son, Cameron, daughter-in-law, Jodi, and Calvin – have visited School Bus Island a few times since the shores were upgraded.

For Smith a half a lifetime later, the island still has a tranquil charm.

“I like to say that ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’” he said. “Alabama Power prevented this island from dissolving, and it’s made a lot of people happy. Alabama Power cares about our lake. This has put a smile on a lot of people’s faces by saving a little landmark.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 months ago

Alabama’s Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center brings hope, wholeness in recovery

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is like being a member of an exclusive club you never wanted to be in.

That’s how Linda Brady described the feeling when, talking with her doctor after a couple of mammograms, she heard the words, “You have breast cancer.”

Hearing the dreaded ‘cancer’ word

“He diagnosed me with ductal invasive carcinoma on Feb. 16, 2016. I kind of blacked out,” said Brady, who was two years into retirement from Vestavia Hills City Schools, where she had served as the director of the Exceptional Children’s Department.


About 80 percent of all breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas – invasive indicates that the cancer has spread to surrounding breast tissues. Brady said that the situation was confusing, forcing her to make huge decisions in a short time frame.

“I was seeing three separate doctors at that point in time: my breast surgeon, my reconstructive surgeon and my medical oncologist,” said Brady, whose energy and vibrant personality belie her 62 years – and her battle with breast cancer. “So I was making decisions the best way I could, but the people I really wanted to talk to were breast cancer survivors.”

She immediately contacted two friends – teachers she had worked with – who were breast cancer survivors.

Three weeks after diagnosis, Brady had a double mastectomy, during which the surgeon also removed four lymph nodes.

“That was the beginning of my survivorship and my cancer journey,” Brady said.

Facing the realities – but not alone

Laying in a recliner and receiving chemo can be the loneliest time in the world, even though 10 other people may be present.

“The people you really want to talk to are the people who have been through breast cancer, and survived it,” Brady said.

Two childhood friends and her husband supported Brady through her surgery and recovery. She received special solace from Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center, where she found a community that understood and could relate to her battle.

Brady said she has read studies showing that people diagnosed with cancer absorb only 30 percent of the information their doctor tells them. Her experiences made Brady want to help others by serving as a peer mentor at Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center.

“Being with other breast cancer survivors and seeing how well they’ve done is a very positive thing when you’ve been diagnosed,” Brady said. “One of the things that Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center does very well is, if you want to attend a support group, want a mentor or an advocate, Forge can put you in contact with trained volunteers who have been trained to do those jobs.”

Forging new hope for survivors, families

Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center is a collaboration between Brookwood Baptist Health, Grandview Medical Center, St. Vincent’s Health System, UAB Medicine, the Women’s Breast Health Fund, the Community Foundation of Greater Birminghamand community partners.

Dr. Caroline McClain, manager of Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center, is devoted to making sure clients receive the best care. A clinician and co-survivor who has been involved in healthcare and nonprofit work throughout her career, McClain said that Forge is designed to both fill gaps and erase barriers to care. Her responsibilities run the gamut, from managing the phone line and assisting clients with situations to ensuring the center delivers on its mission and looks strategically at offerings for the community.

“We were created to serve breast cancer survivors,” said McClain, who manages a staff of five, including community outreach members and 50 volunteers. “The goal isn’t to duplicate healthcare resources but to bolster the services of medical providers and others.”

Forge provides clients with tip sheets ranging from nutrition to information on managing side-effects during treatment, to peer mentorship services and a phone support line. When survivors or co-survivors call, a caring staff member talks through their questions and needs. Together, they create an individualized plan to address each need. Clients are provided with resource lists, as well.

Forge provides a monthly gardening class at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. From 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 23, attendees will learn about composting and survivorship topics while creating a compost bin to take home.

“These monthly classes are designed for anyone who has ever been diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as their loved ones and the health professionals who serve them,” McClain said.

Recently, Forge provided a weekend of free massages, meditative yoga, humor discussion and time to walk the labyrinth at the Benedictine Retreat Center in Cullman. Forge started a breast cancer support group in Blount County, which has transitioned back to the community while providing logistical support. Forge holds quarterly support group meetings for metastatic survivors at partner locations for patients and their caregivers.

