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.

Alabama Poet Laureate Jennifer Horne has enjoyed being state’s ‘public face’ of poetry

(Jamie Martin/Governor's Office)

Alabama poet laureate is more than an honorific title. It’s not a lifetime achievement award, either. The poet laureate is poetry’s chief advocate and ambassador in the state.

Any Alabamian can nominate a candidate for poet laureate, as long as the candidate meets criteria set out in the nomination guidelines. The Alabama Writers’ Cooperative (AWC) president nominates a selection committee of prominent Alabama poets and literary arts advocates, representing not only the AWC but other influential literary organizations in the state.

The committee members consider nominees carefully and select one for AWC members to ratify at the annual meeting. The governor then officially confers the title on the chosen nominee in a ceremony in Montgomery.

Jennifer Horne is Alabama’s current poet laureate, selected in 2017. With her term coming to an end this year, the AWC is accepting nominations through Monday, March 15 for Alabama’s next poet laureate. To nominate someone, email


Horne recently shared some thoughts about poetry and her tenure as poet laureate:

What has it been like to be Alabama’s poet laureate?

Horne: I’ve enjoyed it so much, and I hope I’ve been able to be a good “public face” for poetry, encouraging awareness of poets and poetry events in our state, as well as awareness of our rich variety of writers in general. One thing I’ve especially appreciated about holding this position, and a good reason for a state to have a poet laureate, is that because I’m an “official” representative of poetry, people frequently share poems with me and ask me about poetry. Pre-pandemic, I was able to go to conferences, workshops, schools, community groups and libraries; in the past year, I’ve switched to an online presence, with a weekly poetry reading of an Alabama poet for Twitter and Facebook and several online readings and workshops. I’ve been pleased and impressed by the number of people in our state who like to write and read poetry, many of them in fields far removed from creative writing.

Tell us about your background.

Horne: I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved to Tuscaloosa in 1986 for the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. My mother was a poet and my father was a lawyer who cared about good writing and the precise use of words, so I come by my love of writing honestly.

How did you get this honor?

Horne: The Alabama Writers’ Cooperative puts out a call for nominations every four years, and I was fortunate that the writer Alina Stefanescu wanted to nominate me. She contacted me about it, and I was really honored that she had thought of me. We worked together to complete the nomination packet, and then the AWC poet laureate selection committee reviewed all the nominations and put me forward as their selection. The membership of the AWC voted me in at the annual meeting, and then the governor officially commissioned me in a ceremony at the state Capitol. That’s how the process works, but a different answer might be the same as the answer to that old joke ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.’ I have happily spent a lifetime writing poems, reading poetry, responding to others’ poems in workshops and in book reviews, introducing other poets at readings, speaking at conferences, teaching and encouraging young writers, and generally just trying to live a life in poetry. It all adds up, over time, and prepared me to do what I’ve been doing as poet laureate.

Do the schools in Alabama do enough for poetry?

Horne: I often encounter teachers who talk to me about what they do with poetry in their classrooms, and I know there are some wonderful programs – the Woodlawn Writers Corps, sponsored by DISCO in Birmingham comes to mind – that bring poetry into the schools. It would be great to have a statewide writing-in-the-schools program, and I know we have enough poets statewide to provide community support for that.

You’re stranded on an island forever. Name three poets you’d keep reading.

Horne: Let’s see … I’d need Mary Oliver to help me keep appreciating the beauty of every day, William Butler Yeats for the music, complexity and breadth of his work, and Emily Dickinson because I always mean to read more of her poetry, and I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it.

Do you have a favorite poem?

Horne: I have several go-to poems I’ve loved for a long time, but my favorite poem tends to change from year to year and by circumstance. This past year it was Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” which got me through the first six months of the pandemic. The poem opens with the seemingly paradoxical “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow,” which felt right for the dreamlike quality of the early months, and the line “I learn by going where I have to go” kept coming back to me again and again, because it seemed so true to feeling our way forward in this new situation. (Full poem at

What message do you have for the next Alabama poet laureate?

Horne: My best advice would be to have some general ideas of what you’d like to accomplish or focus on but stay open to invitations, projects and serendipitous occasions for poetry. Having a state poet laureate gives people a place to express their enthusiasm for poets and poetry, and sometimes all you are called upon to do is listen.

TJ Beitelman is president of the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative. Karim Shamsi-Basha is a frequent Alabama NewsCenter contributor and a member of the AWC. For more information about AWC, click here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Mission of Hope is an Alabama Bright Light in Walker County

(Mission of Hope/Contributed)

Mission of Hope in Walker County for nearly three decades has been reaching out to low-income families and others who need help. But in this pandemic-stricken world, the organization has introduced a new program.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have seen a lot of people furloughed or their jobs have went away,” said Lori Abercrombie, executive director of Mission of Hope. “We try to connect these families with job opportunities or training that might be a help. Sometimes we provide an education that would help them become productive citizens of the community.”

Mission of Hope assists clients with food and clothing, as well as job training, housing, budget planning and services that may require the help of another nonprofit.


“Mission of Hope has been around since 1992, and I have been with them for 15 years,” Abercrombie said. “I began as a volunteer and would bring my daughter to volunteer with me. I wanted my daughter to be a part of giving back to the community. Our entire family served as volunteers. It was one of the most rewarding things. Now we have over 100 volunteers from all over the community. Those volunteers have become my extended family at Mission of Hope.”

Abercrombie and her staff used to work in close contact with the people they helped. Since the pandemic, they’ve changed how they served the people of Walker County.

Mission of Hope is an Alabama Bright Light shining in Walker County from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“We had to take things outside. We do a drive-thru food giveaway and curbside clothing assistance. Also the way we communicate with our clients has changed. Now we do it with texting and email instead of one-to-one,” Abercrombie said. “We are still serving the people of Walker County, though.”

Another pandemic response was in automating messages to clients. Abercrombie received a grant from the Alabama Power Foundation to help with that expense.

“The Elevate grant has allowed us to upgrade our computer system. We installed a multimessage phone system to contact multiple clients at once,” Abercrombie said. “We also purchased iPads to take outside and key-in information when we serve our clients.”

