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 weeks ago

UAB: COVID’s highly contagious variants pose serious health threat even to those with immunity


As the days grow warmer and sunnier, many Alabamians seem to have pushed away all concerns about COVID-19.

However, the disease still lingers. Indeed, COVID-19’s most highly contagious forms – the Delta, Gamma and Beta variants – are in Alabama, said Dr. Paul Goepfert, professor in UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases. As of June 22, UAB Hospital is treating seven patients for active COVID-19 infections, its smallest number of COVID-19-positive patients since March 22, 2020. Another 19 patients were admitted earlier for COVID-19 and, while not showing active infections, require in-hospital care.

All viruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, mutate over time. Goepfert’s latest worry is that the Delta variant could cause an upsurge in infections in the nation’s undervaccinated areas, including the Yellowhammer State. While more than 1.7 million residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, only 31.9% of Alabamians are fully vaccinated. Though the variants are increasing to varying degrees, he said the Delta variant is believed to be more transmissible and to cause more severe disease. Because of Delta’s increased activity, Goepfert expects the variant to dominate during the next few months, intensifying the need for residents to be fully vaccinated.


“Citizens of Alabama cannot rely on just previous infection alone to be a protection against this Delta variant,” said Goepfert, who is board-certified in Medicine and Infectious Diseases. “I think if you’re vaccinated, you should be happy these vaccines are still working. If you’re not vaccinated, that’s another story.”

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 90% effective against the Delta variant, which now comprises about 90% of COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom.

People who have been infected with COVID-19 have natural immunity, Goepfert said, but that offers less protection against some of the variants than being vaccinated. He said “real-world data” shows that the variants currently pose little reduction, if any, in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

Goepfert said all strains have some susceptibility to the COVID-19 vaccine. Many of the variants arose outside the U.S., where there was little or no vaccine.

“So now the problem is, I suspect, that this virus, if it’s teaching us anything from before, it’s going to learn to mutate,” said Goepfert, who has worked at UAB since 1997. “Perhaps one of the best examples of that is what we’ve seen in South Africa and Brazil. In South Africa, there are data that people who got infected with the original strain, despite having been infected, have no protection against the Beta variant. In Brazil, there’s similar data that suggests the same thing with the Gamma variant. And for the Delta variant, there’s likely data like that in India.”

UAB researchers and a host of others testing COVID-19’s ever-growing mutated variants continue to learn more about how the disease works. Goepfert said that UAB’s Dr. Sixto Leal, associate scientist in the Center for Clinical and Translational Science and a professor in the Department of Pathology, is at the forefront of variant research in Alabama. The data, which is either peer-review published or has been submitted for publication, suggests that all COVID-19 vaccines offer protection against the variants.

“Dr. Leal and his colleagues have done a fantastic job of testing the variants,” Goepfert said.

All COVID-19 vaccines contain a small amount of the spike protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “The spike protein is very important in entering an infected cell, so there are like mutations that make it able to enter an infected cell more efficiently,” Goepfert said.

UAB doctors are certain the COVID-19 vaccines help fend off disease. With research proving that the disease is becoming more contagious, doctors continue to encourage Alabamians to get vaccinated to help prevent illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

As Goepfert looks ahead to August, with the beginning of a new school year, he is less worried about efforts to push COVID-19 vaccinations for schoolchildren, because they are better equipped to fight the illness. While only 36,000 of the state’s children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been vaccinated, Goepfert noted that residents 65 and older fare much worse against COVID-19.

“Even if the kids are passing COVID along, in all likelihood, they will do better than adults,” he said. “The adults can be protected if they get vaccinated.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

Miss Fancy the elephant returns triumphant to Birmingham’s Avondale Park

(Donna Cope/Alabama Power)

Miss Fancy has returned to her old stomping grounds at Avondale Park in Birmingham.

For about 20 years, the huge elephant reigned supreme at the Avondale Zoo, the city’s first large public zoo. It closed in 1934.

It’s been about eight years since a bronze statue of Miss Fancy, affectionately known as Little Miss Fancy, was “spirited away” after a drunk driver damaged the piece, said Avondale resident Leslie Smukler. After that, the statue’s whereabouts were largely unknown until Smukler investigated and learned the damaged piece was being housed at Legion field, in a storage room.

During the past two months, Birmingham sculptor Mike Chiarito has repaired and retrofitted the beloved statue into a fully operational fountain. Miss Fancy is again the master of her domain, perched atop her new platform at the western edge of Avondale Park.


Miss Fancy takes rightful place back in Birmingham’s Avondale Park from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

On Saturday, June 19, at 5 p.m., Smukler and Chiarito will host a neighborhood celebration as an official “welcome home” to the 200-pound. statue. Those attending will enjoy balloons and treats, as well as a trivia contest with Miss Fancy T-shirts and books as prizes.

For the party, Chiarito invites everyone to bring a jug of water to start the fountain’s system and allow the elephant statue to spray water from its trunk: “I thought it would be neat to have people come out, after the fountain is ready to be turned on, and have them contribute a little bit of water into the fountain so they can have a part in the whole process.”

A plaque in Miss Fancy’s honor will adorn the statue. Smukler noted that it’s a long-awaited celebration: Indeed, it’s been about 84 years since Miss Fancy roamed the park.

From humble beginnings to ‘Fancy’ life

It was around 1913 or 1914 when residents began to talk about building a zoo in Avondale Park, according to “The History of Avondale.” Many stories have circulated about the zoo’s humble beginnings, but the most popular version is that the struggling Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came to town and its train car was stranded. When that news reached the Birmingham Advertising Club, Browne wrote, its members knew that an elephant was the perfect means to gather a crowd.

A mammoth of flesh and blood was rarely seen in the South. Residents were thrilled to hear that an Indian elephant could be seen in their fair city – if only they could raise the money. So obsessed were the city’s youngsters, Avondale resident Irene Latham wrote in “Meet Miss Fancy,” that eager children held a penny drive. Certainly, the popular Lincoln “wheat pennies” first minted in 1909 were among the 50,000 collected by youngsters. Miss Fancy’s total cost was $2,000.

Thus, the huge mammal found a home at the fledgling Avondale Zoo. For about 20 years – from 1914 to 1934 – the huge elephant was the queen of the zoo.

Queen of the Avondale Zoo

In 1914, the city of Birmingham budgeted $500 for an elephant house. While Miss Fancy was the most popular animal, “The History of Avondale” noted that other exotic species lived at the zoo. There was no charge to enter. Miss Fancy had a happy career at the zoo, with visitors often supplying treats, such as peanuts. Under careful supervision by her zoo caretakers, up to seven youngsters at a time rode on Miss Fancy’s back.

The elephant liked to frolic outside the zoo. Smukler, a licensed massage therapist who has lived in Avondale for 15 years, said that long-time neighbors remember Miss Fancy looking in windows.

“Miss Fancy tossed hay at visitors with her hose-pipe trunk. … Her ears flap-flapped as she and her tail swish-swished as she strolled down neighborhood streets …,” Latham wrote.

In 1931, the elephant escaped from her holding pen and ran through trees on Red Mountain until she was finally caught at Overlook Road.

It’s likely that alcohol fueled some misadventures. In October 2012, “Alabama Heritage” magazine published a story that noted the sale of alcohol was illegal for most of the years Miss Fancy was in Birmingham. The zoo worker John Todd, who cared for the elephant, persuaded city officials to “give him bottles of confiscated illegal liquor to medicate Miss Fancy.”

It’s thought that these bouts of drinking led to Miss Fancy escaping about 12 times. In a comical account in the “History of Avondale,” longtime resident Ollie Powers said that Miss Fancy’s trainer took her to Cannon’s Coal Yard for weighing.

“On one such trip with the huge elephant, they had reached the area of the tennis courts when a red patrol car pulled up and noticed that John was walking unsteadily,” Browne recorded. “In those days, police drove red patrol cars. The police were very familiar with John and the elephant he escorted around. The officers arrested John and put him in the back seat of the patrol car, but then they faced a real dilemma. What could they do with Miss Fancy? They tried – but unsuccessfully – to get the elephant to move, but Miss Fancy only responded to comments from her trainer, so she just refused to budge an inch. Finally, the policeman had to get John out of the patrol car so that he could take Miss Fancy back to her home.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the city of Birmingham could no longer afford Miss Fancy’s food and care. She daily ate an elephant-sized amount of food: up to 170 pounds of hay and up to 5 gallons of grain. She guzzled as much as 110 gallons of water.

With a lack of funds, the zoo continued its decline. In October 1934, the city sold Miss Fancy and several other animals – six monkeys, a bear, a llama and a cow – to Cole Brothers-Clyde Beatty Circus. The city received only $500 for Miss Fancy, one-fourth the original amount paid.

According to “Alabama Heritage,” Miss Fancy toured for two years with the circus. In April 1939, she was sold to the Buffalo Zoo in New York. She lived to be 83.

Not everyone is aware of Miss Fancy, but her legend lives on at Avondale Brewing Co., where her image is used on trucks, labels and T-shirts.

From Avondale resident to community activist

For a long while, after the damaged statue had been removed, Smukler pondered the statue’s disappearance. An admitted elephant lover who calls herself a “do-it-yourselfer,” Smukler was determined to solve the mystery.

“I started asking my friend Claire Parker, who is on the board of Friends of Avondale Park, what had happened to the elephant,” said Smukler, who formerly lived in Los Angeles. “One day last fall, she called and said, ‘I know where she is.’ Someone mentioned the statue was in a storeroom at Legion Field.’ My idea was, if it wasn’t that bad, we could fix it.”

Smukler started a GoFundMe fundraising account to restore Miss Fancy to her original glory. She is friends with Chiarito, a resident of the Forest Park neighborhood in Avondale, and immediately thought of him for the project. Chiarito estimated the entire project – soldering and repair of the elephant’s metalwork, retrofitting as a fountain and building a platform – would cost about $7,000.

“In two weeks, we got everything from $5 to $1,000,” Smukler said. “I care about the community; there is real community here. This is a community project.

“It was in the middle of COVID and was kind of a cool thing to cheer people up,” Smukler said. “I’m flabbergasted by the response. It tells everybody we love her. It’s just been fun at a time when things definitely were not fun.”

Adding artistry to electrical skills

As an artist who sculpts in stone – and one of few in Birmingham who works with bronze and brass – Chiarito had the metal-working abilities to restore the statue. Chiarito is a Renaissance man, of sorts: He also knows the skilled trades very well after working five years under a master plumber, electrician and heating and air specialist.

First, he carefully transported the damaged statue from Legion Field to his workroom in Avondale.

“I got really excited about the process of bringing her back,” said Chiarito, who saw the possibilities of using his engineering and creative skills. “It’s exciting because Little Miss Fancy has been and will remain an icon for Avondale Park. When she’s out here, in her place and  working as a fountain, when kids come by and see Little Miss Fancy … it draws excitement and just imagination.”

It was a different task for Chiarito, who is well-known for his marble sculptures. While working on Miss Fancy, he also was completing a commissioned piece: a botanical-type sculpture that is the centerpiece of a Birmingham couple’s backyard garden. Chiarito made the one-hour drive from Birmingham to Sylacauga – home of some of the world’s finest marble – to select a slab to create his latest verdant statue.

To start the process of converting Little Miss Fancy into a fountain, Chiarito began by making a concrete base for the elephant. He then formed a concrete basin to catch the water, which will recycle the water into a pump that pushes the water out of the statue. The water travels into the basin, funnels into a hole, then pumps into the leg of the statue, where a port is located. The water then shoots from the tusk of the statue.

Using weather-resistant steel, Chiarito fashioned a platform that resembles a circus stand for the elephant. The stand contains the pump’s electrical apparatus. Chiarito bolted the statue to the stand.

“All you have to do is hit a switch, and she’ll be pumping water,” Chiarito said, with a smile. He’s excited to bring the elephant to “life,” when the fountain is flowing. “It’s going to be a sight to see.”

In the long term, the statue will hold many benefits for those who visit Avondale Park, he said.

“Kids are going to do better in school, even,” Chiarito said. “Art in itself helps communities, individuals – it helps things that most people wouldn’t even imagine would be helpful. It’s because it makes you think about what we’re capable of, what we can do individually, in groups, creatively and effectively for society, and for parks, and just togetherness in general.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

Archers take aim against breast cancer in weekend tournament in Cullman


Cameron Mitchell helped put the “bull’s-eye” on the back of breast cancer.

This weekend on June 12-13, more than 150 archers – experienced and amateurs – will compete in the Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer tournament, which is Mitchell’s brainchild.

The mission is personal for many archers who will take part in the event at Cullman Community Archery Park, co-hosted by members of the Heritage Archery Club. Indeed, some patients find release by pulling back a bow to “attack” their breast cancer with arrows. Some find a soothing balm in sharing stories about a loved one’s health battle with those who can relate.


“Getting volunteers for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama and Bow Hunters of Alabama has created a powerful team for raising money for research,” said Mitchell, a longtime bow hunter who noted that, after nine years, the tournament is a “well-oiled machine, thanks to all of the incredible volunteers.”

On Saturday and Sunday, competitors will begin meeting at the registration desk at 7 a.m. Participants bring their own equipment. Moving around a course with 3D animal targets, it takes about 2 hours to shoot the course. The last card for scoring goes out at 2 p.m. The event has drawn more than 200 spectators.

The cost to play is $25 or adults and $15 for youths. Attendees can bid for bows donated by Nichols Outfitters in Pelham, which will be auctioned by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA).

The event aims to save lives in Alabama and beyond

The event is all in good sport. In the past nine years, Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer has helped the BCRFA donate more than $190,000 toward research in the Yellowhammer state. The event has attracted up to 250 archers. Most importantly, treatments funded by the BCRFA help save the lives of breast cancer patients in Alabama and beyond.