“Our mentorship and advocacy program are most important,” McClain said. “We can help align clients with a peer mentor if they desire. Patients can be on the phone and get the support they need.” Volunteer training for peer mentors and advocates is provided up to four times a year.

The center assists co-survivors as well. Families can experience many pressures as a result of the illness.

“We have spouses and siblings who call for advice, asking how to handle health issues,” McClain said. “We help them with practical, important things like having a living will and counseling services. Play therapy is important for kids who have a parent with the illness.”

She said doctor’s offices call Forge as soon as a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, and patient navigators call when the patient has given permission.

“We can call the patient, or they can call us when they’re ready,” McClain said. “Even if families have the money to deal with such an illness, they need as much support as possible, for budgeting, medicines, scholarships, handling paperwork for insurance. We help them navigate the healthcare system and their diagnosis.

“It’s all flexible,” she said. “It’s ultimately about what’s beneficial for them.”

Forge staff assess patient needs, set goals and provide information to help achieve the objectives and continue to follow up with the patient throughout the process. McClain said patients and their families sometimes have questions about genetic testing, as well as signs to be aware of for a potential recurrence of illness.

“We’re here to support survivors and their families, every step of the way,” McClain said.

Comic’s ‘merry heart’ helps her beat illness

Birmingham comedienne Carla “The Truth” Youngblood can find humor in almost any life situation, but a cancer diagnosis was no laughing matter.

About three years ago, Youngblood began experiencing occasional pain in her chest. She circumvented her fears by telling herself it was indigestion.

“I knew that something felt ‘off.’ I’d get a hardening sensation,” Youngblood said.

She went to her doctor and received a diagnosis on Nov. 3, 2015.

“I had cancer in my right breast, but after discovery, I said that I wanted to do a double mastectomy,” said Youngblood, who didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

She underwent successful surgery and treatment at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham. Youngblood made sure to take the time to heal, getting plenty of rest.

“I wanted my best outcome,” Youngblood said. “I followed my doctor’s instructions to the letter.”

Deciding against reconstruction, Youngblood began the first of her 28 radiation treatments just eight weeks after surgery. She endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy.

“I was doing shows during my chemo,” she said, “mostly early on in the chemotherapy. Later, I opted to not do as many shows.”

‘The truth about breast cancer’

Despite the difficulties of treatment, Youngblood said that she always tells people that life is good. As Youngblood talks, a smile often lights up her face.

“I’m enjoying my journey in a comical perspective to let people know it’s all in how you look at it,” she said, with a smile. “You can come out on this, on the positive end.”

She enjoys serving as a peer volunteer for Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center. Youngblood said it helps to shift the focus away from herself and onto the other person. Indeed, her goal as a peer is to “listen to the patient and encourage her to get positive.”

“There is life after cancer,” Youngblood said.

Through peer-to-peer counseling, she is assigned to a patient and stays in direct contact, whether by phone to provide advice or to serve as a sounding board, and in-person meetings.

“I was determined to get to the other side and be a testament to someone else,” Youngblood said. “I have two options: I can laugh, or I can cry. My goal was to get to the other end, alive and well. I want other people to have that positive mindset. A positive attitude was a big plus for me.”

In her professional life as a successful comedienne, Youngblood serves her audience an upbeat message. When she performs on Oct. 11 at Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham at 6 p.m., Youngblood’s show will include her history as a cancer survivor. Tickets to the “Ain’t no looking back” comedy tour are $20.

“It’s the same thing that I try to get across serving as a peer advocate,” Youngblood said. “When I’m working with these other survivors, knowing I’m making a difference and filling a void that could possibly be there, if I wasn’t there, that means the world to me. In the peer advocate world, you can find people that patients can talk to, but often, those people haven’t been there.

“At Forge, it makes a difference to talk with someone who’s been down that road before,” Youngblood said. “I love it when a patient says, ‘You always know the right time to call me. I needed someone right now.’

“To encourage others and find your place in society where you can give back means a lot,” she said.