Abercrombie has received Elevate grants from the Alabama Power Foundation twice before to help with infrastructure needs at Mission of Hope. These grants and other support enabled Abercrombie and her staff to touch lives.

“There was a knock on the door a few weeks ago. When I opened, this woman handed me a bag of toys and said, ‘You helped our family and gave us toys when I was little. Now I am working and would like to give you these toys to give to other kids.’ I was so touched by that,” Abercrombie said. “Those toys in that bag meant so much to me, because she had gone through the Mission of Hope, and now she was helping others.”

Helping folks who visit Mission of Hope means the world to Abercrombie.

“It makes me so humbled, and it drives me to even reach out to more people and help,” she said.

For more information, visit Mission of Hope on Facebook, as well as at

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Tuscaloosa’s One Place is an Alabama Bright Light helping families


Amanda Lightsey believes in families.

“Our primary goal with families is to be successful and safe, and to prevent child abuse and neglect. We also promote self-sufficiency. We have programs for everyone in the family,” said Lightsey, executive director of Tuscaloosa’s One Place. “One is our after-school program, where they provide enrichment activities and a meal for the children. They also receive one-on-one mentoring from University of Alabama students.”

Lightsey has seen students’ grades improve and families coming together to take on different challenges. Specific programs are also available for adults.

“Under the Parent Project, we teach adults about self-development, parenting and how to deal with strong-willed teenagers. The youth come as well and learn problem-solving skills and stress management. We do in-home visitation so the family can stay together, and we also do supervised visitation,” Lightsey said.

Tuscaloosa’s One Place has a Fatherhood Program, where they work with noncustodial fathers to help them build relationships with their children. The Work Force Program helps those fathers with resume preparation and GED exams, as well as job searches.


Tuscaloosa’s One Place receives court referrals and works with people from other organizations and agencies. COVID-19 has affected how Tuscaloosa’s One Place staff serves clients.

“The needs are greater than they’ve ever been. Stress levels have gone up, and youth violence has gone up. We try to maintain our levels of service. We are doing a lot of Zoom meetings, and we’re still providing wonderful help for families and youth,” Lightsey said.

Enrollment has doubled through Zoom because any family can attend despite transportation barriers they might have had in the past.

Lightsey depends on funding from donors and foundations to accomplish the mission of Tuscaloosa’s One Place. The Alabama Power Foundation has been a long-time partner.

“We have been here for 21 years, and the Alabama Power Foundation has been there for most of those years,” she said. “We have received funding for many of our programs, and support for our fundraisers like the Tinsel Trail that we launch before Thanksgiving. We will have over 200 trees lit up and decorated. Alabama Power Foundation always supports us with that and other programs.”

The social justice movement sweeping across the country has affected Tuscaloosa’s One Place staff members and how they help people.

“The social justice movement has made us more aware. We want to be inclusive of everyone, and we need to reach all populations and all types of families,” Lightsey said. “When we meet with families, we first talk about COVID-19, then we talk about social justice. They are experiencing the movement firsthand.”

On a personal level, Lightsey has reveled in her service with Tuscaloosa’s One Place.

“I am very fortunate to be able to do what I do with Tuscaloosa’s One Place. When you find your purpose in life and be able to live it every day, that’s huge. Getting to see families celebrate their achievements means the world to me, and gives me the motivation to keep going,” Lightsey said. “Great things are possible for all families.”

For more information, please visit,

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club is an Alabama Bright Light shining the way for youths

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

The A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club has a long history of serving youths in the Birmingham area, and its future is brighter than ever.

When philanthropist and businessman Gaston opened the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in Birmingham in 1967, his mission was to empower the young people in the community and give them a place where they can be mentored and challenged to be productive citizens.

That vision has proved solid and true. Today, the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club has taught thousands of children that important message.


“If you look at how kids develop today, it’s all based around technology,” CEO Frank Adams Jr. said. “Technology has been a huge tool in getting kids to understand that the world is much larger than they thought in the past.”

A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club nurtures generations of Birmingham youth from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The club will soon enjoy a new building next to the Birmingham CrossPlex in the Five Points West neighborhood. The new space is modern, with the latest technology and facilities for fun and learning.

“We have operated out of our old clubhouse since the ‘90s. While that was a wonderful opportunity in the Birmingham area, a few years ago we began discussions with our board about moving into a new space,” Adams said. “We were thinking big about what we could do for this community.”

The new location puts A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club in the center of an active neighborhood.

“Five Points West has always been a vibrant part of Birmingham’s social scene and it’s also an area where young people and their families like to work and play,” Adams said. “This area is perfect for our club. We wanted a ‘village center’ concept.”

The children pay $8 a year to participate in the many programs the club offers, while the actual cost per child is nearly $1,000 per year. The club and its staff enrich the lives of the young ones in health and nutrition, character and leadership, education, art, music, sports and recreation.

Adams is proof of the program’s impact. He attended the club when he was young.

“I know personally what this club means to the children we serve. I was a club kid myself,” he said. “Everything we’re doing now is centered around providing that same mentorship I received. We see every day the transformation that kids have when you challenge and empower them. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than getting to experience this every day.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Pastor Ed Hurley is an Alabama Bright Light leading interfaith Thanksgiving service

South Highlands Presbyterian Church's Pastor Ed Hurley enjoys gathering people of different denominations and faiths to give thanks together for their blessings. (Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

If Thanksgiving is a time of love, charity and removing what separates us, then South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham is living out that theme.

The Birmingham faith community came together Nov. 26 for a Community Thanksgiving Service at the church. The service included faith leaders from Jewish Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El, as well as 12 other churches of different denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Universalist, Episcopal, Catholic and Community of Christ.

Senior Pastor Ed Hurley of South Highland Presbyterian led the service, which was sponsored by the Southside Faith Community.

“We do this to give thanks,” Hurley said. “As people of different faiths, we are all thankful to God and to the privileges we have in this nation. Many people do not enjoy the blessings we have.”


An offering taken up during the service benefited One Roof Ministries.