“It’s a great event and it’s family friendly,” said Beth Bradner Davis, executive director of the BCRFA since 2014. “The funds we raise stay in Alabama. This is our 25th anniversary, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama has invested $10.8 million in research.”

Mitchell, who works for an international hunting and conservation organization, put the deadly disease in his sights about 11 years ago.

“My boss a few years ago said one of his biggest pet peeves was people who come up with great ideas but don’t have enough lead in the pencil to follow through,” Mitchell said. “I came up with the idea, and everybody with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, along with the Bow Hunters of Alabama, put together plans for the event.

“The first year, a representative from the BCRFA asked, ‘What’s your goal?’” Mitchell replied that he hoped to raise at least $20,000.

The woman told Mitchell, “I don’t want to burst your bubble, but we’ve never raised that amount for an inaugural event.” That year, the group raised $23,000 for BCRFA.

“It was wildly successful. Since the first year, it has remained one of the largest archery tournaments at the state level,” Mitchell said.

As people saw the event’s success, Mitchell said, it was easier to attract more vendors and sponsorships. The large tournaments drew more competitors, as well as spectators unfamiliar with the sport. Because Alabama’s bow-hunting season opens in October, the BCRFA holds its tournament in June.

About four years ago, Mitchell was forced to step away from organizing the tournaments because his wife was experiencing health issues.

“But I knew the tournament was in very capable hands and the success of the event would continue long into the future,” he said.

Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer supports research in Alabama 

While many attendees look forward to Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer year after year, Bradner Davis said the foundation sponsors several fundraising events. Each October, the BCRFA joins about 25 fire stations in supporting the Pink Ribbon Project. The BCRFA on Sept. 18 will make its foray into competitions at disc golf courses at Oliver Park in Shelby County and George W. Roy Recreational Park in Calera.

“Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to hold some events this year,” Bradner Davis said. “I’m really excited for us to be able to expand with some events this summer that we weren’t able to do last year, such as our Pink Palace Casino Night on July 24th.”

Alabama’s Breast Cancer Research Tag continues to be a huge fundraiser in the fight against breast cancer. The BCRFA receives $41.25 for each specialty license plate, which is framed with a pink ribbon on a gray background. Alabama drivers can personalize their Breast Cancer Research Tag.

“We’re on target at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama to invest $1.1 million into research in 2021,” Bradner Davis said. “We’re so excited about the Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer tournament and helping patients in Alabama.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

United Way of East Central Alabama helps Calhoun County youngsters grow love of reading

(Contributed/Jacki Lowry)

Books are gifts that expand your world. As Dr. Seuss said: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

United Way of East Central Alabama (UWECA) recently donated 2,000 books to kindergarteners and first-graders at all public and some private schools throughout Calhoun County. The gift of reading continues to pay off big dividends – with youngsters showing lots of enthusiasm – as they enjoy the free book, “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by British writer and illustrator Giles Andreae. The bestselling book helps dispel negative stereotypes.

But these books include a “little something extra on the cover – a QR code students can use to watch a volunteer read the story,” said Jessica Smith, coordinator of UWECA’s Imagination Library program.


Because of social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have been unable to read to classes at Calhoun County schools. UWECA’s one-time gift of books helped “fill in the gap,” Smith said.

“We certainly plan on having volunteers back in the classroom in 2022,” said Smith, UWECA Marketing and Programs director. “If we have a sponsorship for 2022, we’d possibly be able to give books again.”

Kim Pentecost’s class at Piedmont Elementary School was among many that received the popular book.

“Early literacy for children is so important,” said Pentecost, lead pre-K teacher at Piedmont Elementary. “Everything we can do to enthuse kids to read, we need to do it.”

Pentecost showed the children how to use the QR code on the book, teaching them to use a smart phone to scan the square on the book’s cover to watch a video of a volunteer reading the story.

“My students love the book,” said Pentecost, who has taught for 14 years at Piedmont Elementary and 3 years at Oxford Elementary School. “Some students have said they scan the code at home and read the book with their parents. They understood, ‘Take this home and show Mama and Daddy.’ They know to re-watch the video.

“So Read Across America was a little different for us this year,” added Pentecost, who earned her bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in early childhood education from Jacksonville State University. “We watched the video together. We really appreciate the United Way’s gift – it gives books to children who may not ordinarily have books at home,” she said.

Pentecost said the children enjoyed reading the story in class: “They remember back to when volunteers read to us on the screen – they make that connection.”

In earlier years, Smith visited Piedmont Elementary to read to classes and met with teachers to inform them about UWECA’s Imagination Library program. Parents in Calhoun County are invited to enroll their child in Imagination Library to get a free book in the mail each month.

Cassie Royster, a first-grade teacher at Kitty Stone Elementary School in Jacksonville, thanked UWECA for the books. “My students loved reading them and filling in the blanks,” Royster said.

Jacki Lowry, whose daughter, Harrigan, attends Oxford Elementary, said her 5-year old loves “Giraffes Can’t Dance.” The Lowrys made sure to take the book with them on a recent beach vacation.

“Harrigan loves her books,” said Lowry, Community Development specialist in Alabama Power’s Eastern Division. Lowry also serves as state president of the Alabama Power Service Organization.

“As part of the Alabama Power Service Organization, we support Read Across America and suggest taking part in projects every year. This year was exciting to me because, as a parent, I was able to be a part of that experience and the excitement of reading with my child.”

In Pentecost’s view, the books helped make the 2021 school year a little brighter for students and teachers.

“I think it was a great thing the United Way did for us,” she said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Mobile APSO’s ‘56 Days of Blessing’ helps Alabama community this spring

(Vivian Ballard/Alabama Power)

A café latte here, a candy bar there and it’s not long before you’ve spent a chunk of change.

From Feb. 17-April 13, several Mobile Division employees decided to forgo some daily indulgences to support the Mobile Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO).

Through Mobile APSO’s “56 Days of Blessings,” employees sacrificed some of their favorite things, such as barista-made coffee, manicures and pedicures, restaurant meals, hair appointments and fancy fishing lures. They donated nearly $2,000 to help area residents this spring.


“First off, we did an Easter project where we made small Easter baskets and donated those to four nonprofit organizations,” said Sharon Murrill, Mobile APSO president.

Among those efforts, Mobile APSO spent $560 on Easter baskets and treats for less fortunate children served by Light of the Village in Prichard and Sybil H. Smith Family Village, a program for children provided by Dumas Wesley Community Center in Mobile.

John Eads, founder of Light of the Village with his wife, Dolores, said the children were thrilled with their treats.

“We were privileged to hand out the Easter baskets to the kids directly,” said Eads, who has led the nonprofit for 12 years. “Some were distributed to different places. It’s fantastic to see a variety of people come together to help; this ministry is such a team effort.”

Sybil Smith Family Village sent a handwritten note to Mobile APSO.

“Thank you so much for your donation of Easter baskets for our kiddos at Sybil Smith Family Village,” wrote Associate Executive Director Sarah Laurio. “Both the kids and the parents were delighted when they saw them! We are so appreciative of your faithful and continued support of our program. We really would not be able to help these sweet families get back on their feet without kind, community minded folks such as you guys.”

Mobile APSO making a difference

While the endeavor wasn’t tied to a religious denomination, Mobile APSO asked employees to make a small sacrifice and donate to their community.

“We’re constantly brainstorming for virtual ideas – things we can do during the pandemic while social distancing,” said Murrill, Community Relations manager – Alabama Power Mobile Division Office.

For two months, Mobile APSO provided daily Facebook posts about employees’ efforts.

“We had many really, really cute ideas,” Murrill said. “We had one lady, Vivian Ballard, that, instead of going and purchasing some type of a fish meal, she reeled hers in. She actually got on a boat and caught a fish,” Murrill said, laughing. “That was very original.”

“When we decided to do this, I told everyone, ‘I want our folks who are giving this money to see that we are giving this back to our community,’” said Murrill, who made treats at home instead of buying smoothies. “It was a collaborative effort. I have a great board this year.

“We kept building and building on the idea – it was a lot of fun,” she said. “I think it’s so important to keep our members engaged, as well as letting them know we’re still doing things. We’re truly supporting the community where we work, we live, we go to church.”

Giving back was a labor of love for Tripp Ward. The Economic Development representative for Mobile Division groomed his AKC-registered pups to save money to donate.

“Our family has five springer spaniels,” said Ward, who uses a professional groomer in Baldwin County to bathe and trim the dogs. “I decided to groom one or two of them myself and send in that money to APSO. The one negative thing about springer spaniels is they shed. We find ourselves brushing them every day and using a Shop-Vac to clean up.”

For the long term, he’ll leave the task to professionals: “I will depend on my groomer,” said Ward, who worked at Mississippi Power 11 years before transferring to Alabama Power in 2018. “It’s a lot of work, especially when you don’t have the time and the right equipment.”

As part of the blessing project, Ballard put 30 years of fishing skills to use while spending quality time with her husband in the Mobile Delta. “Not only is it exciting to catch fish, it is very peaceful,” said the Mobile Division customer service representative, who donated to Mobile APSO instead of indulging in an expensive fish dinner.

Employees found many ways to give back. For instance, Ryan Allenbach, a market specialist in Partner Management, had family dinners at home on Friday nights instead of eating out, and donated the savings. Community Relations Manager Clinton Johnson gave up his monthly gym membership and personal trainer and worked out at home. Customer Service Manager Erin Delaport sacrificed her favorite “cookie two step” ice cream. Gayla Cunningham, Tionne Robinson and several other employees cut out shopping sprees and wrote a check to Mobile APSO.

In May, Mobile Chapter will use those funds in support of APSO’s state project to improve nutrition for underserved residents.

The first week, Mobile APSO members will fill backpacks for children at Light of the Village, providing snacks, fruit and water. The second week, members will donate tuna packs and ravioli to Housing First for distribution to Mobile County’s homeless. The third week, Mobile APSO will provide lunch at McKemie Place, which provides emergency overnight shelter to homeless women. The final week, members will give backpacks to children of the Boat People SOS-Bayou La Batre, an underserved Vietnamese American community.

Murrill said employees’ thoughtful sacrifices will provide big blessings to Mobile’s less fortunate residents.

“This was a small way for our employees to take part in a fun event while also giving back to our communities,” she said. “We may do this project again next year.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama Power donates 375 meals for hungry in Birmingham through Food For Our Journey

(Food For Our Journey/Contributed)

Waste not, want not: When Alabama Power line crews restored power earlier than expected after heavy tornado damage in and around Birmingham and surrounding areas, the company on March 29 was left with 375 boxed breakfasts.

Alabama Power’s Storm Logistics Team made sure the food didn’t go to waste. Engineer Christy Hyche of Power Delivery Budget and Planning, contacted Food For Our Journey (FFOJ), a Birmingham nonprofit that daily supplies meals to homeless and food-insecure residents.

“After exceeding our original power-restoration estimates, we were able to shut down the Birmingham Division staging site after dinner on March 28,” said Lindsey Crawson, a meeting and event specialist at Alabama Power. “Breakfast had previously been ordered for the staging site and couldn’t be canceled.”


FFOJ got its start in October 2018, when Kelly Greene and Christine Golab began delivering food to the homeless from their cars. In January 2020, FFOJ got a cargo van. Last year, the 501(c)(3) group donated more than 153,000 meals to the Magic City’s underprivileged. FFOJ is on target this year to accomplish even more, Greene believes.

Greene said the food donation from Alabama Power came just in time to feed hungry Birmingham residents.

“We were glad to pick up the food,” said Greene, FFOJ executive director. “We received the plated breakfasts and got on the road to hand out the meals. We hand out a minimum of 400 meals a day.”

The meals made by Full Moon Bar-B-Que – which Alabama Power would have supplied to line crews – included eggs, biscuits, bacon, sausage, milk and orange juice, along with individually packaged utensils and condiments.

Greene and her team met the Full Moon delivery trucks Monday. After transferring the packaged meals to their cargo van, Greene and FFOJ Assistant Director Christine Golab began their cross-town route. Greene and Golab are on the road by 9 a.m. weekdays. Numerous volunteers help with food donations and assist in delivering meals on weekends.

The team’s route starts at 22nd Street at Fourth Avenue North, where they deliver food at a stationary location, then go to Brother Bryan Park, staying about an hour to distribute meals. From there, they crisscross avenues and streets up through Avondale, all the way to the Red Mountain area. The team often drops off meals to homebound and quarantined residents.

“We start on the northside, move to Southside, and hand out meals under the interstate and at tent cities, anywhere the homeless or food-insecure people are living,” Greene said. “Our overall mission is to eliminate food waste by using food that’s been prepared. Through breaking bread with one another, we get to know the needs of the food insecure. Food is an innate right we all have to be nourished.”

FFOJ gets to know the people and is required to improve their lives. Partnering with city and state agencies, FFOJ helps the homeless to obtain a driver license, which is required for housing and to get a job. Greene said they’ll occasionally see people at one location, then won’t see them for a day or more, depending on people’s transportation or employment.

“We’ve worked with the homeless for years. We get to know the people and know what they need,” Greene said. “We plug people into partner agencies where they can get help in things like applying for a drivers license, applying for housing, receiving medical care, help with filing for the stimulus, taxes or unemployment, and filling out job applications.”

FFOJ’s work never ends. During Easter weekend, volunteers will deliver fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, bread and dessert to the homeless, thanks to Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover.

Greene pointed out that FFOJ’s mission is built on love, as an action – not a feeling.

“Just being able to share in the lives of our friends on the streets is humbling,” Greene said. “They’re just like you and I, they’ve just got different circumstances. Our goal is to be able to talk with them and share with them, so we can help them to reach their dreams.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Harp and Clover restaurant is ode to Alabama owner’s Irish heritage

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Harp and Clover restaurant in Gadsden has quite a following. While most customers are from Gadsden, many “foodies” drive 100 miles or more to indulge in delicious steaks, seafood and other fare.