For more information, call Forge Breast Cancer Center at 1-800-811-8925 or 205-838-6159, or email McClain at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Alabama drone pilot airs it out for ESPN’s College GameDay

(Meg McKinney/Alabama NewsCenter)

For Dave Smith, a one-off equipment installation job turned into the chance of the lifetime.

“It was going to be a weekend gig,” Smith said of his first role on College GameDay. “The Monday after, I got a call asking if I could do that the entire football season. That was 24 years ago.”

Smith’s skills as a drone pilot earned him the full-time position each Saturday on ESPN’s top-rated show. Over his long career, Smith has won 10 Emmy Awards, and has met hundreds of football players and celebrities. It was an unexpected role for this lanky Southerner, whose slow-spun drawl earned him the moniker “Bama Dave” on set.


“Call it a 24-year weekend,” he said.

Smith, who has always loved electronics, said it’s the perfect job.

“My whole life, I’ve played with expensive, remote-controlled toys,” he said. “But some guys have told me they’d give their manhood to have this job.”

Those toys have put Smith square in the sights of many big-name talents on GameDay, namely football analysts Kirk HerbstreitRece Davis, Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler and even Paul Finebaum, who traded a sports opinion column for talk radio and a founding spot on ESPN’s SEC Network. Among the friends Smith has made along the way, he calls coach Lee Corso “one of the greatest guys.”

Corso, a Florida State quarterback in the 1950s who went on to hold head-coaching jobs for nearly two decades, is well-known for a favorite GameDay stunt: At the end of each show, Corso predicts the winner by donning that team’s mascot head.

It was Corso who gave Smith his nickname during the cameraman’s first show.

“Very few people on the show know my real name. I’m just Bama Dave,” said Smith, who attended the University of Alabama and UAB.

Smith has forged an enduring friendship with Alabama coach Nick Saban – and not just because he roots for the Crimson Tide. During Alabama games, Saban comes up, picks up the football helmet, signs it and hands it to Smith on TV.

“He’s a friend, he’s among the best in the world,” Smith said. “I have hundreds of pictures of me and Nick.”

Smith has met every guest on the show. Smith’s standouts whom he’ll never forget meeting include “Broadway” Joe Namath, Lance Armstrong, Bill Murray, Charles Barkley and Condoleezza Rice. While those names evoke different images, they are all impressive in their own right, Smith noted.

In 24 years, Smith has never missed a National Championship Game. Once the football games start, he barely stops running. This season, Smith’s trek started Wednesday, Aug. 29, with a 5:30 a.m. flight to Southbend, Indiana, for the Michigan StateNotre Dame game on Saturday, Sept. 1. On Tuesday, Sept. 4, Smith will be at College Station, Texas, for the ClemsonTexas A&M University game.

“I’ll walk in my house around midnight on Saturday night,” he said. “After the game, it may take me 11 hours to go from the site to home.”

Price of the toys separates men from the boys

On College GameDay, football fans expect perfection.

To achieve that seamless, nonstop TV coverage, Smith selects from his veritable treasure trove of drones: the DJIS-1000, worth about $10,000; the smaller DJI Inspire II, worth about $7,000; and a DJI Phantom 4 PRO, in the $1,500 range. Smith has the DJI Mavic PRO, which ranges about $1,200, and a colorful Autel Robotics X-Star Premium EVO drone. The Autel retails at $799.

Brand-new on the market, the Autel was a gift to Smith, who usually buys his equipment from specialized hobby shops. Autel asked Smith to demo the machine.

“I’m hoping to use it at the first game on September 1st,” he said. “I’m hoping it will perform so well it becomes one of our main tools. It’s so small and nimble.”

College GameDay employees don’t know where they’ll be from one week to the next. It all depends on the schedules of the winning teams for the next week.

“We never know where we’ll be that weekend, until Sunday morning,” Smith said.

Football season is grueling for Smith and his co-workers, who put the fast-paced show together. Nine semi-trucks are sent to the location. About 125 people converge at a site every weekend to put together the three-hour show.

During football season, Smith said, “I hit the ground running. On College GameDay, all the guys are extended family, because during the season, we’re all together more than with our own families.”