The service featured the different faith leaders and the Community Chancel Choir, which began the service with “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Hurley has been at South Highland for 19 years, after a journey through a few Southern churches.

“The first Thanksgiving after 9/11, this service began and it was the perfect service for that troubled time,” Hurley said. “It brought people together, so we continued doing it year after year. We are a nation of many different faiths but certain things, such as Thanksgiving, can bring us together.”

For Hurley, the Community Thanksgiving Service is the perfect way to be thankful for all of the blessings people enjoy. The message of the service hits on a deep level with him.

“When I see all of these different faiths coming together, I sense the innate unity that brings people of different faiths closer,” he said. “I believe we all bring different strengths, and to see that compiled around a time like Thanksgiving brings me so much joy.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Sherry Webb is an Alabama Bright Light at First Light Women’s Shelter

Sherry Webb, director of Social Services at First Light Women's Shelter in Birmingham

n 1983, in the basement of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham, a group of humanitarians began to take in homeless women and children.

Now two blocks away, First Light Women’s Shelter offers emergency shelter for homeless women and families 24 hours a day. It also offers individualized case management, group sessions, life skills, movie and art therapy, and four permanent and one transitional housing programs.

But the offering that most delights Sherry Webb, director of Social Services, is this: First Light is a place of acceptance where guests can regain dignity, find hope and practice independence.

“First Light’s mission is to provide shelter to homeless women living with children,” Webb said. “We are unique because it is the only 24-hour emergency shelter in the city that takes in women and children any time of the day or night.”


First Light takes in families that can have boys up to age 18, which makes it different from other shelters. The staff at First Light works hard to keep families together, regardless of what they’re going through.

“We see families from all walks of life. We see families who are fleeing domestic violence. We’ve seen families who’ve gotten evicted or had a family member pass away,” Webb said. “One thing that is unique about First Light is that everyone who walks in the door sees a social worker. They also receive any medical services that may be needed.”

First Light provides programs such as Forever HomesProject Healthy Minds, Bible studies, meals and social services. The stay can be a day, a week or months. The average stay is about 45 days.

“We have so many great success stories of people whose lives were turned around,” Webb said. “Everyone that comes here is in some sort of crisis situation. We had a mother from Georgia with her three children, two of which were teenagers. We were able to move them into another family program where she ended up getting a nursing degree and even wound up purchasing a home. Those are our biggest success stories. When we see someone come off the streets and end up in a home, that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Webb, who has worked at First Light since 2001, has seen many families come in one shape and leave in another. It never gets old.

“One thing that makes my heart smile is to see a woman who walks in the shelter and works with our social workers to get them to a place where they are functioning in society,” she said. “To see them go from being unstable to someone living their best life, that’s what makes my heart smile.”

For more information, visit

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

2 years ago

United Way of Central Alabama kicks off fall campaign

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

In a world where superheroes dominate pop culture, it’s good to be reminded that real, everyday heroes are making a difference in our communities.

That’s one reason United Way of Central Alabama has chosen “Be an everyday hero” as the theme for this year’s fall fundraising campaign.


The organization has set this year’s goal at $36.5 million, which will help support more than 100 agencies throughout the region. They range from the A.G Gaston Boys & Girls Club to Alabama Goodwill Industries, from the American Cancer Society to the American Red Cross. Other agencies supported by United Way of Central Alabama include the Birmingham Jewish FederationChildren’s of AlabamaGirl Scouts of North Central Alabama, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, and the volunteer support organization Hands On Birmingham.

“To raise this amount of money is truly a community effort,” said Drew Langloh, president and CEO of United Way of Central Alabama. “It’s everybody in the community coming in together, saying, ‘I want to help my neighbor, I want to help people less fortunate than myself.’”

Langloh has worked his entire 32-year career with the United Way of Central Alabama.

“I am a social worker, and to have the opportunity to work with individuals and corporations throughout our community and find better ways to change lives and help our community is a social worker’s dream come true,” Langloh said.

United Way of Central Alabama has been a part of the community since 1923. This year, Charity Navigator awarded the organization with its the highest rating, four stars, for the 17th consecutive year. The award acknowledges strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.

“When people give to the United Way, they are helping with the fight for better health, better education, and greater financial stability,” Langloh said.

The need is real:

  • One in six people in Alabama struggles with hunger, and 24% of those are children.
  • Only 21.4% of four-year-olds in Central Alabama have access to the state’s highly recognized First Class Pre-K program.
  • An estimated 15.6% of the population live in poverty in Central Alabama.

But so are the positive results supported through last year’s campaign:

  • Nearly 93,000 people received services from United Way partner agencies and programs.
  • More than 387,800 meals were served to seniors and those with disabilities through Meals on Wheels and the Senior Nutrition Program.
  • A total of 1,126 children received meals daily through the Summer Feeding Program, and seven new feeding sites assisted with food distribution.
  • More than 2,420 seniors received Medicare counseling through United Way’s Area Agency on Aging.
  • More than 13,900 children received literacy support in kindergarten through third grade from United Way partner agency programs.
  • Nearly 7,000 people received job training from United Way partner agency programs.
  • There were 30 financial workshops conducted, reaching 300 individuals.
  • Priority Veteran, a program specifically created to help homeless veterans find stable housing, assisted 555 veterans.
  • There were 39,200 calls received through the United Way of Central Alabama’s 24-hour call-in and referral center.
  • Nearly 6,400 seniors called the United Way Area Agency on Aging of Jefferson County to connect to senior services.

Learn more about United Way of Central Alabama and this year’s campaign by visiting
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Jerusalem’s biggest Bama fan is ready for some Alabama Crimson Tide football

Hani Imam's Alabama: The Heart of Dixie store in Jerusalem attracts Tide fans and those curious about the shop's connection to the Crimson Tide. Many items marry local items with the his beloved football team and school. (contributed)

While it can be hard to claim absolutes, it’s a safe bet that Hani Imam is the biggest Alabama Crimson Tide fan on his street. In his neighborhood. In his city. In his country.

It’s a claim that would be hard to make in a place like Tuscaloosa, Birmingham or pretty much any Alabama or Southern city. It would even be debatable in many U.S. cities.