The restaurant at 124 Court St. is the perfect place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or any time you want to enjoy a good meal. On March 17 – and the other five days of the week Harp and Clover is open – the Guinness and fine Irish whiskey are available to, all Irish or not.

“For St. Patrick’s Day, we’ll have all kinds of Irish drinks. Green beer, Guinness and Irish-themed cocktails will be flowing,” said Andy Harp, who, with co-owner Chef Brett Jenkins, operates Harp and Clover and the Creole-inspired NOLA on Second in Gadsden.


Harp and Clover is a great Alabama food and drink destination for St. Patrick’s Day or any day from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The menu is an eclectic mix of Irish and Southern fare. In honor of St. Paddy’s, there’s an authentic dish of bangers and mash, which is locally made smoked sausage with Irish stout gravy and Boursin mashed potatoes. Fish and chips – a food staple in Ireland – is another delicious option. The owner has his favorites.

“I’m in love with all of it, especially the dry-aged steaks. But I go back to simple shepherd’s pie, which is typical Irish fare,” said Harp, who calls himself a “self-professed restaurateur and serial entrepreneur.” Jenkins slow-roasts sirloin beef and adds vegetables, a side of Boursin potatoes and crispy, fried onions to make the sturdy Irish dish.

“We have Irish bar foods, and we feature high-end foods on our specialty menu for the weekend,” Harp said. “The everyday food is always consistent and delicious, but the features Chef puts together on the weekends are the wow factors.”

“Brett Jenkins is one of the best chefs in Alabama,” he added. “Brett is in charge of our day-to-day management. He’s the visionary and makes sure that we have the finest food for our customers. I always say that he’s ‘Mr. Restaurant’ and I’m ‘Mr. Marketing.’”

In good weather, guests may dine al fresco at Harp and Clover’s outdoor patio, where a huge botanical garden provides a verdant space away from the city.

“It’s a really nice outdoor space to enjoy a pint. It’s a neat place. It’s one of the hidden gems in Gadsden,” said Harp, adding with a booming laugh, “I know I’m biased.”

More than a century old, the dark brick building has original wood floors and “a ton of history,” Harp said. The vintage look of the place adds to the authentic tavern feel.

“It looked like an Irish pub before we put anything on the walls,” Harp said. “It’s an eclectic mix of history. I’ve added art from a local artist that specializes in Celtic art. We’ve got metal work made by a local artisan.

“Putting Harp and Clover here was kind of a natural fit,” he added. “It’s an ode to my Irish roots.”

Melding Irish ancestry into successes

Harp, who has a membership with, said his ancestors – two Irish brothers – emigrated from the Emerald Isles in the early 1800s. The men likely came through the Port of New York. Ironically, the family’s original name was not Harp.

“The research has been fascinating, and I was surprised to learn that our name may have been Earp, like Wyatt Earp,” said Harp, who doesn’t know whether he’s related to the famous lawman who led the 30-second gun fight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

“I don’t know, but I was told by a researcher that maybe because of his thick Irish accent, they took his name as Harp on Census records,” he added.

Before COVID-19, much of downtown Gadsden celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a huge outdoor street festival.

“This year is more low key,” Harp said. “We’ll have a small celebration because of social distancing.”

Harp is ready to see the city’s restaurants return to “wide open business.” He wants Gadsden – the state’s second-most important center of industry in the early 19th century – to continue to grow and prosper.

He is considering turning his vintage building that houses Harp and Clover into a boutique hotel. Among other business avenues, Harp is helping to develop the Village at Town Creek, a business incubator similar to Huntsville’s Lowe Mill, at a 200,000-square-foot site.

“We’re raising $20 million toward that project,” Harp said. “I want to give back and be a part of the education and impacts, to plant the seeds of growth in Gadsden.”

Despite the hardships of the pandemic, his restaurants have remained open, thanks to the dedication of their employees and customers.

“It’s just a really cool time,” Harp said. “We’ve thrived because of good human nature. Everyone played a part – our employees, our customers and, of course, our families.

“Even when people didn’t need food, they bought it and took meals home,” he said. “It’s very humbling, and it makes you want to give back to others. And I hope that, through our businesses and ideas, we leave a positive impact on our community.”

Harp and Clover

The food and drink: 90-day dry-aged steaks; Irish bar foods; specialty weekend menu; beer and all types of cocktails.

124 Court St., Gadsden, Alabama, 35901

Tuesday through Thursday hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-8 p.m.

Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; closed on Monday.

Takeout and delivery is available. Call 256-467-4824.

Find Harp and Clover on Facebook.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Forge creates Young Breast Cancer Support group to help Alabama survivors 45 and younger

(Audra Chiles/Contributed)

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is the furthest thing from most young women’s minds.

In 2019, Audra Chiles’s life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Chiles’s first inkling that anything was amiss was when she noticed a marble-size growth. Before that, the busy young career woman looked only toward the future.

“I was hit in the face with a very traumatic diagnosis,” said Chiles, who works in the web-based industry in Birmingham. “I felt like it was the end of my life. I was dealing with death. I had all this mental and emotional trauma I had to walk through.”

After coming through the ordeal, Chiles wants to give back by helping others – and she’s doing that by facilitating Zoom meetings for young breast cancer patients and survivors.

Forging the Young Breast Cancer Survivor group


In the middle of turmoil, Chiles found an advocate in Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center. She credits Forge’s support with helping her recover and deal with difficult emotions. Chiles’ doctor told her about Forge, which provides resources, support and counseling to breast cancer patients and their families. The nonprofit receives most of its referrals from oncologists, surgeons and clinician offices in the Birmingham area, though it serves patients in the five counties around the city.

“I’d never had surgery and didn’t know what to expect,” said Chiles, who is 27. “I wanted a community who could guide me. Forge had peer mentors. The information they gave me was incredibly valuable and helpful.”

During treatment, Chiles took advantage of Forge’s counseling services. Chiles is among more than 220 patients served by Forge since 2016. The nonprofit has impacted more than 2,300 family members and friends of patients.

“We haven’t yet served any male patients, but we’re part of the support system for husbands, sons and other family members of primary clients,” said Claire Gray, Forge’s manager of Community Outreach.

Of Forge’s most recent 10 clients, four women were under 35, which led to its founding the Young Breast Cancer Support group in January. Group members received their primary diagnosis before age 45. Since many women have their first mammogram at 40, most people are more aware of women 50 and older receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, Gray said.

The group meets virtually at 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month.

“We have a number of clients who were first diagnosed in their 20s and 30s,” Gray said. “That’s a very different experience, so we are doing our best to help support and walk alongside them as they navigate a completely different journey.

“One reason we felt strongly about providing the Young Breast Cancer Survivor group as a resource is, because with COVID, you’re not seeing anyone right now,” she said. “Zoom and text makes it easy to get a group together who are going through a similar struggle and find that connection that we’re so desperately missing right now. We’ve seen younger women who have been diagnosed that are reaching out to us for support. We want women to know there’s help out there for any stage of their journey.”

The desire to ease someone else’s journey is why Chiles decided to become a patient advocate at Forge.

Under the tutelage of Forge’s caring staff, Chiles guides monthly Zoom meetings, which give attendees – about 10 women – a time to share their experiences. Attendees discuss their experiences and family issues, and seek advice.

Chiles endured mastectomy surgery and chemotherapy but doesn’t want other young women to feel alone undergoing similar treatments. She feels fortunate to have found the Forge community during her battle with cancer.

“I never thought I’d be a 26-year-old cancer survivor,” said Chiles, who has served as a Forge peer mentor since August 2020. “People like the opportunity to fellowship with others who have gone through the same thing. There are lots of opinions from people around you, but to actually get the perspective of someone in your shoes, who came out on the other side, allows for true empathy and understanding.

“To me, it was one of the darkest times in my life, so it helps to have other people to talk with,” Chiles said.

Providing counseling and advocacy

Forge helps with many factors that complicate a patient’s diagnosis.

“Patients are concerned for themselves, and they’re concerned for their family,” Gray said. “We talk with patients about how the diagnosis affects them.”

Forge partners with Oasis Counseling for Women and Children, located around the corner from Forge’s new headquarters at 1321 19th St. S. in Birmingham. Forge can refer clients who need mental health counseling for six free visits with a licensed counselor.

“Oasis can also counsel children who are having a hard time with the diagnosis or provide marital counseling,” said Lauren Roberts, executive director of Forge. “It’s not just for the breast cancer patient. It’s also for the family, because we focus not only on survivors, but also co-survivors who are the unsung heroes of victims of a cancer diagnosis. They can get overlooked a lot, so we also pay for mental health counseling for them.”

Forge provides a peer mentor and advocate program, comprised of volunteers who have completed eight or more hours of training. Mentors have undergone breast cancer treatment and are a friend the patient can talk to about issues they’re facing. Mentors don’t give medical advice but share their own experiences.

“In non-COVID times, mentors can attend doctor appointments with the patient, taking notes and helping the patient with complicated information,” Roberts said. “The needs of a young breast cancer patient are totally different. You’ve got potential fertility issues, you’ve got marriage, you’re working, you’re in that part of your life – though a diagnosis is never easy – it presents lots of different challenges. People are dealing with uncertainties about how chemo may affect fertility.”

Zooming into emotional healing

In February, women in Young Breast Cancer Survivors wrote “love letters” to themselves, encouraging an inward look at their best qualities. The goal was to have patients look further than their outer appearance, Gray said.

“With cancer, you look in the mirror and see yourself with a bald head and a frail face,” Chiles said. “The team at Forge is so brilliant at giving ideas.”

Chiles believes many emotions are tied to a person’s body and image. “Taking the time to tell why you do love yourself was very powerful for these women.”

Forge’s team has given Chiles the confidence to facilitate the monthly meetings and come up with activities and ideas.

“It’s helped me to participate, and these are things that are good for all of our healing,” she said. “To have this support means everything.”

To learn more about Forge, email to connect with Volunteer and Support Coordinator Jinida Holt, or call 1-800-811-8925.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

UAB, JCDH officials: Remain vigilant in fight against COVID and get vaccinated


The UAB medical community and the Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) issued good news: COVID-19 hasn’t yet been defeated, but “we’re at the 10-yard line.”

“We need to continue to really follow the rules, get vaccinated and we’ll have the best chance to get through this. … We don’t want to spike the ball before we’re in the end zone,” said UAB’s Dr. Selwyn Vickers, senior vice president of Medicine and dean of the UAB School of Medicine.

Vickers said he is thankful UAB and the state had the ability to come through a difficult time.

“It’s only been in the past few weeks that this has felt different from the continuation of 2020,” Vickers said. “Now it feels like we’re actually in 2021 because of the vaccine and the drop in the (COVID-19) cases that we’ve seen.”


As of March 9, UAB Hospital had 40 COVID-positive patients. Sixty-seven “convalesced” patients remain hospitalized, meaning they have been treated and are no longer infectious, but remain sick and potentially unable to survive without intensive medical care and attention.

Jefferson County has seen more than 1,400 deaths, said Dr. Mark Wilson, health officer for JCDH. Many people continue to suffer the after-effects of COVID-19.

“It’s brought a lot of stress into people’s lives, isolation, mental health problems, loss of income,” Wilson said. “So there’s just a lot of pain, and I’m afraid we’re going to see it for a long time.”

Wilson reflected on the past year. In March 2020, the JCDH was preparing its partners as COVID-19 cases emerged in surrounding states, particularly after the first case was found in Seattle, Washington. With so little testing at that time, Wilson and other staff of the JCDH realized the disease was probably already in Alabama.

On March 12, 2020, Wilson asked Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UAB, to join in a JCDH call. Wilson issued a recommendation that the state suspend all gatherings of more than 500 people. On March 13, Alabama’s first COVID case was found in Jefferson County.

Two days later, President Donald Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that people voluntarily stay home, limit gatherings to 10 people and pause activities. On March 16, 2020, JCDH, county commissioners, Jefferson County mayors and medical experts discussed immediate steps to take to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. That evening, they ordered the closing of restaurants and bars and limited gatherings to 25 people. That first order by Wilson, intended to last a week, was overridden about three days later by a statewide order.

“I know we saved lives, I know we kept our hospitals from being overwhelmed and I believe those were the right things to do,” Wilson said. “A lot has happened since then, and I am just so glad that we are near the end of this war. I would just urge people to continue to be very careful. We know these face masks work; keep using them and get vaccinated when you can. I would hate to see more casualties when we know we’re about to win this war.”

Marrazzo said knowledge about COVID-19 has increased dramatically. At this time last year, UAB was struggling to line up adequate and accurate diagnostic testing for the virus.

“We really didn’t know how to treat this infection, let alone prevent it,” she said. “Viral infections have always confounded us, and this is one that clearly threw us for a loop.”

Marrazzo said that mask wearing, social distancing and hygiene are helping to combat infections. Even with the success of the vaccinations, she said the public must remain vigilant.

“We have to continue to pay attention to circumstances in which we might not know we’ve been exposed, and unwittingly expose our loved ones to this virus,” Marrazzo said.

The medical community is waiting to see what happens with the emergence of the new COVID variants. The big question is how bad they will get, how quickly and whether that will drive the need for a new vaccine booster program.

Vickers said he is proud of how UAB has responded during the pandemic. UAB has worked with the state and the federal government to get vaccines targeted to rural areas. UAB also is working to increase the number of Black doctors in its emergency rooms, where minority patients often seek care, by partnering with HBCUs statewide and recruiting underrepresented minorities in its residencies. At the faculty level, UAB is recruiting new leaders and chairs such as Dr. Marie-Carmelle Elie, who will be on the front line of COVID care as the new chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine. Elie is the first Black woman to chair an emergency department of a major medical school in America.

“She’s an outstanding complement in addition to our faculty leadership,” Vickers said. “We are excited about her arrival and the role she will help play in culturally competent care and trust for our citizens.”