In the middle of a Stanford University game a few years ago, Smith was surprised when someone tapped his shoulder. He turned around to see Condoleezza Rice.

“I understand you’re from Alabama,” Rice said.

After talking for a couple of minutes, Smith couldn’t hold back the question so many people want to know of Rice: Would she run for President of the United States?

“Her words were, ‘Never. I’m done,’” Smith recalled.

Getting an early start in Emmy-award-winning career

Smith’s drone-flying skills are in his genes. It goes back at least 50 years to his grandfather, a licensed pilot who gave his 13 grandchildren their first plane rides.

During World War II, Smith’s father, Walter, joined the Army at 16, by lying about his age. One evening a couple of years later, he was in the mess hall and saw the Army was seeking flight trainees for B-17 bombers. In no time, he was flying.

On his father’s 13th mission, he was given command of his own B-17. Walter Smith hand-painted Birmingham Jewell on the plane, in honor of his wife, Jewell.

“During Dad’s first 13 missions, for every three bombers, two didn’t return,” Smith said.

Upon completion of his 49th mission in 1943, with every crew member returning alive, Smith’s father was made a commanding officer at Kimbolton Royal Air Force Station in England. Birmingham Jewell went into the English Channel on her 128th mission. Seven men escaped, but three men went down with the aircraft.

When Smith’s father finally left military service after serving in the Korean War, he started his own flying business, Activation Airways in Birmingham. He was a dealer for several plant manufacturers, offering lessons and charter services.

Smith began flying model airplanes as a 6-year-old and remote-controlled planes in his teens. He and his brother, Walt, are licensed airplane pilots.

“I’ve  been involved in the remote-control modeling hobby my entire life,” Smith said. “When the drone industry was born, I had to be a part of it because I’m a professional videographer and a cameraman. In the beginning, it was photos from the air. When Go Pros became popular, I started shooting video from the drones.”

In 1980, Smith started Advanced Communications in Birmingham.

“We were a leader in installing satellite communications, both commercial and residential,” he said.

In 1994, Smith got a call from ESPN to install equipment one weekend, to enable their College GameDay talent – among them Chris Fowler, the host from 1990 to 2014 – to report on the games.

Smith said that being asked to be a part of GameDay will forever be etched in his mind.

“I was shocked to receive a phone call from Bob Braunlich, the company’s vice president of Remote Production Operations,” Smith said. “Disney had given ESPN the green light for the show.

“He said, ‘We want to know if you want to be a pioneer for ESPN. We want to know if you’ll be the first drone pilot for ESPN.’”

It took Smith all of five seconds to say yes.

“There’s seven and a half billion people in the world,” he said. “Being the first drone pilot for ESPN, bringing epic, low-altitude aerial video to the public every weekend for football season is, to me, the coolest job in the world.

“The year 1994 was a key point in my life and career,” Smith said. “It’s doesn’t get any better than that.”

The first ESPN GameDay show was at the University of Notre Dame.

“We’ve had so many stars,” Smith said. “Katy Perry, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, the Duck Dynasty guys … we’ve had so many country music stars. The problem is, after 24 years, all the shows run together,” he said.

Along the way, Smith has picked up 10 Emmys – most stored in his “man cave” – along with a bevy of Alabama football helmets.

When football season ends, Smith returns to his spacious home on Logan Martin Lake, where expansive windows showcase the beauty of the sparkling east-central Alabama waterway. There, Smith and his wife, Reneé, enjoy his well-earned off days. The couple marked 40 years together on Aug. 26.

Smith said his work truly never stops. During the off-season, he runs the company he started 14 years ago, Spider Be Gone, which began as an effort to rid his home of pesky insects.

“All of a sudden, it wasn’t paradise because of the insects and mosquitos,” Smith said.

He researched the Texas-based Spider Be Gone and traveled to the Lone Star State to learn the business. After learning the techniques and installing the system in his own home, Smith started Spider Be Gone in Alabama. Being on the road so much, Smith handed off the daily operations of the business to his son, Cameron.

Helping keep his top-notch camera skills in order, for the past 14 years Smith has taken sunset pictures on Logan Martin Lake every evening he’s home.