But Imam lives in Jerusalem, Israel. His shop is a destination for those Tide fans making a Holy Land pilgrimage. Everyone from talk show host Conan O’Brien to Alabama U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne have documented their visits to the shop.


“My store is my biggest statement as an Alabama fan,” Imam said. “I love it when Americans walk in my store with their mouth open. I just laugh and yell, ‘Roll Tide,’ and they laugh and scream and holler.”

RELATED: Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide found on the streets of Jerusalem

Hani Imam owns a store in the dark and covered alleys of heart of Jerusalem. In the store, Alabama, The Heart of Dixie, you won’t find what most shops sell, from Red Sea stones to frankincense to stars of David to wooden rosaries to Jewish prayer shawls to bottles of holy water.

What you will find is all kinds of Alabama merchandise such as footballs, photographs, plates, shirts, art of football players, signed items, souvenirs and memorabilia with the Alabama logo front and center.

When I called Imam from Birmingham, it was midnight is Israel. He was still excited to wake up and talk about the Crimson Tide and his shop. When asked about Alabama’s loss in the national championship game last season, Imam’s voice dropped a couple of notches.

“We just did not show up last year against Clemson,” he shrugged. “I wouldn’t have been as upset had we played a good game, you know, a close game where the players played to the wire. They just didn’t, and that was very upsetting. That game was a disaster.”

Alabama lost to Clemson 44-16. Imam believes the team has learned from the loss.

“We are ready this year,” he said. “We learned from what happened, and the new coaching staff is very strong. We will win the national championship this year. We have a tough schedule, but we will win for sure. We have seven new assistant coaches; we will show up this year.”

RELATED: Jerusalem’s biggest Crimson Tide fan ready for Alabama football season

The new assistant coaches include Steve Sarkisian, who rejoined the staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Pete Golding who was promoted to defensive coordinator after being linebackers coach last year. Charles Kelly was named associate defensive coordinator and safeties coach, and Brian Baker is be defensive line coach and associate head coach. Sal Sunseri coaches the linebackers, Kyle Flood coaches the offensive line, and Holmon Wiggins coaches the wide receivers.

“This might be the strongest coaching staff we have ever had on the team,” Imam said. “When you combine that with what happened last year, what I mean is what the players learned, to show up for the game, we are winning the national championship for sure. Here is another reason why I think Alabama will win this year: The players have the heart for the win.”

Hani Imam was born in the West Bank and lived in Israel most of his life, but attended the University of Alabama from 1985 to 1989. He majored in Business Administration and became a huge Alabama fan. He loves showing his loyalty at his store.

“All the locals want to know why I am such a big fan,” he said. “I tell them Alabama has the greatest football team ever. Then they ask me what ‘Roll Tide’ means, and I say it means the same thing, the greatest football team ever. My favorite part, and what I have loved for years, is when an Alabama fan walks in with disbelief in their eyes. It’s like they’re dreaming. They look around, then look at me and point to the store sign. I just laugh and say, ‘Roll Tide.’ It never gets old.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Leneda Jones is an Alabama Bright Light bringing Backyard Blessings

Backyard Blessings strikes a blow against childhood hunger every weekend in Walker County. (Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Backyard Blessings exists so poor school children in Walker County do not go hungry. The problem caused Leneda Jones to act nine years ago, and her actions have multiplied. Now approximately 850 children are fed every week.

“Backyard Blessings is a local community nonprofit in Walker County that serves children in food-insecure homes,” she said. “We work primarily through the public school system to achieve this.”

Jones and her staff identify hungry children by consulting school counselors and teachers. Every child in the Walker County Schools system is up for consideration for Backyard Blessings assistance.


“We give the children in our program a bag of food on Friday; many of them had no food the entire weekend,” Jones said. “We pack those bags here and fill them with foods children love, then we deliver them to the schools.”

Backyard Blessings puts food in hungry children’s hands from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Backyard Blessings serves nine schools every week of the school year. The children who receive the food look forward to it.

“One day I was walking through one of the schools when a little child came to me and asked with big eyes, ‘Do we get the food bag today?’ It made me cry knowing we are making a difference,” Jones said.

Jones is determined to continue her mission until all poor children in Walker County are fed.

“We get the food wholesale, and with donations from generous people who know about what we do, and who do not want little children to miss meals,” Jones said. “We also receive funds from grants, churches, local businesses and fundraisers.”

The Alabama Power Foundation is among those supporting Backyard Blessings’ work.

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

2 years ago

Alabama church mobilizes to help neighbors after tornadoes

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

When the inside of Providence Baptist Church’s fellowship hall filled to the max, donations of clothes and food started piling up outside. It seemed like the entire state of Alabama showed up to help those affected by tornadoes earlier this week.

Kathie Ledbetter is a member of Providence Baptist Church in the rural area of Lee County. She is not surprised by the huge turn-out of helpers.

“Today, you’ll see outreach from the community. When the tornado came through on Sunday, we had many families who lost everything. People started coming in to help and bringing supplies, clothing, food, paper towels, baby wipes, things like that,” Ledbetter said. 


“This is just a special community. You see by the sheer amount of stuff that was brought in. It’s a very close-knit community and I’ve lived here my whole life. We have received amazing support from Auburn and Opelika. It seems like everybody wanted to reach out and help.”

Ledbetter is the former principal at Beauregard Elementary School, so she knows first-hand many of those affected by the storm.

“I’m just hugging my own grandkids a lot and helping out wherever I can,” Ledbetter said. “I feel so grateful when I see all this help. God has blessed us. I’m grateful for my family and that we are safe but also for all the support we’ve received.”

Pastor Rusty Sowell also isn’t surprised by the help pouring into the small-town church.

“This is what I attribute to small-town America. It’s just such a tight-knit community,” Sowell said. “We are dealing with grief, sorrow, and tragedy. But in the midst of it there is some triumph. What you see here, these aren’t just members of our church; they’re people throughout the community who have come to bring supplies and help out.”

Clothing is stacked high on tables scattered throughout the church hall. Multiple boxes of food also has been donated. For Sowell, the response is inspiring.