Though Wilson said the state health department has been under-resourced for many years, the federal government’s funding of the state and Jefferson County health departments has been helpful and timely.

“We’re getting more resources going forward to get us through the rest of the pandemic and especially the vaccination effort,” Wilson said.

“I think there’s a lot to be proud of in our state and at UAB,” Vickers said.

Though COVID cases are trending downward, UAB encourages the public to continue taking protective measures:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Stay 6 feet away from others.
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
  • Stay home if you are sick.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

TAP helps inner-city school athletes reach for the stars with STEM

(Chris Rogers/TAP)

Chris Rogers left the heights of college football at the University of Alabama knowing he wanted to make a difference.

Ten years later, he’s seeing his dreams come to pass through his nonprofit Together Assisting People (TAP).

Rogers founded TAP with a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – to help propel young Black athletes into strong careers and a bright future. Since 2009, more than 5,000 students have gone through the TAP program. The organization has helped place more than 100 students in college with about $35 million in scholarships. About 80% of TAP’s college students are Black and are their family’s first generation to enter higher education.


Around 2009, as a young college graduate, Rogers saw a deficit in the educational system: Fewer than 2% of minority students take advantage of STEM careers. He’s “paying it forward” by helping to change that statistic – working at a grassroots level – through TAP.

“Right now, we’ve got three students in internships with tech companies,” said Rogers, who is leveraging his experiences with TAP in his Diversity and Inclusion role. “We’re trying to get students prepared and ready.

“What I like about STEM is you can unlock the key to your own destiny; these are things I wish I had known as an athlete,” said Rogers, a 2009 member of the University of Alabama’s first national football championship team under coach Nick Saban. “We’re trying to make these inner-city kids know about these opportunities and present them with the possibilities. Most of the time, they don’t know. We have professors and professionals come talk to them about those type of things, and that’s how we introduce them early to the concept of working in tech.”

Building on a five-pillar foundation – education, STEM, workforce development, servant leadership and civic engagement – TAP’s mentoring program provides opportunities for promising students who lack financial resources. The students commit to a yearlong schedule that includes after-school tutoring and professional development, university and corporate site visits, and weekend community service events. Students receive guidance on taking math and science classes to prepare them for future STEM careers. TAP’s program managers help family members understand Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork to help finance college.

Rogers and his program managers share the STEM initiative with educators, coaches and guidance counselors at high schools who locate athletes to take part in TAP. The program has worked with young men at Blount and Bryant high schools in Mobile, Central High in Tuscaloosa, Lanier High in Montgomery, and Huffman, Ramsay and Wenonah high schools in Birmingham.

Currently, Rogers and TAP program managers are helping 20 students. Upon entering the program, most students have a 2.2 to 2.3 GPA. While they’re in the program, the average GPA rises to about 3.2, Rogers said.

The goal is to give athletes aged 16-22 a head start in STEM by exposing them to computer- and cloud-based technologies.

“We bring them in and track the students for three or four years,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to stay with them and give them the tools they need to be successful, to make sure they have real degrees, real opportunity and leadership. When they come out of college and graduate, they’re getting internships with these tech companies. It’s a beautiful thing.”

During each meeting, TAP program managers reinforce that education is the key to excel. Students understand they’re in control of their future, and know that good grades are important to their future success.

“They start understanding early about what they must do to prepare to take the SAT, to transition into the situation they want,” Rogers said. “I tell my students, ‘This is the way – this is the future.’ The tech industry is virtually bulletproof: It’s the one industry that has thrived during the pandemic. Other businesses have gone under, but companies in the tech industry have doubled, tripled, even quadrupled during this time.”

The pandemic also ushered in changes to TAP. Now, TAP’s mentors meet with students during 2- to 3-hour Zoom sessions.

A recent grant from the Alabama Power Foundation helped TAP purchase laptops and other equipment and materials for students.

“This Alabama Power Foundation grant is helping us plant the seed to consider a STEM career in these athletes’ minds,” Rogers said. “With the grant, we were able to increase our STEM activities to provide access to this technology. Now we’re able to have professionals in the field talk to our students. Fortune 500 companies talk to them about job descriptions, and our high school athletes are majoring in computer science information technology. They’re starting to look into that space. We thank the foundation for helping our students to do this.”

In everything TAP does, the focus is on increasing athletes’ vision of what they can achieve. Rogers tells the young men that a bright future awaits even if athletics doesn’t lead to a career on the football field or the basketball court.

“As athletes, everybody is trying to talk to you about being a superstar, making it to the NBA or NFL, but you’ve got a better chance if you understand how to code and how to do the simple things on a computer,” Rogers said. “You can have a career for 20 or 30 years with great pay, great benefits and stock options.

“I’ve got to thank the Alabama Power Foundation for supporting us and recognizing the need to introduce kids in our community to STEM,” he said. “We’re touching kids throughout the state of Alabama.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Grace Klein Community donated $2.1 million in food in Alabama in 2020, plans to help more this year

(Grace Klein Community/Contributed)

Never underestimate the power of your vision.

More than 10 years ago, Jenny Waltman and her husband, Jason, saw integral needs in their Avondale neighborhood and wanted to help. That desire led the couple to found Grace Klein Community, a Birmingham-area nonprofit that last year donated more than $2.1 million in groceries to 25,000 households.

Before the pandemic, Grace Klein Community served as a monthly food delivery to the doors of families without transportation. Now, the group helps families with reduced incomes to offset food costs, after their wallets are emptied by mortgages, car payments and utility bills. During the past year, the nonprofit has seen more people struggling because of the COVID-19 crisis.


“Food insecurity is when you’re afraid of running out of food, and you don’t know necessarily know where you’ll find your next meal,” said Waltman, chairman and CEO of Grace Klein Community. “No one should have to be afraid of having enough food to feed their children or themselves. Food insecurity can affect anybody – even your next-door neighbor who has a 9-to-5 job – and it causes a lot of stress and anxiety.

“We operate from eight different locations because of space restraints and to keep our staff safe,” she said. “If one location is exposed to COVID-19, we’ll not all be exposed, which protects us from closing. Our drive-through services are too important to risk losing two weeks of food support to the community.” With three full-time employees and 11 part-time workers, the nonprofit relies on hundreds of volunteers to help fulfill its mission.

Volunteers prepare food boxes from Grace Klein Community for distribution by Liberty Church in Birmingham, Concord Church in Calera and Royal Divinity Ministries Industries Inc. in Wylam. The group also provides food to 70 community partners in outlying areas.

“We can’t operate without our volunteers,” Waltham said. “Volunteers own every part of the process. GKC is a community of friends helping friends, and we’re all in. Everyone is welcome, and each person contributes their best gifts and abilities, which proves we are better together.”

Because of COVID-19, Grace Klein Community began a drive-through system to allow people to pick up food. Volunteers wear masks, keep a 6-feet distance and place the food box in the recipient’s back seat or trunk. Families served by Grace Klein Community are never charged for food, though volunteers keep a record of families served, by zip code and family size.

When the group was created, the nonprofit distributed 50 food boxes a month. That total has mushroomed to 200 or more food boxes a day. In the meantime, Grace Klein Community has grown with the community’s ever-increasing needs.

“We’re feeding about 10,000 people a week and require 200 volunteers a week to make this possible,” Waltman said. “We’ve grown five times since the start of the pandemic.”

Around April 2020, a Southeastern food service provider loaned Grace Klein Community an unused refrigerated trailer. However, as the grocery business improved during the pandemic, the company needed its equipment.

“We really appreciated their help,” Waltman said. “Later, generous donors helped us buy a refrigerated box truck where we store food. We have refrigerators and freezers at our office and drive-through locations. We receive food every day, and Monday through Saturday, we give food away at one of our locations. We’re on a fast turn-around.”

Jack’s Family Restaurants gave a walk-in refrigerator the nonprofit uses at its drive-through at Royal Divinity Ministries. Safe food storage remains a primary focus as community needs increase.

Grace Klein Community partners with several grocery stores, restaurants and the United Way’s Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. Every day, about 100 volunteers pick up food from several Publix stores, the Heavenly Donut Co.Magic City HarvestPaneraPenzeys SpicesRegional ProduceSouthern OrganicsTrader Joe’sWinn Dixie and other donors.

While these partnerships put viable food in the cupboards of needy families, Grace Klein Community helps decrease CO2 emissions by keeping good food out of landfills.

The Alabama Power Foundation recently awarded the nonprofit a grant toward the purchase of refrigeration equipment.

“We are so thankful for the Alabama Power Foundation’s generous gift,” Waltman said. “We hope to increase by 25 food-rescue partners in 2021. It’s difficult as we work to keep everyone safe and increase the capacity. This grant, along with additional fundraising, will help us secure another refrigerated box truck and a 20-foot Connex trailer to safely store 10 more pallets of food.” Their most urgent need is a larger facility, warehouse and loading docks to improve efficiency and serve more food-insecure families.

“About 90 percent of people who volunteer with us have received food from Grace Klein at some point,” Waltman said. “Our goal is not only to provide healthy food for your family, but to help people stabilize their lives, get control of debt, maintain housing and thrive at their jobs.”

‘#LoveDoes’ project honors Birmingham heroes

In time for Valentine’s Day – and throughout February – Grace Klein Community volunteers are celebrating more than 1,000 Birmingham first responders, teachers and other essential workers by providing flowers, encouraging notes and gifts through “#LoveDoes.”

“This idea grew from our day-to-day #feedbirmingham efforts to uplift someone’s day,” Waltman said. “Partnering with Beacon People, this initiative seeks to engage volunteers with meaningful ways to thank our community heroes, encourage the weary and, hopefully, in some small way, combat the mental health struggles that attack our front-line workers who work long hours and consistently serve our community.”

As part of #LoveDoes, volunteers this week are delivering handmade cards and posters, healthy snacks, flowers, baked goods and specialty gifts to more than 1,600 schoolteachers and staff. More than 200 employees at Spain Park High School received flowers. Employees at Alabaster, Bessemer and Hoover fire departments, police departments, and essential hospital workers and employees of medical facilities, including the American Red Cross, were honored last week.

Volunteers will keep the Valentine’s Day spirit flowing by encouraging postal and civil service employees. Waltman suggested placing a small gift in your mailbox to brighten a U.S. Postal worker’s day. The final week, volunteers will honor nursing home staff and residents.

“If you only have a dollar to your name, you can give a smile, you can write a note,” she said. “#Love Does” is a cool initiative, a way to love in action and truth. It’s important to honor those who came before us, who prepared the foundation that we build on.”

Grace Klein Community grew from a prayer

Every day, grateful recipients leave Facebook comments about their gratitude to Grace Klein Community. Waltman is amazed when she considers the “winding road” that birthed the nonprofit.

Early in their marriage, Waltman and her husband started Grace Klein Construction Inc. At that time, Jenny Waltman, who graduated from Samford University in 1998, was a busy mother who also served as bookkeeper for their family’s business. Around 2009, the couple bought and renovated a historic home in Birmingham’s Forest Park area, intending to “flip” the house.

“One night I was praying, and God was showing me our furniture in the house in Forest Park,” Waltman said. “I didn’t want to live there.”

The house was beautiful, in a nice neighborhood, but she had other ideas for her family’s future. But Jenny told Jason about her vision. The next day, he went to the Forest Park house, where he prayed about what to do. When Jason returned, he told Jenny that he also felt that God was telling him that they were meant to live in the house.

“We moved in,” Jenny Waltman said, with a laugh. “Our daughter was zoned for Avondale Elementary School. We fell in love with the people and the community.”

After she started school, their daughter was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. When Jenny Waltman walked into the little home, she saw only mattresses on the floor. There was no other furniture.

“What is this child’s reality?” she asked herself. Waltman realized the family had probably used their monthly food stamp allotment to feed their guests. Waltman’s following thoughts were even more sobering: “I knew the families in the neighborhood needed food support and we were doing nothing about it,” she said. “I thought about James 4:17 in the Bible: if you know to do good, and you don’t do it, it is sin.”

Seeing this need, Waltman and her husband wanted to help Birmingham’s people. She talked with four friends about how to confront hunger in the community.

“We started by visiting 50 inner city schools and asking for their support,” she said. “We talked with administrators about families they knew who needed food, and volunteers started delivering food to those families once a month. Suddenly, our family was living in every socioeconomic class, and every person we knew had a need, whether it was physical, emotional, financial, relational or spiritual. We are all broken people, and we all need a place to belong.”

More than a decade later, Grace Klein Community – which means “little gift from God” – is true to its name.

“It’s so beautiful to see the unity – our team is so dynamic and passionate about what we do,” Waltman said. “We’re grateful for all the businesses that partner with us, and for the grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, which is an investment in us. Together, we’ll feed Birmingham.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

UAB medical team saves Fultondale tornado victim with onsite amputation

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Working in what could be compared to a war zone, a team of UAB doctors and nurses performed an onsite amputation to save an injured man after the F3 tornado hit Fultondale Jan. 25.

Sometime after midnight, UAB trauma surgeon Dr. Don Reiff received a call from Vestavia firefighter and paramedic Lawrence Pugliese. The firefighter was in Fultondale, where Arnoldo Vasquez Hernandez was trapped under a tree inside his home. Pugliese likened the scene to an explosion: tree after tree, house after house, all kinds of debris were everywhere.

“Pugliese reached out to get some insight about what to do with a tourniquet if they were able to extricate the patient from the scene,” said Reiff, who, as part of a volunteer medical team from UAB, works with Pugliese and the Vestavia SWAT team. “He called back later and indicated they weren’t going to be able to get the patient out, … that he was trapped.” An infield amputation would be needed.


Reiff contacted one of his partners at UAB Hospital to prepare surgical instruments. Fultondale paramedics also called UAB Emergency Room Dr. Blayke Gibson for help. Gibson contacted UAB Trauma Director Dr. Jeffrey Kerby, who helped her and Reiff determine a game plan for treating the patient onsite.