“Ever since we moved in, if there’s a sunset, you’ll find me taking pictures right from my back deck,” Smith said. “I use my handheld Canon EOS 5D.”

One of Smith’s happiest times is sitting on his deck over the lake, showing his grandson, Calvin, how to fly drones.

“He loves to fly them, he sits on my lap,” Smith said. “He’s gonna be a little pilot someday.”

Smith keeps busy with his drone business, Star Aerial. A large part of his work is taking photos of homes for real estate companies, construction jobs and mapping. In the summer, it’s not unusual for Smith’s friends and neighbors to hire him to take drone photos of their families skiing Logan Martin Lake.

A higher power makes every show perfect  

Like many athletes, Smith has a ritual he undertakes before every show.

“I say a prayer to my Lord,” he said. “I ask him to allow me to do my job to the best of my ability and not screw up. I invoke the blessing of the deity before I do anything.

“It’s part of who I am,” Smith said. “I know where every blessing of mine comes from. So, I ask.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Backpack, supplies giveaway draws 2,500 Walker County residents

(D. Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

Many Walker County parents are starting off the school year with a little less pressure, thanks to a recent backpack giveaway at the Jasper Civic Center. Residents of Parrish and surrounding communities began lining up outside the civic center around 7:30 a.m. for the Aug. 3 event.

About 2,500 people attended the event, which is sponsored by several community service groups.

Jasper resident Sandie Farris, attending with her daughters, McKinley Ferguson, 16, and Ivie Farris, 5, said the giveaway was a huge help to her family.


“This is the first time I’ve come,” Farris said. “It’s been a really exciting day. I brought my girls here to get supplies, and it’s really been a blessing for all these people to come out and donate their time and everything for us, to get the kids our school supplies.”

Jasper resident Candace Hammond agreed the event came just in time to help families. She arrived early with her son, Nicholas, and her twin niece and nephew, Marian and Marquel Nash. Hammond’s 4-year-old son, Nicholas, will begin speech classes at Oakman Elementary School in September.

“This is a jumpstart, definitely, on at least a few things you need,” Hammond said. “They always give you the essentials and a little more. They’re very friendly. Any event that Capstone is involved with, they do a good job. They do it big for Walker County.”

Several Walker County-based groups were there to offer help. Members of the Gorgas Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) partnered with employees at Capstone Rural Health Center in Parrish to provide free backpacks filled with school supplies. The book bags were donated by Gorgas APSO, and Capstone Rural Health Center supplied pens, pencils, crayons, notebooks, loose-leaf paper and other supplies. Many charitable groups and businesses in Jasper also donated school supplies.

Gorgas APSO members James Brown, Dion Oliver and Andrew Lawhorn handed out 750 clear plastic backpacks, stuffed with most items that students need to start the school year. Oliver, 2018 Gorgas APSO president, said the event was for a good cause. The goal, Oliver said, was to assist underprivileged students in Parrish and surrounding areas, whose families have difficulty in supplying their children’s needs for the new school year. He said that Gorgas APSO members want to help the community wherever they can.

“We’ve been doing this for a while,” said Oliver, Gorgas assistant plant control operator. “We team up with Capstone in Parrish. It’s so joyful to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they get their new backpack.

“It takes some of the financial strain off the parents,” he said. “It’s just a great thing to do.”

Several little girls enjoyed getting their picture taken with Capstone employee Adrian Aaron, costumed as Elsa from “Frozen.” Many parents took time out to photograph their children with the Bumblebee character from “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Several youngsters stopped to talk with Mary Lou Kevorkian, a longtime volunteer of the Alabama Wildlife Center, who sported a barn owl on her right arm.

Jasper High School student McKinley Ferguson, 16, said that she enjoyed herself at the event.

Marcy Brown, chairman of the board of directors for Capstone Rural Health Center, was pleased with the turnout.

“We want to be the star for someone who needs it – this is our fifth-annual year of having the backpack giveaway,” said Brown, who has been on the board more than 10 years. “The first year we gave away 100 backpacks. This year, Gorgas APSO contributed 750 backpacks. Without us, many of the families here today would not be able to send their children to school with the needed supplies.