“It’s just an overwhelming sense of love, compassion, and empathy,” Sowell said. “It makes me hopeful when I see support like this. There is so much bad news and so much division. But to see this gives me hope that we can all get along for a common goal.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Cleon Jones is an Alabama Bright Light going to bat for Africatown

(Alabama News Center)

The memorabilia collection is one clue that Cleon Jones is a pretty famous fellow.

He played in Major League Baseball as a left fielder with the New York Mets for 13 years. In 1969, he caught the final out of the Miracle Mets’ World Series championship over the Baltimore Orioles.

In other words, Jones has every reason to stay in New York and live the glamorous life of a former major-league star. However, Jones elected to come back to his hometown of Africatown in Alabama and pay it forward by helping the community.


“My family and I have always wanted to give back to Africatown. I have always been conscious of the fact that there are still kids in my community who need help,” Jones said. “Then, when I retired, I wanted to come back to Africatown.”

Africatown is a historic community 3 miles north of downtown Mobile. Thirty-two West Africans, who in 1860 were included in the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the United States, formed the settlement that exists to this day.

“We are in the process of building a museum and welcome center for Africatown, and it would display the story of the Clotilda and the slaves that were brought here,” Jones said.

Jones works on building much-needed houses, restoring dilapidated ones, helping the elderly, sheltering the homeless and feeding the poor in the area.

“With all of these things we are working on, it takes more than just me or my family. It takes an entire community to make these things happen. We are working hard as a community to make sure that in a year we are no longer a food desert,” Jones said.

In addition to working with food programs and youth camps, Jones is involved with the Mobile County Training School, which has been in Africatown since 1880.

“During the years I was playing baseball in New York, I would come back here to be around family and to share my success with the community. My main goal now is to let people know that what happened to Cleon Jones can happen to anybody from Africatown,” he said.

Staying in New York might have been easier than doing all this service work in Africatown, but what Jones has accomplished speaks to the kind of man who would do the necessary, as opposed to the easy.

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

2 years ago

Man of service Don Lupo is an Alabama Bright Light

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Some of us are made to serve others.

Don Lupo is such a man.

Lupo works with the Birmingham Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance, where he helps people daily. For many years, he has been an advocate for the homeless in Birmingham. Lupo coordinates the effort of feeding and housing hundreds of people in need at Boutwell Auditorium when temperatures drop to freezing.


He worked tirelessly to raise the money necessary for a new Firehouse Ministries shelter for the homeless.

“It’s been a journey, and I guess the things that are worth it take a while. We have been praying for this for a long time and the time was right,” Lupo said recently at a ground-breaking ceremony for the new Firehouse Ministries shelter. “The need was so great, and now on the 35th anniversary of the Firehouse Ministries we broke ground, and in 10 months you’ll come back here and there will be a new building.”

Lupo was excited to share the plans with everyone at the news conference, where several people spoke, including the executive director of Firehouse Ministries, Anne Rygiel.

“December 21st, 1983, was the first time the Firehouse Ministries shelter opened. That first night, 15 men were given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a warm place to stay for the night,” Rygiel said. “Today, 35 years later, we are breaking ground for the new Firehouse Ministries shelter. This new shelter will double our capacity, allow us to care for the disabled, and do so in a way where our building will finally reflect the quality of services we provide.”

“This new Firehouse Ministries shelter is just a building, that’s all it is, but the people and staff and the board provide so many things,” Lupo said. “If we provide love, hope and dignity, then we’ve done our jobs. We offer so much more, but those things are what we do every day.”

Many turned out at the news conference, including just about every media outlet in the city, as well as numerous people who believe in the mission of the Firehouse Ministries shelter. Lupo himself is at the shelter every day. He also checks on the Brother Bryan Mission, the Salvation Army and other downtown shelters.

“Were something to happen to me and I had no place to go, I could go to the Firehouse Ministries shelter,” Lupo said. “That means something, and it means something to the people we serve. We don’t care what happens, we just love you and we’ll take you in.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Presbyterian Home for Children is an Alabama Bright Light for hope, healing

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Doug Marshall sums up his mission as president and CEO of the Presbyterian Home for Children (PHC) in Talladega County with two words: love and hope.

“We serve at-risk children and meet their needs across Alabama,” Marshall said. “When the children and their mothers come, they usually have so much pain, and there’s not a sparkle in the eye. We surround them with love and with hope, and we see that sparkle come back after a while.”


The website spells out the mission: “Raising hope, growing confidence, nurturing faith since 1868. The Presbyterian Home for Children serves children, young adults and families from throughout Alabama who seek healing and hope for their troubled lives.”

“Everything we provide at the Presbyterian Home for Children is wrapped in love,” Marshall said. “This place has been serving at-risk and homeless children in troubled families for a very long time. We are a place of love and we place a path of hope in front of these children.”

For 150 years, PHC has been a beacon for troubled families, at-risk children and children who may have experienced abuse. Marshall and his staff walk with them toward healing.

In addition to the programs the PHC provides, the Ascension Leadership Academy serves K-12 students through an accredited academic program.

“The average age for a homeless child is 6 years old,” Marshall said. “We are able to provide these children with a place to grow, rest, learn and play. We are working with their moms, teaching them life skills and surrounding them with love and support.”

The home partners with churches, businesses and individuals to care for the homeless and at-risk children. Marshall said providing love and hope to children is in PHC’s roots.

“The Presbyterian Home for Children started as an orphanage. As the needs and family dynamics changed, we have changed,” Marshall said. “We have created programs to meet the needs of these children and families.

“One thing hasn’t changed: our love,” he added. “We surround them with love and with hope. Hope is like oxygen; you gotta have it or you give up.”

Those are the ingredients PHC seems to always have an abundance of: love and hope.

“Everything we provide in the Presbyterian Home for Children is wrapped in love and with hope,” Marshall said.

For more information, visit

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Gary Griffin is an Alabama Bright Light shining in the dark days after a disaster

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Riding in an old Army Humvee was the only way to get around in the town of Gordon along the Alabama-Georgia border. The small town was nearly demolished by Hurricane Michael, its widespread damage astounding.