“The team in the Emergency Department was incredible … they had all of our supplies ready and we were ready to leave the ED in 20 minutes,” said Gibson, who did her medical residency training at UAB. “Every person in that ED that night, all of the nurses, the techs, the remaining physicians who control the Emergency Department so that some of us could go to the scene, were incredible.”

Pugliese warned that time was of the essence: “The house was actively collapsing inside. That was not good,” he said. Reiff immediately drove to Fultondale, where Fultondale and Birmingham fire departments were already working to fortify the scene.

A huge oak tree was on top of and inside the house. Paramedics from Fultondale and Mt. Olive, unable to move Hernandez or the tree, could only set an IV.

When India Alford, director of UAB’s freestanding ED in Gardendale, learned tornadoes were coming through, she went into work. Alford and UAB ED Trauma/Burns Nurse Manager Sherichia Hardy were called by UAB to help the patient in Fultondale. An ambulance took them to the site, where they assessed the trauma victim, then set an intravenous line to resuscitate him with fluids and blood to prepare him for surgery.

“When I heard for sure that Dr. Reiff and Dr. Gibson were coming, my heart was just glad because the firefighters had come to us and said that they were going to allow the patient to call his family,” Hardy said. “At that moment, prior to our surgeon and physician being able to come out, it was really looking pretty grim to be able to get him out safely.”

UAB surgical team members discuss emergency amputation in aftermath of Alabama tornado from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Hardy and Alford had everything ready for the doctors. UAB Police transported Gibson and the surgical equipment to the scene. Gibson managed the patient’s airway and made sure he was appropriately sedated and as pain-free as possible.

“From there, Blayke took care of everything that would have been the head of the bed if we’d been in the hospital doing this, so that I could focus on performing the amputation,” Reiff said. “We secured two good tourniquets, and then I performed an above-knee guillotine amputation in the field.”

Pugliese thanked UAB for coming to the rescue: “We’d exhausted all resources until the UAB team got there,” he said. “It was a miracle. It was beautiful to see all of these different groups working together.”

Hardy was glad to help perform nursing care for the patient onsite and during the ambulance ride to UAB Hospital.

“It was an honor to be a part of this team,” Gibson said. “The team effort was incredible and I’m just truly happy for the outcome that we were able to have. This provided an incredibly unique opportunity for communities all over Birmingham to play a role as their paramedics and firemen from different stations began to pull medicines out of their jump bags and make sure we had enough medication to properly sedate and treat this patient.”

The UAB ER has a red phone designated for paramedics to call doctors for information any time.

Reiff assists a UAB team that works with law enforcement on a volunteer basis. UAB plans to form a support team to work specifically for natural disasters, to be ready 24/7 to respond to this type of emergency.

“We will have a team designed and built for this, moving forward,” Reiff said. “The need for this is better understood, and there’s been a lot of support from administration in the hospital to get this done, sooner rather than later.

“We have great physicians and great people within the institution – the providers at every level of our hospital push each other forward each and every day to do a better job, and to learn more and to do better for our patients, to see UAB’s success,” Reiff said.

Considering the gravity of the medical rescue, the UAB team said Hernandez is progressing well after the onsite amputation of his lower leg.

“Overall, he’s making good clinical progress, considering he was in a nonsterile environment,” Reiff said. “He’s going to do well.”

To help Hernandez and his family during recovery, click here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Alabama Power employees celebrate MLK Day by giving back to communities

(Tabetha Lemonds/Gaston APSO)

Contemplating ways to better the community, sharing ideals of justice and unity, and giving back are some of the ways Alabama Power employees celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and social distancing needs, many members of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) found ways to honor King’s legacy and help their communities.

Jason Watters was among Magic City APSO Chapter members who took part in a 1-mile Freedom Walk in King’s commemoration. Afterward, he made a lifesaving blood donation to help restore the nation’s blood banks, which are running low because of the novel coronavirus.

Watters made the most of the day by involving his two young sons in MLK Day activities.


“Especially with my eldest being 5 years old, my wife and I try to be very intentional about what we teach,” said Watters, recruiting consultant for HR Talent Acquisition at Alabama Power. “It was very important for us to show it’s not a day off or a ‘break’ because he was off from school. Although my sons are both fairly young, it’s extremely important to me that they know we don’t ‘sit around’ on King Day. We walked around Kelly Ingram Park and saw the Sixteenth Baptist Church. From a 5-year-old’s filter, it allowed me to talk about who Dr. King was and why it’s important to learn about his mission.”

Magic City’s Billy Sanford completed his 1-mile Freedom Walk at Railroad Park in Birmingham. Sanford, an applications analyst in Metering, gave blood at UAB as part of the Day of Service.

Through Jan. 31, Magic City APSO is helping keep Birmingham warm with donations to Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter, the Salvation Army and the Boutwell Auditorium Warming Station.

Power Delivery Project Manager Jeremy Prickett and his wife, Amy, with their son and daughter, completed their Freedom Walk at Civitan Park in Trussville. “My family and I took part in the Freedom Walk to honor the memory of Dr. King and demonstrate our support for his ideals,” said Prickett, who earned an MBA at UAB and has worked at Alabama Power nearly 18 years.

Several Magic City members contemplated the meaning of MLK Day on the chapter Facebook page, by providing videos in which they shared quotes and stories from King that promote equality, justice and service.

Eastern Division APSO members will recognize medical staff on the COVID-19 unit at Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center in Anniston by providing a free lunch on Jan. 20. About 40 hospital staff will enjoy gourmet fare from an Anniston eatery.

Some Gaston APSO members worked in individual cleanups to honor King’s legacy of helping build community. For instance, Gaston APSO chapter President Tabetha Lemonds and a friend scoured the roadside of their Chelsea neighborhood, removing garbage such as discarded cups and bags. Longtime Gaston APSO member Jodi Webb, with her husband and two youngsters, performed a mini-cleanup in Hollins to help beautify the community. Webb and her family removed debris from the roadside, collecting several sacks for a local dumpster. Gaston members Karen White and her husband, Woody, spent two hours cleaning windows in downtown Childersburg as part of their service project.

Through the first week of February, Mobile Division APSO members will fill donation barrels at 13 Alabama Power business locations, including crew headquarters. As part of the socially distanced project, employees are donating blankets and warm clothing for clients of the Waterfront Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army in Mobile.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Local service organization keeps ‘Grinch’ away from Mobile

Walley delivered ‘Grinch’ bags to Wallace Hall Elementary School students. (Photo courtesy of Barry APSO / Alabama NewsCenter)

There’s no “Grinch” in Mobile – 10 nonprofits and more than 411 happy children are proof of that.

Thanks to members of the Barry Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO), several nonprofits and Mobile-area families will have a merrier Christmas. Employees and contractors at Barry Electric Generating Plant “dug deep” to ensure nonprofits and other groups could meet community needs.

“Barry APSO members have such large hearts. We gave $20,000 to help nonprofits at the holidays,” said Barry Chapter President Krista Presnall. “Even though we were unable to hold our annual Barry Golf Tournament this year, we still raised funds for these groups.”


Determined the coronavirus wouldn’t keep them from helping their community, Barry APSO members helped nonprofits and schools while social distancing. Unable to host their annual contributions breakfast, Barry APSO board members Tonya Byrd, Cherie Gatlin, Adam Davis, Amanda Lofton, Sharon Meier, Roger Pettis, Patrick Smith, Stacy Walley and Jason Walters individually delivered boxes of with three dozen donuts – and a check – to 10 groups.

Barry APSO’s Sharon Meier (left) gives a check to help Dauphin Island Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Barry APSO / Alabama NewsCenter)

Dauphin Island Elementary SchoolFeeding the Gulf CoastGeorge Hall Elementary SchoolHome of GraceMission of Hope’s Taylor HouseMulherin Home, North Mobile School, Ronald McDonald HouseSalvation Army and Saraland Meals on Wheels received a donation.

While delivering a check to George Hall Elementary, which is Plant’s Barry’s Adopt-A-School, Stacy Simmons Walley brought 336 “Grinchmas” bags and donut-shaped cookies for students. In the past, Walley has helped host an Operation Santa program for Hall Elementary, visiting with children and giving each child a book. To make sure social distancing needs were met, Walley had the gifts delivered to her home, where she spent about three days assembling the bags.

“They were all over my house before I boxed them up … I had to make little walking paths,” said Walley, who ordered gifts from the Oriental Trading Co. She filled the lime-green paper bags with bookmarks, candy canes, frisbees and balls.

George Hall Elementary School students enjoyed a donut-shaped cookie for making the honor roll. (Photo courtesy of Barry APSO / Alabama NewsCenter)

For years, Barry APSO has congratulated Hall’s honor-roll students with a celebratory donut. But social distancing rules at Hall Elementary require food to be packaged for safety and to be distributed by teachers. Since the school couldn’t take boxes of donuts, Walley ordered custom-made, donut-shaped cookies from a bakery.

Students were thrilled with their unexpected gifts. George Hall Elementary School Principal Melissa Mitchell thanked Walley and Alabama Power on Barry APSO’s Facebook.

“Alabama Power (the donut lady) Stacy couldn’t bring Santa to Hall this year, but that didn’t stop her from making hundreds of gift bags for our kiddos! … The way you have always loved on Hall … it makes my heart so happy!” Mitchell wrote.

Wishes come true with ‘Gifts for Kids’ Christmas program

Members transformed into Santa’s elves on Dec. 15, delivering presents for 75 underserved children sponsored by the Mobile Department of Human Resources. Barry APSO met children’s and wants, despite not being able to host its 28th annual E.R. Covington Golf Tournament. Cherie Gatlin, a longtime Barry APSO member, coordinated the shopping project.

“We bought and delivered items on children’s wish lists, including toys, electronics and clothes,” said Presnall, who has served APSO for 10 years. “We had contractors who wanted to give – they enjoy the golf tournament and wanted to get involved. We know these kids’ Christmas will be brighter thanks to the generous contributions of Barry APSO members, friends and vendors that donated to the project.”

Plant Barry Team Leader and APSO member Roger Pettis played Santa for a day, delivering gifts for kids sponsored by the Mobile Department of Human Resources. (Photo courtesy of Barry APSO / Alabama NewsCenter)

Persevering to feed underprivileged families

In a longstanding Christmas Eve tradition, Walley and other Barry APSO members will deliver a full holiday meal to about 100 families in the Mobile area.

“We pick up the meals at Publix, which are full-course dinners with turkey and all the fixings,” said Walley, who has delivered Christmas meals to families for 10 years. The meals are funded by donations from Barry APSO members and plant vendors, “Families also get a gallon of milk and dessert. Last year, one man at a retirement home said he was able to feed people on the entire floor at his home.”

To ensure food safety while social distancing, Walley and other volunteers will wear masks and place the meals on people’s porches for easy pickup.

Presnall said she is proud of the entire team of Barry APSO volunteers, especially during the pandemic.

“This project for feeding families is a big deal,” Presnall said. “This year, we had a lot of people needing things.  I’m so very proud we were able to do what we did this year for people in our community.”

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)


8 months ago

APSO members make Christmas stockings for babies born in December at St. Vincent’s Hospital

(Charlotte Garrett/Alabama Power)

Newborns at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham will receive an extra blessing during December: a hand-sewn Christmas stocking to help welcome them to the world.

Thanks to volunteers of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO), the St. Vincent’s Volunteer program and the Acts group at Gardendale Baptist Church, St. Vincent’s Hospital received about 200 handmade stockings to give to parents of newborns. Dianne Guthrie, coordinator for Volunteer Services at St. Vincent’s, was thrilled to have APSO members’ help, in what APSO leaders expect will become an annual project.

The stockings have been hand-stitched by volunteers since 1965, becoming lifelong treasures for many families. Guthrie said that last year, a young mother at St. Vincent’s Hospital told the staff she had the stocking she received at birth more than 20 years ago.

“These stockings are not ordinary red felt stockings, but works of art hand sewn by loving people,” Guthrie said. “Each stocking has the date sewn on to commemorate the year of the baby’s birth. These heirlooms are treasured by the baby’s parents. Just like our precious babies, each stocking is unique.”


For Magic City APSO member Charlotte Garrett, the project is a way to give back. It is a perfect activity for Garrett, who enjoys sewing and handcrafting pillows to give as gifts.

“I have a 3-year-old grandbaby who is special needs, and she’s been in and out of Children’s Hospital,” said Garrett, a staff accounting assistant for 12 years at Alabama Power’s Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham. “I like volunteering for things. I love to help people and I love to make people smile.”

Garrett took pains with the stockings, adding special touches: “The ones with more detail took about 2 1/2 hours. The blue and white one took me a little bit longer because I added a little more detail. I added a dove with ‘Peace on Earth’ and angels to others,” said Garrett, who has volunteered in reading programs and Camp Smile-A-Mile for children who are fighting cancer, and taken part in runs to raise money for nonprofits.

Guthrie, who has worked at St. Vincent’s for two years, said the Christmas stocking project is one of her “most favorite ministries” at the hospital.

“We are so focused on our mission here,” she said. “We’re going to pray over the stockings, too.”

“All of the items are hand sewn,” Guthrie added. “One lady spent 60 hours doing seed beading. You have to really want to do this.”

Guthrie made sure to request more stockings this year to avoid running out. The hospital provided the fabric and beads. Some volunteers, like Magic City APSO’s Carole Myers, “fancied up” their handcrafted stockings by buying extra beads. Hydro Generation Project Manager Thomas St. John, a Magic City member, helped with the effort.

Sewing and decorating the stockings was a family affair for Myers, who enlisted her married daughter, Sara, to help. Myers spent a couple of hours each evening until she completed the work.

“I enjoy doing this type of stuff, and it’s special, being for a baby,” said Myers, Risk Services budget analyst at Alabama Power for 13 years. Myers, who for several years has volunteered for APSO’s Exceptional Anglers tournament, said the sewing project helped fill a niche.