“It’s a reward within itself when you see a needy family and you make a smile on their face when you give a backpack,” she said.

Plant Gorgas Mechanic-Welder James Brown said that Gorgas APSO volunteers saw a tremendous response to the need for school supplies, as families lined up halfway around the block to enter the civic center.

“I believe this year’s event was the best so far,” Brown said. “We gave out all 750 backpacks and could have given close to 800. The partnership with the Capstone Clinic has been truly rewarding for the community and Gorgas APSO.”

Alabama Power Community Initiatives Program Manager Tan Grayson said that APSO volunteers are committed to strengthening their communities, especially when it comes to helping children.

“APSO members are very passionate about posterity and making sure children have the tools they need for school,” Grayson said. “One organization can’t touch every child, but with partners like Capstone, we can assist more children.”

Several other organizations took part in information sharing, including the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama and Positive Maturity Inc.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Stranded during Haiti protests, Alabama woman would serve island nation again

(Bonnie George/Alabama NewsCenter)

From July 8-10, Bonnie George saw the Caribbean country of Haiti transform into a cauldron of trouble, as citizens erupted in protest over skyrocketing gasoline prices.

As prices jumped overnight to $5 a liter, some people reacted in frustration. The average Haitian family makes $2 a day. George witnessed the firestorm during a mission trip but says the experience won’t keep her from helping again.

“In this situation, I always knew that God would get me home,” the Springville resident said. “The main mission for me is the children – they so desperately need to see hope in their lives. That’s what we give when we go there. I would go back in a heartbeat.”


George and her son, Jackson Tucker, became onlookers to Haiti’s unrest during a trip with Faith Community Fellowship of Trussville.

On June 30, with 12 fellow church members, George and Tucker arrived at Mission of Hope, an orphanage and school in the village of Titanyen, north of the capital Port-au-Prince. George, who had served on mission trips to Nicaragua, found Haiti beautiful.

The areas surrounding the beaches, heavily frequented by tourists, seemed safe despite Port-au-Prince still being in recovery from the 7.0 earthquake that hit Jan. 12, 2010.

“It’s a different level of poverty that you see,” said George, an Alabama Power customer service representative at the Pell City Office. “You see the differences in the infrastructure, such as the roads, and the power lines. I could tell the electrical system seemed to need improvements, compared to our system here.

“This was my fourth mission trip, but my first trip to Haiti,” said George, who was traveling for the first time without her husband, Gary. The couple have been youth leaders at Faith Community Fellowship for six years. Tucker, too, was “all in” to serve – in June, he turned 17 during a mission trip to El Salvador.

The trip started well. Mission of Hope has a campus with bunkhouses where teams can stay for an extended time. The main common area has a kitchen. The entire area is guarded.

“We were supposed to stay from Saturday, June 30, to Saturday, July 7,” George said. “We worked at a village next door to the mission, and spent the mornings working with children in a sports camp. We gave the message of Jesus Christ each day.

“We’d feed hundreds of kids every day,” she said. “We provided a meal of rice and beans cooked together, with either chicken or a mixture of beef with rice and beans. We painted two houses in the community, and even delivered goats to two families.”

On July 3, George received word that her maternal grandfather, Burnie Higginbotham Sr., had died in Mount Olive. Her grandmother had died in May. Executive Pastor Mike Ennis offered to help George and her son leave early. But George felt that she should stay: She owed it to her grandfather.

“My granddad would have said that he wouldn’t want me to leave for a funeral,” she said.

Within days, violence erupted in Haiti. The ministry team became aware of the protests as looters vandalized and burned shops in the capital. The government warned U.S. citizens to shelter in place.

“First of all, the entire situation was validation that the work these organizations do is needed,” George said. “Secondly, I knew that God is in control. There was truly nothing I could do in this situation, but I had a peace in knowing that God would get me home.

“I could understand, on the one hand, the feelings of the people,” she said. “It is a tremendous financial strain for these people to provide for their families. They are living in poverty. I’ve never walked so blindly in my faith in God as I did those few days. From the Mission of Hope, we could see smoke in the distance. On July 7, we loaded up on the buses at 5 a.m., but the leaders told us not to leave.”