Navigation was possible through a few streets. Others were covered with downed trees and debris. Some houses were destroyed; others had trees sticking out of the roofs. Cars looked like they had been through a giant blender.

Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm on record in the Florida Panhandle, and in terms of wind speed, the fourth strongest hurricane to hit the U.S.


When the hurricane hit, Houston County Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster went into action. Gary Griffin is chairman of the group better known as VOAD.

“After Hurricane Michael came through the area, Houston County VOAD took charge,” Griffin said. “We initially opened up six different shelters temporarily until the Red Cross could come. At the storm’s height, we had about 300 evacuees seeking shelter. Out of about 450 people who live in Gordon, that was a lot of people needing help.”

Until VOAD began about 40 years ago, there was little communication among the government organizations and nonprofits that helped in time of disaster. Now VOAD assists in consolidating the organizations and streamlining their efforts to be more effective.

Among those who helped the many old and retired residents of Gordon were Austin Sturdivant, lieutenant with the Salvation Army.

“Just the sheer amount of people who were in need right after the storm hit was overwhelming,” Sturdivant said. “We fed about 4,800 people from the entire county in a matter of 10 days.”

Many of the residents were in dire need during and after the hurricane. VOAD was there assisting.

“We are in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3). When that happens, our goal is to centralize and coordinate with churches, nonprofits and other businesses who want to work with VOAD,” Griffin said. “After Hurricane Irma hit last year, several churches in the area teamed up and we helped each other and took in a couple hundred people from Florida. We realized meals and other resources were being wasted because the organizations were not communicating.”

Among those who helped when Hurricane Michael hit was Gordon Chief of Police Jim Mock. He spoke of driving around in his Humvee during the storm and pulling people out of their collapsing homes. One family was stuck in a house after a tree fell on the roof.

“When the hurricane came through, it was very devastating here and in Houston County. It was almost like someone dropped an atomic bomb in this area,” Mock said. “We pulled so many folks out of their homes, it was a rough night.”

When rough nights come, it’s good to know there are those like Houston County VOAD ready to help.

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Brenda Ladun is an Alabama Bright Light illuminating her journey to defeat breast cancer

(Karim Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

In 2001, Brenda Ladun felt a lump.

She went to the doctor, who told her it was stage two breast cancer. Ladun’s first thought was, “I can’t have cancer. I have kids.”

The next few years would prove strength is something she could summon when needed.

“The cancer enhanced my faith and my inner strength,” Ladun said. “I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.”

What followed was surgery to determine whether the cancer had spread to other organs. There would be months of chemotherapy following the surgery.


“The journey I had through cancer was a shock at first, but then I learned so much as a result of the struggle,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

The ABC 33/40 news anchor has made her fight with cancer public through three books, and an event she has held for more than a decade called Conquer Cancer Run. The annual event in the spring raises money for cancer research, education and prevention.

“I decided I had to do everything I could to fight it and get healthy again,” Ladun said. “I didn’t know what the future would hold. It really makes you look back and take account of your life and say, ‘What’s really important here?’ At the end of the day, it’s about the people you care about, the love in your life; it’s about the people you can show love to.”

Ladun has shared her journey through “Behind the Scenes of Breast Cancer: A News Anchor Tells Her Story of Body and Soul Recovery,” “Getting Better, Not Bitter” and “Encouraged: An Inspiring Journey with Real-Life Stories of Hope.”

“From my cancer, I realized that life is too short to be worried about the little things that really don’t matter in the end,” Ladun said.

An excerpt from “Behind the Scenes of Breast Cancer”:

“You may wonder, how can life go on for a cancer survivor after the ravages of surgery and chemotherapy? The answer is: hope. This is why I’ve written this book: to share with you the hope I found at the beginning of my cancer story, a hope that has continued to blossom even through the toughest times of my life. In the five years since I was diagnosed, I’ve had an amazing journey of growing in faith. I want to take you behind the scenes, if you will, to share the miracles I’ve experienced through my life’s storms as well as my encounters with other stories of hope. And I want to share the practical, spiritual lessons I have learned as I have been in recovery – physically and spiritually.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Behind the Smile is an Alabama Bright Light bringing awareness to teen suicide

(Alabama NewsCenter)

Every parent’s nightmare happened to Tara Martin on March 17, 2017.

Her 14-year-old son, Tyler, committed suicide.

“There were no signs of depression with Tyler,” Martin said. “He was always happy, he had the best heart, and he would do anything for anyone. Tyler was an all-around great kid.”

What happened next points to the resilience of life – how we can get inspired to move beyond our tragedies, and why some people can think of others when life takes a turn for the worst.


Martin and friend Jessica Ponder started Behind the Smile, a nonprofit that helps families struggling with events like what happened to the Martins and works toward preventing teen suicide.

The organization’s mission statement spells it out:

We want to educate today’s youth and their parents on what goes on behind the smile. People are suffering with anxiety, depression, and circumstances that make it seem as though all hope is lost. We want to reach them and let them know there is always help and always hope.”

Behind the Smile is holding a 5K color run in Rainbow City on Sept. 15 in honor of Tyler called TyDy4Tyler. The run will raise money for suicide risk awareness in local middle and high schools.

“Tyler loved 5Ks and he loved to run, so we wanted to do something like that to raise money,” Ponder said. “When Tyler passed away, everyone said the same thing: that he had this beautiful smile and was always smiling. That’s where we got the name.”

When Martin and Ponder started the run, they would have been happy with 100 runners; then 400 showed up. It was bigger than they ever thought. That meant so much for Martin.

“I knew we had to do something in his name or it would have been a huge injustice to him,” Martin said. “The support we have received from the community has just been overwhelming. My husband and I have always said if this would help one child or one family, it’s completely worth it.”

Life doesn’t always go as planned, but for Martin and Ponder that only means picking up the pieces and moving on, and inspiring others to be strong.

“For me, to see people come out to support, it’s just very humbling,” Ponder said. “When you see people give up their time, their money and their talents for something not directly affecting them, but something helping another person, it’s incredible.”