“My daughters sewed and made little Christmas trees that I sewed on,” said Casey Camper, a Southeast/Farley APSO member for five years. Her daughters, Hailey, 14, and Hannah, 12, enjoyed helping.

“It was a fun project,” said Camper, a customer service representative at Alabama Power’s Phenix City Business Office. “With COVID going on, this is a good way to do stuff with APSO. Normally, my whole family gets involved. I was glad they could find a project that we could all volunteer for.”

While the stocking project brings joy to many new parents at Christmastime, the task brought Garrett happiness, too.

“I wanted to give back to any child who comes in the world, and help give the kids hope,” Garrett said. “They may not understand now, but maybe one day, they’ll know that someone spent a lot of time doing this for them, from love.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Alabama Power employees brighten holidays with food donation to Revival Center pantry

(Jodi Webb/Contributed)

Sometimes a blessing comes in the nick of time.

That was the case for Build a Bridge Community Pantry in Vincent four days before Thanksgiving. Members of the Plant Gaston Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) showed up with a truckload of food just in time to feed needy families for the holidays.

Brandy Wallis, director of operations of the pantry at Revival Center Church, said the shelves were nearly bare. The pantry serves residents of Shelby County and three neighboring counties.

Jodi Webb and Tabetha Lemonds delivered 1,320 pounds of food donated by employees at Plant Gaston in Wilsonville. Every day, Nov. 6-17, many Gaston employees left gifts of food at a trailer at the plant gates – allowing contact-free giving – and donated money for food.


As Lemonds dropped the truck’s tailgate and flipped back the bed liner, Wallis could hardly believe her eyes. The Ford 250 was filled to nearly overflowing with canned vegetables, fruit and meats. There was a huge selection of dry goods, such as pasta, beans, instant mashed potatoes, cereals, pancake mix and other shelf-stable items.

Overcome with emotion, Wallis began to cry – tears of joy flowed down her face.

“You’re not going to believe what a blessing you are,” Wallis told Webb and Lemonds. “When you see what our shelves look like, you’ll understand why I feel this way.

“It makes me very emotional,” added Wallis, who has served at the pantry since it opened during the pandemic. “We actually were able to feed 332 people for the holiday with the donation given by Gaston APSO. Without APSO, that couldn’t have happened. Our shelves had been empty.”

Since April 23, the pantry has fed more than 11,000 people.

A moment made a miracle

Webb and Lemonds didn’t expect employees’ gifts to fill several empty shelves at the pantry. As the three women began to unload the food, seven ministry members arrived to help. Lemonds and Webb worked along with them for four hours, carrying in groceries, stocking and organizing food.

“We came at that right time to fill the shelves,” said Webb, interim president of Gaston APSO. She said helping Build a Bridge Community Pantry was an easy decision.

“We always send out questions to our board about local groups, churches and ministries that need help,” said Webb, the 2018 recipient of APSO’s prestigious Patsy Topazi Leadership Award. “There’s so many people that need help.

Webb, who has served in Gaston APSO for 14 years, said the pandemic has presented difficulties because their members “like to go and do for people.”

Plant Gaston employees are givers behind the scenes

Gaston employees answered the call to help in a big way, said Lemonds, president-elect of Gaston APSO. Dropping off food at the plant’s trailer – a contact-free point – allowed employees to safely take part in the project while social distancing.

“Everybody here is so generous with giving,” said Lemonds, administrative assistant in Fossil Generation. “Our employees gave food and a contribution of $1,150, which included a gift from our chapter.”

“I’m a couponer, so I went to Publix to buy food for the pantry,” Lemonds said, with a laugh. “A friend and I got all the best items. I bought one item and got one free, too. It was multiple carloads of groceries. I was filling up my Jeep every day with groceries, then putting it all in our truck. It was a process. I was really excited.”

Before she and Webb delivered the items, Lemonds drove her truck onto Plant Gaston’s scales for weighing coal trucks. The duo was amazed to see the groceries’ weigh in at 1,320 pounds.

The project still brings a smile to their faces: “It hits home that all your hard work pays off,” Lemonds said.

Wallis agreed that every little bit “makes a tremendous difference.”

“We’ve got grandparents coming through the pantry saying, ‘I’m taking care of my three grandchildren, now I’ve got six people in my house,’” she said. “These people genuinely need the support. There are parents that are working who can’t afford to feed their children.

“We’re hearing a lot of these stories,” said Wallis, a member of Revival Center Church for seven years. “It’s heartbreaking. When we began this ministry, I said, ‘We can’t change the world, but we have the resources to help one person.’ Partnering with groups like Gaston APSO and individual contributors shows that people are stopping their day-to-day interactions to help other people. People do care.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Playtime Extravaganza goes on at Children’s of Alabama thanks to volunteers

(Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

More than 150 sick kids at Children’s Hospital will enjoy a mini version of Christmas this week, thanks to employees at Southern Company Services (SCS) and Alabama Power.

Several SCS employees recently spent a couple of hours organizing boxes of toys for the 13th-annual Playtime Extravaganza for Children’s Hospital patients. On Friday afternoon Nov. 5, seven volunteers met at Patrick Snell’s home in Hoover, Alabama, to package small toys into about 150 kid-sized packages.


Children’s Hospital Playtime Extravaganza goes on thanks to Alabama Power and Southern Company Services volunteers from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Volunteers wore protective masks and gloves to make sure the gifts were packaged in a safe environment, in keeping with rules set by Children’s Hospital.

“We’ve done our Playtime Extravaganza project for 13 years, partnering with Children’s Hospital,” said Patrick Snell, this year’s Playtime project coordinator and an applications analyst for Financial Services Information Technology (IT) at SCS in Birmingham. “We usually do a teddy bear fair, a LEGO movie event, a fantastic photos fun fair and other activities during one week in August. It’s really been a year of uncertainty. It definitely took a little creativity to make this happen during the pandemic.”

Indeed, COVID-19 turned the project on its ear. The group couldn’t host the fun-time events on-site at the hospital because of concerns about coronavirus transmission.

“Playtime Extravaganza usually gives the patients a chance to come down, hang out, have a good time and just have a little escape from their daily treatments,” he said. “Instead, we are trying to put Playtime Extravaganza in a box. We’ll take all of the gifts to Children’s Hospital.”

With employees working from home this fall, the Technology organization couldn’t hold its usual fundraisers. Instead, they sent an email to Technology Organization and Energy Management System employees letting them know they could sponsor a teddy bear for $20 and a Playtime Extravaganza kit for $50.

Technology Organization employees ordered the toys and prize-pack items from Amazon and Oriental Trading. The project benefits youngsters in the Child Life program at Children’s Hospital.

“Instead of spending a week with the kids, we’re packaging toys that represent each event into the boxes,” Snell said. “About 31 employees gave $2,205. The Magic City Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization gave $500 to the project.”

Snell’s garage and driveway were converted to work areas for assembling gift bags and boxes. SCS volunteers included Alicia Ford, Leigh Hampton Gorham, Carol Grigsby, Tracy Henderson, Serina Johnson, Melissa Ledbetter and Snell.

Grigsby and Ledbetter kept a safe distance of 6 feet in the garage while packaging hundreds of small toys. Other employees worked at tables outdoors where temperatures were comfortably warm for a fall day.

Ledbetter, who has helped with the project for four years and Grigsby, who has assisted for 10 years, agreed the work is “all about the kids.”

“Seeing how much fun they have is so neat,” said Ledbetter, an SCS employees for 15 years. “It lifts their spirits so much.”

Snell said SCS and APC employees enjoyed the opportunity to help children during the holiday season.

“We spent a couple of hours getting everything done,” Snell said. “It’s been cool to see the response from so many people. We are so appreciative of all our employees and Magic City APSO for making this happen.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 months ago

Alabama Power Energizer stays busy helping Tarrant church package food for underserved

(Danny Copeland/Corporate Chapter Energizers)

A “honey-do” list may have kept him busy for a while, but after several months of the extended pandemic, one retiree found that true satisfaction comes from helping others.

When social distancing began in March, Danny Copeland happily complied. The 65-years-young Alabama Power retiree figured COVID-19 was ample reason to stay home, making repairs and handling tasks he needed to accomplish. But it wasn’t long before Copeland was yearning for interaction with others and a change of scenery.

“The pandemic limits what you can do, and there’s only so much yardwork you can do,” said Copeland, a member of the Corporate Chapter of the Energizers, Alabama Power’s retiree service organization. He joined the Energizers after working nearly 25 years at Alabama Power, from stints in Power Delivery Construction in Western Division to the General Services Complex and Birmingham Division. Copeland retired as a Fleet Services subforeman in January 2008.


To maintain safety, members of the company’s 11 Energizers chapters ceased meeting during the pandemic. Since June, Copeland has been helping with food distribution of items donated by a farmers market.

“I was tired of being at home doing nothing. I talked to a pastor and found out that First Missionary Baptist Church-East Boyles in Tarrant needed help getting food to older folks,” he said. Immediately, Copeland thought the project was a “good volunteer thing to be involved in.”

On Wednesday mornings, Copeland and other volunteers pack the donated food in boxes and begin staging the 20-pound boxes on the sidewalk in front of the church.

By 10 a.m., about 40 to 50 older people begin driving up to the church. Each volunteer wears a mask and keeps a safe distance while loading the food into the back seat or trunk of recipients’ cars.

“It’s a pretty good bit of food for a family to have for a week,” Copeland said. “About 99% of the people who come by are the underserved in the community. It makes me feel good to know I’m helping the cause.”

Copeland plans to help through Thanksgiving, when he will deliver precooked meals to 50 to 75 families. Despite not being a member of the church, he “fits in pretty well” with the group of men, most of whom are former military members in their 60s and 70s.

The other church members told Copeland, “Man, we think you are one of our guys now.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Gloria Buie battled breast cancer and won; now she fights for awareness

(Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

Sept. 11 will always be etched in Gloria Buie’s mind.

The date not only marks the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers but, for Buie, a personal day of infamy: she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Buie recalls going to her doctor for her usual yearly checkup.

“It was found on a mammogram when I went to Brookwood Baptist Medical Center in September 2009. It came back as abnormal, and they wanted to do a biopsy,” said Buie, in calm, measured tones. “The actual diagnosis came on 9/11. It was diagnosed as stage 2.”


The findings were a shock to her system. She’d taken part in races for the cure to benefit breast cancer research and treatment, never dreaming she’d be affected by the disease.

“I’d been an advocate for the Susan G. Komen Foundation even before I was diagnosed,” she said.

Buie, who taught group fitness classes for years and is now a yoga instructor, is fit, strong and limber. The fact she has four adult children belies her youthful appearance, and most people never guess Buie has dealt with cancer. Her pink sweater, adorned with a dark pink Komen pin, is the only evidence she had the illness.

Snuggling into an Adirondack chair in her backyard in Sylacauga, Buie radiates happiness while surveying the deep fuchsia and white petunias in a nearby pot, and talks about the pear tree that is heavy with fruit. Buie has a ready smile and an easy laugh.

But cancer is not a laughing matter, and her expression shifts.

“I did my consultation with the oncologist, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you. You’re the epitome of health,’” she recalled.

Buie is grateful that her cancer was found through a mammogram.

“It showed up on the scan, thank God,” she said. “I instantly felt fear. You think cancer and, oh my God, I’m gonna die. But my faith is so strong – I knew I had a protector.”

This wasn’t Buie’s first rodeo with the disease: her eldest daughter had early-stage ovarian cancer, and she is well now. Her youngest daughter had a scare during pregnancy, but it turned out fine.

Buie, executive assistant in Governmental and Corporate Affairs at Alabama Power in Birmingham, immediately started planning how to handle her treatments and scheduling visits.

“I wanted to do what I needed to do and to get on with my life,” she said. Buie had a lumpectomy, then underwent radiation. When it came time for chemotherapy, she was unable to take the treatment until she had healed from the radiation and surgery.

“You get your mind prepared,” said Buie, who is methodical in planning. “My heart sunk, and I was angry. I was ready to get it over with.”

Gloria Buie talks about beating breast cancer and carrying on the fight for others from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Choosing not to “waddle in despair,” she instead pored over the internet for articles about the pros and cons of the myriad options for breast cancer treatments. She eventually knew what to expect.

“At the end of this process, I told myself I’m going to be better, I’m gonna be stronger, I’m gonna be healed.

“It was God’s intervention. The chemo was ruthless,” said Buie, who took eight rounds, the equivalent of five months of treatment. She took one drug once a week for the rest of the year. Afterward, she took a maintenance medicine, Femara, in an oral pill, for five years.

The women in her family later underwent testing for the BRCA gene, which indicates that a woman has a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Fortunately, the test results were negative.

Throughout it all, Buie never lost faith that she’d make it through. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the disease, she noted.

“Everyone’s journey is different,” she said. “The ladies I’ve known that have gone through it, we’re all individuals. My whole goal was to get through the process. You’ve gotta listen to your body, listen to your doctors.”

Coming out on the other side

Last year, Buie gave a talk about her experiences during a breast cancer research fundraiser at the Harbert Center in Birmingham. Afterward, a young woman in the audience, in treatment at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, came to Buie for advice. Buie was kind, but brutally honest.

“In order to survive this, you’ve got to go through this process. Do what you need to do,” Buie advised. “And know, deep down, that you’re gonna get better. That is what you must tell yourself.”

Now, whenever a woman asks Buie about what to do, she gives the same talk.

“Dig deep,” Buie said. “It’s about coming through this disease and winning. I know God wants me to have an abundant life. Just get through the process.”

Buie is thankful to her family and many female friends who supported her during her illness. To help others, she wants to have a voice and to be an advocate for people with breast cancer. Buie volunteers with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, finding donations to help with research. Her cars sport pink specialty license tags that support the Joy to Life Foundation. For every pink tag, which can be personalized, $50 goes to fight breast cancer.