On Monday, July 9, the group finally got on the road to the airport. The ministry team was shaken by the sight of the aftermath of the turmoil: Cinder blocks were stockpiled on the roadsides, later pushed aside to allow traffic to pass. Scores of 18-wheel trucks were abandoned after blocking traffic during the protests.

“Thankfully, we were only 30 minutes outside Port-au-Prince,” George said. “We didn’t get out until Monday evening, and we got home on Tuesday.

“This was a life-altering trip,” said George, who has no regrets about ministering in Haiti. “Understanding the ‘why’ of something happening, it’s easier to accept the conditions. I plan to return to Mission of Hope to work next summer.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Volunteers pave way to healing of JSU students after March 19 Alabama storms

(C. Thomas/University of Alabama)

With the havoc left by tornadoes and severe storms, many Jacksonville residents are facing many uncertainties after losing homes and possessions.

There’s been some uneasiness, as well, for students at Jacksonville State University (JSU), where some Gamecocks feared they’d return to a decimated campus. Even more so, many international students had the additional concern of trying to replace belongings lost to the storm.

But volunteers for the Center for Service and Leadership at the University of Alabama are helping ensure that Jacksonville students can return to class on April 9. A poster implored students to help: “Jacksonville State shouldn’t have to do it alone. Let’s help our neighbors.”


Many residents and students have long memories of the drastic hits on the community by F-5 tornadoes on April 11, 2011. There’s a strong empathy for the Jacksonville community.

“Remember, we were dealing with the same thing in Tuscaloosa a few years ago,” said Courtney Thomas, director of the Center for Service and Leadership.

The center took donations of air mattresses, cereal, cleaning supplies, dish soap, duct tape, dust pans, jelly, rakes, scrub brushes, laundry detergent, packing tape, peanut butter, plastic bins, ponchos, push brooms and zip ties.

On Saturday, March 31, about 50 University of Alabama students descended on Hugh Merrill Hall at the JSU campus. There, the volunteers painted, set new floor tiles, removed old office furniture and cleaned the building so the dean of the business school and other faculty can move in. Jacksonville State Facility Services employees and others helped spruce up the space.

Bama volunteers will return April 7 to finish cleaning and touch up any areas on the two floors where students will return to classes.

“It’s a good feeling,” Thomas said, “being able to help them. We’ve been there.”
For many JSU students, concerns about tests or selecting an exotic locale for spring break were eclipsed by the EF3 tornado on March 19.

Several international students, some of whom lived off-campus, lost almost everything they owned. But, thanks to efforts by members of the Eastern Division Chapter of the Alabama Service Organization (APSO) and the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, life will soon be a little easier.

“We want to make things better for these international students with critical needs,” said Varnestra Jones, Eastern APSO 2018 president. “We are just thankful they were on spring break during the storms, it was pretty bad. The fact no one was killed is a real blessing.”

On April 3, Eastern Division Communications Specialist Jacki Lowry and Jones mobilized for a morning Walmart run. Armed with a long supply list from the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, Jones and Lowry each pulled a shopping cart. They were quickly loaded down with backpacks, deodorant, 11 comforter sets, first-aid kits, pillows, snacks, suitcases, stationary products, 25 toothbrushes and toothpaste, and 16 towel sets.

“We tried to purchase brightly colored towels in peach and teal for the ladies, and gray and blue for the guys,” said Jones, Eastern Division training coordinator. “They’re young – we want to brighten up their day.”

The next day, Jones and Lowry, joined by Kiyunda Smoot, manager of Alabama Power‘s Jacksonville business office, packed the items into an SUV and delivered them for later distribution by the Chamber of Commerce.

Eastern APSO, along with the Jacksonville subchapter, provided 10 Walmart gift cards so students can buy essentials.

Jones said that APSO members realize the storm was especially trying for JSU students without family members in Alabama, who are trying to deal with replacing daily necessities.

“We are glad that we are able to help, but we don’t want our efforts to stop here,” said Jones, who has worked for Alabama Power for 17 years. “We’re looking to make repairs and help paint during a JSU cleanup day.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)