There is still time to sign up to run or show up just to offer support.

What began as a parental nightmare ended up an inspiration to so many people.

Life is resilient, indeed.

For more information about the run and to support Behind the Smile, visit their Facebook.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Share the Beach volunteers are Alabama Bright Lights guiding tiny sea turtles to safety

(K. Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

The volunteers with Share the Beach were utterly surprised.

They had begun cleaning out a turtle nest on the West Beach at Gulf Shores that had hatched three nights before. What they found about 2 feet under the sand was a treasure. Actually, it was 20 little treasures.

“There’s a live one,” shouted volunteer Kelly Howard with her hand all the way down in the nest. She pulled it out, holding a tiny turtle trying to escape. She put the turtle in an open container and reached down again.


“There’s another one,” she said, pulling out another tiny turtle alive and kicking. The crowd that had assembled around the volunteers cheered. This event repeated 18 more times; she had found 20 little turtles stuck under the nest.

“Their mama turtle dug this one a bit too deep. I’m glad we found them,” Howard said.

Just another day in the life of Share the Beach volunteers, 525 of them, to be exact. They organize in teams to cover Alabama’s Gulf Coast and see the turtles make it to the water when they hatch, clean out the nest afterward and report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Turtle season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31.

Share the Beach founder Mike Reynolds was thrilled they found the live turtles.

“I am so glad we found the little critters. This is what our volunteers live for,” said Reynolds, surveying the beach from his Jeep outfitted with turtle-related equipment. “We train them to go out early in the morning and look for the mother sea turtle’s tracks. They leave very distinct tracks. From that, we can see where the nest is and we mark it off with four stakes and a predator screen, which protects from coyotes and foxes.”

So far this season in the Gulf Shores area, Share the Beach volunteers have discovered 78 nests. Each nest contains 112 eggs, and it takes the female turtles 25 years to be able to nest again.

When Reynolds moved to Gulf Shores in 2001, there was not a program to save the turtles.

“They didn’t have any permit holders to be around these federally protected sea turtles. That’s why I had the idea to get a permit myself from the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Reynolds said. “Share the Beach is all volunteers, just because it needs doing. For years, people didn’t know why the sea turtle population was being decimated. When they started putting lights along the beaches and all those lights would attract the baby sea turtles — the turtles don’t stop. When they don’t find water they keep going and they end up in the streets, dehydrated in the dunes and susceptible to predators. Now they’re making it to the water, thanks to the hundreds of volunteers we have.”

Along with the volunteers excavating the nest, Ph.D. candidate Matt Ware from Florida State University helped document the event.

“A couple days ago, we had this nest hatch out. We had 95 hatchlings successfully reach the water. We waited three days for any stragglers to work their way out and then we went in and excavated the nest to count how many eggs were laid, how many hatched, just to get some productivity information,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to find a couple stragglers still alive in the nest. This time we had 20 and led them all to the water.”

As the little turtles made it to the water one by one, the crowd clapped and cheered and took pictures.

“I enjoy doing this. It’s emotional sometimes; you just kind of fall in love with the turtles,” Howard said. “Sometimes, you just want to cry because they’re so little and you just hope that every one that gets to the water gets a chance to make it.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Kate Miller and her family are Alabama Bright Lights after beating cancer

(Alabama NewsCenter)

When the door opened again, Kate panicked, but then relaxed when she saw it was Dr. Laue. I smiled and looked expectantly at him as he sat down on the rolling stool again and faced me. “All right,” he began without a moment’s hesitation. “We’ve run her blood twice and it looks like what we’re dealing with here is leukemia.” The smile froze on my face as his words sank in. The room became absolutely still and for the briefest of moments, the world stopped spinning on its axis. – Erin Miller in her book “Fighting for Kate, the Inspirational Story of a Family’s Battle and Victory Over Cancer.”

All parents wish for their children to grow up healthy. But what would you do if your child was 3 years old and you discovered something was wrong? Something major and life changing? Something that could kill her?

That was the nightmare Huntsville’s Erin and Brandon Miller, along with their other two children, Jenna and Elijah, went through after Kate was diagnosed with cancer.


“Kate was 3 when one day she got very tired and had bruises starting to form on her legs. After a week or two of conditions not improving, we took her to her pediatrician and found out her white blood cell count was 539,000, which is more than a hundred times what is normal,” Erin Miller said. “We were sent straight to the emergency room at Huntsville Hospital, and from there we met somebody from St. Jude Hospital who told us it was probably leukemia. We were sent to St. Jude in Memphis by ambulance that night, where she was officially diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia T-cell.”

The next few years would prove Kate and her family were tough warriors. Therapy went on night after night and day after day. Some forms of therapy made Kate extremely sick, and there were many needles she had to withstand, but she was tough.

“Kate began two years and seven months of treatment. She had over 145 rounds of chemo, over 500 doses of steroids, over 500 doses of oral chemotherapy, 17 blood transfusions and 10 platelet transfusions; all necessary to save her life,” Miller said.

Kate finally achieved remission and she celebrated five years without cancer in May. During an interview with the family, Kate was the most bubbly and enthusiastic child. She played with her brother, Elijah, and sister, Jenna, with a constant smile.

Asked about her journey, Kate was shy at first, but then said, “I liked getting to visit the treasure box after I got the needle (for chemo) each week, and I loved my nurses. I didn’t like throwing up.”

What did this 8-year-old learn from her experience? “I learned from my cancer that life is really important,” she said.

Kate then held the book her mother had written and smiled.

“I wrote the book because I wanted to praise God and encourage others who were going through difficult trials to stay strong,” Miller said. “We also wanted to give back to St. Jude. They covered every bill of ours and reimbursed us for gas, flights if necessary, meal cards, housing costs and so much more. Part of the profits from the book go back to St. Jude.”

After Kate’s battle with cancer, life for the Miller family has regained some sense of normalcy.

“She’s doing so great now. We are back to what life was like before the years of her going through treatment. She plays soccer and softball and piano. She’s doing really well in school and is no longer taking any medication. We go back to St. Jude once a year for a checkup,” Miller said.