“If one woman sees the tag, it’s worth every bit of it,” Buie said. “My whole reason is to remind women to take care of your body, be in tune with how you’re feeling. Whatever I can do to raise awareness, I will do, whether it’s public speaking or buying a car tag. Anything to raise awareness, I’m all about it.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Alabama Power volunteer firefighters strive to save lives, homes in communities

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

It’s all in a day’s work – and then some – for Alabama Power employees who put their lives on the line as volunteer firefighters.

The calls run the gamut, from fighting fires at homes and businesses to fielding medical emergencies that range from saving choking victims and rescuing people in car wrecks to giving life-saving glucose injections. Volunteers perform CPR and respond to fires, drownings and other crises. Many company employees don firefighter helmets after they leave their full-time jobs for the day.

That’s the case with Ann Marie Smith, a Plant Miller chemical technician who has volunteered at McCollum-Midway Volunteer Fire and Rescue in Jasper for three years. Smith talked with Chief David Blanton, a materials coordinator at Alabama Power’s Fayette Crew Headquarters, about joining his 20-member volunteer team.


Smith answers medical calls about people who have stopped breathing or who have chest pain, drownings and chokings, as well as fires. As a member of Miller’s Medical Response Team, Smith has honed her keen abilities for handling emergencies.

“We often do whatever we can before an ambulance arrives, basic life-saving measures such as CPR, taking vital signs for blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen levels and other basic conditions,” said Smith, who is studying for dual master’s degrees in public health and business administration at UAB.

She and fellow firefighters ensure everyone wears personal protective equipment, such as heat-resistant clothing, air packs and gloves.

Early this year, Smith was the first responder at a car wreck in Walker County. She ran down a steep ditch to rescue an older motorist, whose car was laying on its side.

“I was pretty much sitting on top of the car to pull this man out of his car,” said Smith, who has used metal cutters and spreaders to remove trapped passengers. “The windows would not roll down. We busted out the front door passenger window and used a windshield saw to get him out of the car.”

The team carefully removed the man, who occasionally cried out in pain.

“He was conscious, so he told us what hurt,” she said. “We put him on a backboard. You’ve got to try to protect the neck and back, in case someone has an injury. He was in critical condition and had pre-existing medical conditions.”

Smith and the team took the man to a large, open space in a nearby church parking lot. They quickly set up lights for a medivac helicopter to land. Because they didn’t know the victim, there was no way to learn about his progress.

“Sometimes people will come by and thank us,” Smith said. “It’s a good feeling to know you helped someone, whether it was calming them down while their house was burning or rescuing them from a mangled car. It’s great being able to keep your community safe and keep yourself safe while doing it. We want to do everything we can to see the community continue to flourish.”

Other Plant Miller volunteer firefighters include Assistant Plant Control Operator Andy Marbutt for Bear Creek Fire Department and Safety Specialist Brandon Williams for Crane Hill Communities Volunteer Fire and EMS in Cullman County. Gaston Plant Auxiliary Reid Ezekiel, Mechanic Brent Hughes, Materialman Ricky Morris and Compliance Specialist Philip Willis serve, as well as Henry Hydro Journeyman Daniel Morrison.

Company volunteers include Field Service Representative (FSR) Wayne Flowers; Montgomery Crew Lineman Adam Brasher; Dadeville Apprentice Lineman Paul Chayka; Selma Distribution Specialist Allen Kendrick; and Montgomery Office FSR Kyle Lawrence.

Saving lives and families, in more ways than one

Shanon Graham was 16 and attending Glencoe High School when he became a junior fireman for Glencoe Fire Department. Two years later, Graham took the exam to be a professional firefighter, but instead went to work at Alabama Power, where he is a master technician for the Utility Fleet at Anniston Crew Headquarters. It’s not unusual for Graham to spend weekends and after-work hours fighting fires.

For example, instead of relaxing at home one Saturday night, he took a 10:30 p.m. call to extinguish a vehicle fire: a car had burst into flames on Old Highway 431 in Glencoe.

“We run so many fires and wrecks. We do about 900 calls a year, with medical and fire,” said Graham, a fire lieutenant for 20 years. “I attend to quite a few calls each month. Whenever I’m available and not at the power company, I try to help. It’s a full-time job.”

Graham is a certified 160 firefighter, which signifies he completed 160 hours of training through the Alabama Fire College and Personnel Standards Commission in less than 24 months.

“I do medical calls, too,” said Graham, who earned a medic license in 2000. “If someone calls in with a heart attack, I go. I’m a first responder now. We do a lot of extraction of vehicles and help mentor the younger guys, instructing them on what to do to avoid getting hurt. We’ve got to be as safe as possible all the time, just like we do at Alabama Power.”

Graham’s 24 years volunteering with Glencoe Fire Department goes beyond lifesaving. He helps organize and takes part in the department’s annual Christmas for Kids program to benefit Etowah County children. Teaming up with his wife, Kristie, Graham raises as much as $12,000 a year through cooking events. He spends about 25 Saturdays a year traveling the Southeast to competitions.

“Kristie and I compete in barbecue and steak competitions,” Graham said. In May, the couple raised $3,500 in a steak cook-off at Glencoe City Park to fund Christmas for Kids.

“Just being able to help my community means a lot to me,” Graham said. “Everybody should be involved somehow, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Helping others is family affair

Firefighting is a family affair for Phillip Moman, Information Technology manager at Farley Nuclear Plant in Dothan. Moman recalls asking his then-4-year-old son about joining the Ashford Volunteer Fire Department.

“Gaither said, ‘That would be fun, daddy,’” Moman said, chuckling in remembrance. “That’s how I got started. It was a blast then, and I still enjoy it.”

Moman and one of his best friends, Plant Farley Refueling Manager Mark Kelley, joined the Ashford Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) the same day, and are senior captains. Farley Emergency Preparedness Specialist John Perkins serves alongside Moman and Kelley in the Ashford Fire Department while Instrumentation and Controls Mechanic Jonathan Nall is assistant chief in the Cowarts Volunteer Fire Department.

Throughout the years, Moman and the Ashford VFD have worked hundreds of car wrecks, which spurred him to obtain an emergency medical technician (EMT) license in 1996. He now averages 20 to 25 hours a month training and responding to incidents.

“Going to wrecks and handling other situations, you want to know how to help people,” said Moman, who spent 13 years in the EMT role. “It went a long way, because I was there to treat people in all kinds of emergencies. You never know when you’ll need that knowledge. You train enough to where things become second nature.”

Moman and his fellow firefighters average eight hours a month in training and help instruct younger firefighters.  Ashford’s 25-member team meets every other week to train on apparatus operation, hazardous materials, extraction and other fire-related emergencies.

“Training is one of the most important aspects of the fire service. For instance, you never know how a person is going to react with lights and sirens blaring,” Moman said.

While some months are busier than others, Moman said seasonal fires aren’t unexpected.

“If it’s real dry, we’ll have a lot of grass fires,” he said. “The first cold spells of the winter bring more house fires from overloaded extension cords and portable heaters.”

After serving more than 20 years, Moman is proud that his sons followed in his footsteps. Gaither Moman, 28, volunteers at Pike Road Fire Department in Montgomery County, and Parker Moman, 24, serves at Ashford with his dad.

“It’s a good feeling to see their willingness to help others,” Moman said.

Father’s service inspires son to help fire departments

Fighting fires is nothing new to Trae Caton. The longtime volunteer has served the Clanton Fire Department, helps the Chilton County Emergency Management Agency and was the assistant chief at Cedar Grove Fire Department. Caton was inspired by his father, who volunteered at the Clanton Fire Department.

“To serve as a member of Clanton Fire Department, you must be a state licensed EMT and certified as a firefighter through Alabama Fire College,” said Caton, regulatory compliance analyst for Fleet Services. “I followed in my dad’s footsteps for more than 10 years.”

Caton will never forget New Year’s Day 2018, when a fuel tanker crashed and overturned on Interstate 65.

“The trucker fell asleep and crashed in the median,” he said. “Developing a plan to mitigate that situation and call in the proper resources was hairy.”

Caton called for assistance from multiple Chilton County fire departments, along with Calera and Clanton fire departments. He coordinated with hazardous materials teams to attend during removal of 8,000 gallons of gasoline. The fuel had to be pumped out so the truck could be towed.

“That was the scariest part,” said Caton, who supervised with a wary eye remembering when he’d witnessed a tanker explode following a similar crash.

“There were more than 50 people on the scene, and their safety was my responsibility. We were there more than 10 hours. The tanker remained intact and we didn’t have any spillage.”

“As time goes on, the more I realize how fortunate I am to work for Alabama Power Company, which gives me the ability to do something I love,” Caton said. “I plan to do it for as long as time allows.”

Braun’s early dreams came true

At 3 or 4 years old, Jimmie Braun took his first ride in a firetruck in Kansas City, Missouri. That trip “sealed the deal” for Braun, birthing his lifelong love of firefighting.

“They came to our school, and I got my first ride in that big old truck, seeing it and hearing the sirens,” said the Logan Martin Hydro journeyman. “I wanted to be a fireman when I was a little kid.”

Braun, a member of Alabama Power’s Emergency Response Team since 2014, is certified to use an automated external defibrillator and perform CPR.

“We go to training once a year at work and have once-a-month intensive training,” he said.

Braun helped save the life of another employee in 2015. While working at Plant Gaston in Wilsonville, Braun and four other employees performed CPR on a heart attack victim.

“We took turns doing CPR,” Braun said. “After 10 or 15 minutes, you’re plumb worn out. You don’t really have any concept of how time passes.”

Another time, a Gaston employee had a seizure and Braun provided first aid until paramedics arrived.

Braun has worked at Oakman Volunteer Fire Department and Shelby County Fire Department.

“My job is to keep you alive long enough for paramedics to get there,” he said.

“I go to wreck calls all the time and have to extricate people. We’ve had to use the Jaws of Life to remove people from cars 10 or 15 times. That’s actually cutting cars up on the side of the road.”

After training with Alabama Power’s Emergency Response and Confined Space Rescue teams – combined with specialized training from the fire departments – Braun can handle most emergencies.

“I’m fairly confident I can take care of my family, at least long enough to get them to the hospital,” said Braun, who has a 22-year-old son. “I’m very big on fire prevention. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher in your house, you need to get out, because you’ll be amazed at how quickly a house can go up in flames.”

Having seen firsthand the devastating effects of a house fire, Braun’s mission is to prevent the loss of lives, families and homes in his community.

“It’s a lot of fun getting out there, pulling hoses off the truck and spraying the water,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy your job to do it well. I don’t do it for fun or recognition.

“God has you do stuff for a reason,” Braun said. “God knows what’s going on, and he knows you need to be in this spot at this time.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

¡HICA! and Fiesta serve Alabama Latino community, offering free COVID testing, authentic cultural experience


In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, ¡HICA! and Fiesta are providing a lifeline to Alabama’s Latino community.

Though it is difficult working through a major health crisis, staff of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama – ¡HICA! – have worked from home since March to serve their community. ¡HICA! champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for the state’s Latino and immigrant families. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, ¡HICA! is providing free COVID-19 tests and emphasizing educational efforts to increase Latino’s health, safety and economic well-being.


José Gutiérrez is thankful for the many services offered by ¡HICA!, particularly the convenient access to coronavirus testing. While he wears a mask in public and remains healthy, the Blount County resident finds peace of mind knowing he can receive a free test, as costs usually range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the area. Gutiérrez’s first cousin in Dallas, Texas, died in June after a monthlong hospitalization with the novel coronavirus. A few weeks later, his uncle in Houston, Texas, died from the illness. Gutiérrez is mindful about the need to take precautions.

A highly skilled construction worker, since March Gutiérrez has declined lucrative out-of-state remodeling jobs to avoid contracting COVID-19. He said that he cannot afford to bring home the coronavirus to his wife and son.

“The pandemic hit communities of color the worst,” said Isabel Rubio, executive director of ¡HICA! for nearly 20 years. “COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities in our society, hitting the Latino community very hard. The pandemic has had such a severe impact, it’s been mind-boggling. Thank goodness for the generosity of the community at large.”

¡HICA! has partnered with three community health groups to provide free COVID-19 tests in nine Alabama counties. In July, 143 residents received free testing, while more than 40 people were tested in June at Cahaba Medical Care in Birmingham and another group received free testing Sept. 11. Rubio noted that ¡HICA!’s long-term mission is to improve the access and affordability of healthcare for the Hispanic population.

“The big story is trying to provide healthcare for people who don’t have health insurance,” Rubio said. “We’re joining with other entities in thinking about how to make solutions for the Latino community. We either all succeed, or we all fail. We are determined to succeed.”

Supporting families with children is another important way that ¡HICA! works to build community.

“We’ve done online housing education workshops and had incredible attendance,” with numerous clients taking part in zoom meetings,” Rubio said. “Even in the pandemic, we’ve helped people purchase new homes. We’ve helped people make sure their kids are connected for remote learning. One of our staff has helped individuals install programs on their computer.”

In April, several staff provided drive-through assistance with income taxes.

“If it takes us helping one person at a time, we do it,” Rubio said.

¡HICA! delivered more help to underserved Latinos in April and May. Staff handed out more than 500 boxes of food donated by the United Way of Central Alabama. Underserved families picked up the food at ¡HICA!’s Birmingham headquarters.

Fiesta 2020 accents culture, safety and education

Because of the ongoing pandemic, Fiesta Birmingham on Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 will host a virtual “30 days of Fiesta” program. For nearly 20 years, the celebration was held in Linn Park in Birmingham. This year’s celebration promises daily, impactful service with numerous entertainment and/or educational opportunities through online events, said Fiesta Birmingham President Teresa Zuñiga-Odom.

“Live cooking and mixology demonstrations, seminars on health and financial wellness, a Latin film series, and family arts and crafts projects featuring Hispanic artists are just a few of the activities we have in store,” said Zuñiga-Odom, who has helped organize Fiesta since its 2002 inception.

Each day has a theme. “Wellness Mondays” features services and resources to stay healthy and safe; “Taco Tuesday and Titos” offers cooking and cocktail demonstrations; “Cultural Wednesdays” showcases the people, culture, history and traditions of Latin American countries; “Throwback Thursdays” treats viewers to 18 years of Fiesta photos; and Financial Fridays” provides insights from Wells Fargo on how to build credit and savings. On the weekend, “Celebration Saturdays” presented by Alabama Power includes Facebook Live showings with the best of Latin art, food, movies, music and dance. “Family Sundays” offers the chance to gather and observe the importance of family and community.

Zuñiga-Odom noted that Alabama Power will sponsor educational safety through its fun safety program for kids, Saf-T-Opolis.

“Alabama Power has been a presenting sponsor of Fiesta since the celebration began nearly 20 years ago,” said Zuñiga-Odom. “The company has always had a huge presence at the event, with many members of the Alabama Power Service Organization helping smooth the way. Obviously, we won’t have volunteers this year, but we are so thankful for the continued help from companies like Alabama Power which help make this event possible. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Since 2002, Fiesta has awarded more than $70,000 in scholarships to deserving Hispanic students, with that commitment continuing with this year’s “Fiesta in a Box.” For $18, families can buy a beautifully decorated keepsake box with all the goodies to revel in Fiesta at home. Proceeds will fund Fiesta’s 2021 scholarships. On Saturday, Sept. 19 at 10 a.m., viewers may watch the unveiling of the colorful, Hispanic-themed box. The lucky holders of a box containing golden maracas or golden piñatas will win a deluxe prize.

Hearkening to the success of years past, Rubio said the virtual Fiesta is a great way to highlight the Latino culture.

“We will miss the opportunity to connect with others and share our culture through the live Fiesta gathering, but we all recognize the importance of safeguarding families,” Rubio said. “Our goal is to empower Hispanic and immigrant families to integrate, engage and lead their communities to reach their families’ aspirations.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Meet Natalie Mills, chosen by Auburn University as 2020 Outstanding Young Engineer

(Natalie Mills/Contributed)

In college, Natalie Mills enjoyed the best of both worlds: math and science were her passion, and performing arts was her dream.

Since graduating from Auburn University with a civil engineering degree, that combination of skills has allowed Mills to shine. She was recently named Outstanding Young Auburn Engineer for 2020 by her alma mater.

“I started out as a theater major at New York University,” said Mills, a Regulatory Support analyst for Alabama Power in Birmingham. “But after a year, I discovered how much I missed math and science. It was a big part of my life, and I missed it. The arts were always my outlet, but I ended up transferring to Auburn University to do what I really love, which is math.”


Because of the pandemic, Mills will be honored by the Auburn Alumni Engineering Council in a virtual program Sept. 25.

Scaling the heights of exciting engineering career

Mills’ college career was unusual in that she majored in engineering and minored in dance. Since receiving her engineering degree, Mills has put her math and presentation skills to good use.

“I was very fortunate to get a job at Southern Company after graduating from Auburn and moved to Birmingham having only visited the city once,” said Mills, who later earned a master’s degree in global energy management from the University of Colorado Business School.

In June 2010, Mills joined Earth Sciences and Environmental Engineering at Southern Company Services as a geotechnical engineer, learning about soil investigations and foundation design.

During that time, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out proposed regulations for coal combustion residuals. Mills was involved in developing the company’s potential coal combustion residual (CCR) compliance strategy. The work led to Mills’ role as an environmental assessment engineer in SCS Environmental Affairs, where she provided the policy assessment of EPA’s suite of greenhouse gas regulations – the Clean Power Plan – for each of Southern Company’s operating companies.

After two years, Mills moved to SCS System Planning, where she performed asset valuations. Nine months later, she transitioned to the fuel forecasting and scenario planning group, a role in which her fine-tuned presentation skills came into play. In both roles in System Planning, Mills made recommendations using her knowledge of engineering, economics and environmental regulations.

In 2019, Mills moved to Regulatory Policy as a key member of Alabama Power’s team that worked on the recent filing of a certificate for new power generation, which achieved approval from the Alabama Public Service Commission.

“Approximately 2,000 megawatts of new generation was approved, including Barry Unit 8,” Mills said about the project that took more than a year to complete. “This effort was unprecedented. Our goal is to ensure we continue to provide reliable and affordable energy to our customers. It’s definitely been the greatest experience of my career to have been a part of this team.”

Sharing love of math with young women and girls

Throughout her career, Mills has won accolades for her achievements and community service.

While moving into roles of increased responsibilities at work, Mills became a leader with Alabama Power’s iCan Girls in Engineering program, helping girls discover the world of engineering. Mills is co-chair of the executive committee of 100+ Women Strong, which recruits, retains and rewards females in Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

“One of my passions is encouraging and inspiring young girls to consider a career in engineering,” said Mills, who was among the 2017 New Faces of Civil Engineering-Professional of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “My grandfather was the only engineer I knew while I was growing up. That’s why I love the opportunity to expose more females to engineering, to let them know it can be a great career path for them.”

Empowering others and acting as a positive force for change has always been among Mills’ goals, whether as a United Way loaned executive or volunteer with the Junior League of Birmingham. Mills is on the Committee of 25 junior board of Girls Inc. of Central Alabama, where she’s tutored girls throughout the community. For two years, Mills helped plan the nonprofit’s annual Cajun Cook-off fundraiser. Their April cook-off was postponed because of the pandemic but will continue in 2021.

“I love Girls Inc. because it plays directly into exposing young girls to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career,” said Mills, a board member for three years. “I really believe in Girls Inc. programs because they provide a positive environment for girls. It makes our communities better and stronger when we can inspire girls to grow up to be hardworking and to live their dreams.”

Because of her 13-month-old daughter, Maclaine, the mission of Girls Inc. has become even more meaningful to Mills.

“It’s really opened my eyes,” she said. “I tell my daughter every day, ‘You can grow up to be strong, smart and bold.’ That’s Girls Inc.’s mission for every girl, to reach for their dreams.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

11 months ago

Breast cancer research is the target for Alabama Bow-Up archery event


Hitting the bull’s-eye is never so satisfying as when the arrow’s aim is to defeat breast cancer.

So said Beth Bradner of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA). On Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 22-23, about 200 archers will compete in the Bow-Up Against Breast Cancer Tournament at Cullman Community Archery Park.


“We have lots of breast cancer survivors who come out to support this event each year,” said Bradner, BCRFA executive director.

Archers will converge at the park to compete in BCRFA’s ninth annual fundraiser. Since 2012, the tournament has earned more than $182,000 to fight breast cancer, the disease that affects one in every eight women and one in 1,000 men.

This year’s event allows archers to compete while maintaining social distancing. Archers can compete from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the contest continuing until dusk.

“This is the first event we’ve held since COVID-19 hit,” Bradner said. “The great thing is that we can have a family or group compete together at Hole 1 without having other people converge at the same area. This is a wonderful family activity.”

Numerous 3D animal targets are set for adults and youngsters at 15 to 50 yards and 5 to 20 yards, respectively.

On Aug. 14, the BCRFA gave an initial gift of $160,000 to UAB’s O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center to fund two grants for breast cancer research projects during 2020-2021. The foundation’s support of the research projects will total $320,000 over the next two years, with some funds earned during BCRFA’s two-day tournament earmarked for research at UAB.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 months ago

Obex Health creates tailor-made face masks to keep people safe from COVID-19

(Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

Wearing a face mask to protect your health – and others – is the new normal. The problem is finding a mask that fits to a “T.”

Obex Health CEO Forrest Satterfield and Dr. Kanti Sunkavalli may have solved that problem. Obex creates custom-made, digitally fitted masks that meld to every “nook and cranny” of one’s face. The secret is a unique crafting process that conforms to facial contours.

Since May, Obex has sold hundreds of masks, with most going to health care providers nationwide. The company has given several medical providers and nonprofits a discount, with a recent shipment going to a California nonprofit.


“Once a year, medical providers must be checked to make sure they’re wearing the correct mask for their face,” said Sunkavalli, a physician turned entrepreneur.

With the pandemic spreading in March, an ill-fitting face mask was one more thing for Dr. Jennifer Hess to worry about. The ER physician quickly added the Obex mask to her personal arsenal for protecting herself and preventing transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“The struggle is when PPE supplies aren’t always available,” said Hess, who graduated from UAB Medical School in 2001 and was an ER physician at UAB Hospital from 2018 to June 2020. “COVID-19 is one of those viruses that is hard to contain unless you wear a mask. We know that consistently wearing masks keeps emergency providers from getting infected. With my Obex mask, I can be confident I’ve got my own PPE. This will help keep me safe and not spread the virus.

“When I’m using it, I can throw it in my bag, and it doesn’t get squished,” said Hess, who will soon begin working in the Emergency Department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “I put the mask in a Ziploc® bag and it holds its shape. Vanderbilt currently has adequate PPE but is flexible in allowing providers to secure personalized PPE as well.”

The Obex mask is highly protective, the CEO said.

“The big difference in our mask and others is that a cloth or fabric mask prevents only other people from being infected,” Satterfield said. “Ours prevents you from being infected and you from infecting others.”

Using innovation, high tech to fight coronavirus

Obex combines custom-molded silicone with high-tech 3D printing to make a “100% impermeable” mask.

The inventive design is the brainchild of Satterfield, who, at 25, is a rising star at the Birmingham “think tank” Innovation Depot. A biomedical engineer who makes custom 3D-printed knee and wrist braces, Satterfield went through dozens of material suppliers, custom processes and mask designs to reach the final product decisions with Sunkavalli. The comfortable, medical-grade protection is customizable for every business or customer preference, they said.

In March, Satterfield and Sunkavalli saw the need for PPE looming on the horizon. Sunkavalli recognized mask safety as an emergent need for the medical community and public. He and Satterfield talked with many doctors and nurses about the national shortage of face masks and the problems faced by those wearing them 8 to 12 hours a day.

Sunkavalli’s wife, Pallavi, is an ER physician and site medical director at Coosa Valley Medical Center in Sylacauga. “As a physician, it’s close to my heart to help out as much as possible, to keep everyone safe,” he said.

From a medical view, Satterfield saw that it made sense to stop transmission through face masks.

“The safety of ventilators was a big question mark in my mind,” said Satterfield, a University Innovation Fellow who earned a B.S. in biomedical engineering at UAB in 2018. “I’m a big believer in design thinking.

“Design thinking requires you to exist in an ambiguous state,” said Satterfield, who formed Satterfield Technologies in 2014. “I made no assumptions about what the solution should be or that I fully understood the problem we were solving. By interviewing people from different points of view – doctors, nurses, front-line workers – I created a solid definition for what problem we were solving and how our users needed us to solve it.”

Satterfield rapidly built prototypes of masks and got them into user’s hands, recorded feedback and made new masks based on comments. He repeated this until reaching a point where initial users were satisfied.

“What we immediately assume about health care is that the best, universal way to do something is already being used,” he said. “But there are lots of design problems in health care. A lot of times, people are focused on the solution rather than the problem.”

Birthing the Obex mask

Satterfield’s office at Innovation Depot already had 3D scanners and printers for making state-of-the-art braces. Those were used to help produce face masks with the tailor-made fit. Customers with an iPhone X or newer model can download the Bellus3D Face App from the App Store. They can select the “Face+Neck” option, then take a scan and unlock it for .99 cents. They can then export an HD version of the picture to Obex. Customers can schedule a 3D scan at the Obex Health Office at Innovation Depot, or an Obex employee can perform 3D scans for several people at a home or business for a small fee.

Obex makes masks in many colors and can add a corporate logo to the front cover. Each N95 filter lasts one week, which saves money. For those with a high-exposure risk needing more frequent filter replacements – health providers, teachers and customer-facing employees – Obex Health has a discounted subscription plan that automatically ships filters.

The high-grade silicone rim makes the mask easy to wear, Sunkavalli said. The mask clings to the face because it’s made for that person. There’s no bunching or gaps around the sides to allow entry of COVID-19, he said.

“The silicone we use is designed to be worn a very long time,” Sunkavalli said. “They’re also practical. You can disinfect them with soap and water every day. The filter only has to be replaced weekly.”

Finding a protective mask for children is a challenge, said Sunkavalli, whose kids are 7 and 9.

“With a custom mask, no matter how small or large the face – you always have a perfect fit,” Sunkavalli said.

The Obex mask is receiving positive feedback as demand grows for the product made with materials from America.

Creations whose time has come

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the need to protect one’s family – and self – is ever-present.

Hess said her Obex mask – in Vanderbilt University colors – provides a “unique opportunity to be prepared.”

“I don’t think that COVID-19 is going to go away anytime soon,” said Hess, who with her husband, Dr. Erik Hess, trained at and then practiced on faculty at the Mayo Clinic for 15 years. “Wearing a mask can go a long way toward keeping the people of Alabama from contracting this disease.”

For Satterfield, the desire to keep his community safe is personal. His parents – deemed high-risk for their ages and because his father has Parkinson’s disease – wear Obex masks.

His parents live in Huntsville, but, even though he wants to see them, he won’t go home, he said. “The risks are too high. It’s really difficult.”

In the meantime, Satterfield gives back by devoting his life to the mission of Obex, often working 14 hours or more each day.

This young entrepreneur is dreaming of more ways to protect the public by providing state-of-the-art face masks and braces.

“I’ve always had it in mind to be an entrepreneur,” Satterfield said. “In biomedical engineering, none of my ideas had been done yet. I see Obex as being a Johnson & Johnson health care-style company with many product lines.”

For details about how to order an Obex mask, email Satterfield.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)