“We realize now that life is precious, and we do not take any moment for granted. We appreciate the little things we do with our kids, whether it was reading books and watching a sunset,” she said. “Life is for sure more meaningful. You never think you could love your children more, but this journey made that actually possible. We live each day to the max.”

From “Fighting for Kate”:

So Kate, when facing the troubles and trials that come in this life, remember this:

 You can choose fear. Or you can choose faith.

You can choose worry. Or you can choose trust.

You can choose despair. Or you can choose hope.

You can choose self-pity. Or you can choose perspective.

You can choose tears. Or you can choose laughter.

You can choose to complain. Or you can choose thankfulness.

You can choose anger. Or you can choose love.

You can choose bitterness. Or you can choose joy.

 My prayer is that you will always choose faith, trust, hope, perspective, laughter, thankfulness, love and joy. Always.

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Joel Rotenstreich is an Alabama Bright Light dedicated ‘to life’

(K. Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Humility is the overarching impression you get when you meet Joel Rotenstreich.

Every year, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center honors a person whose actions have helped not only the center, but life for the Jewish people of Birmingham as well as people from other faiths. This year, Rotenstreich is the honoree.

It would take columns to list the accomplishments and selfless actions of Rotenstreich. His work in education, social justice and interfaith only begin the list.

“My passions throughout the adult part of my life have been education and bringing people together. The third is social justice. Treating everyone equally, equal opportunity, doing the right thing,” Rotenstreich said.


Rotenstreich headed fundraising for the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center in 2016 and again in 2017. His face-to-face strategy worked wonders.

“Fundraising for the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center is essential. The place teaches courage, integrity, cooperation, endurance, self-respect, respect for others. We’re training teachers to teach the lessons of the Holocaust, and this is happening all over Alabama,” Rotenstreich said. “Close to 1,500 teachers across Alabama have been trained by the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.”

Rotenstreich sees connections among historical events that tie human consciousness together. Things like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing during the civil rights struggle and other world-changing events. He notices these connections especially when he travels to Israel. Introducing others to Israel and its history and culture is another passion for Rotenstreich and his wife, Bunny. They have led 22 trips to that country.

“We’re connected; we are all in this world together,” he said. “The four little girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 — there is a connection, and we are trying to teach everyone about the history and lessons of the past.”

Rotenstreich has served on boards of numerous organizations and led the Anne Frank Tree project in which a horse chestnut tree like one she mentioned in her diary was planted in Kelly Ingram Park and dedicated to the “victims of intolerance and discrimination.” Rotenstreich was campaign chair and president of the Jewish Federation, served three five-year-terms on the Mountain Brook Board of Education and was its president from 2000 until 2002.

Kendall Chew, outreach coordinator at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, may know more about what Rotenstreich has achieved than Rotenstreich himself.

“L’Chaim means ‘to life.’ The Birmingham Holocaust Education Center adapted that phrase as the title for their annual fundraiser. L’Chaim honors someone every year who has brought life to the community and the mission we serve,” Chew said. “This year we are fortunate to be honoring someone that speaks and walks our mission every day in his life, and that’s Joel Rotenstreich.”

L’Chaim will take place at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19.

“I am extremely grateful to be honored by the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center,” Rotenstreich said. “Getting recognition for what I stand for means something I’m doing might be working.”

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Alabama WWII veteran inspires others to live active, purposeful lives

(K. Shamsi-Basha/Alabama NewsCenter)

Millard “Bo” Carwyle is a World War II veteran but, at age 91, he’s known by another designation: Senior Olympian.

In 1944, one of the final decisive battles of WWII had ended and Carwyle, an Army information specialist, was in the unit responsible for wrapping things up in and around Dachau, Germany.

“I was in Germany in World War II. I came to Dachau after the Battle of the Bulge, when things were cooling down and we helped get things organized,” Carwyle said at the Alabama Senior Olympics qualifying rounds recently in Birmingham.


After his return from Germany, Carwyle worked as a homebuilder and got involved in athletics. When his wife died in 2010, his children wanted him to remain active. His daughter is a runner and invited him to the Senior Olympics in Mississippi. Carwyle was reinvigorated.

“This year at the Alabama Senior Olympics, I’ll be doing the javelin, shot put, discus, long jump and hammer throw,” Carwyle said, “Excuse me for a minute. They just called my name.”

Carwyle stepped up and grabbed a discus, then placed it on his chest and under his chin, then twirled around and launched it many meters. Those watching cheered for the oldest competitor in the games.

His preparation for the Senior Olympics would be challenging for someone half his age.

“I prepare by lifting weights every day and walking lots of miles every week. I’m on the board of the Alabama Senior Olympics and the Governor’s Commission on (Physical) Fitness and Sports, so I help out with these events all over the state, which helps keep me busy,” Carwyle said.

Carwyle just returned from Indiana, where he won three gold medals.

“Age is only a number,” Carwyle said with a laugh. “I love seeing veterans and other seniors coming to events like these. It keeps me young, that’s for sure.”

Next, Carwyle participated in the javelin. He ran and tossed the spear into the air and it landed a great distance away. All the people watching cheered and he gave them high fives like he had just won the gold medal.

For Carwyle, it’s about more than cheers.

“This is important to me because I want to see as many Senior Olympics as possible,” he said. “I’ve been on the Earth this long and I feel like I’m supposed to help others live as long as they can by staying active and healthy.”

When Carwyle heard his name called for the long jump, he ran off and took his place in line.

At his age and with his accomplishments, it would be understandable if Carwyle wanted to spend his last years in leisure and comfort.

For Carwyle, the comfort is in knowing that he inspires others.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

4-year-old Alabamian Austin Perine feeding the homeless with huge heart and wise words: ‘don’t forget to show love!’

(Alabama NewsCenter/Vimeo)

Most 4-year-olds live with only a few things on their minds: Mom, Dad, siblings, play, eat and drink.

Not Austin Perine.

He feeds the homeless.

Ask him why, and be prepared for a simple but wise answer.

“If you were homeless, would you want to be fed? Well, that’s why I’m feeding the homeless, because they’re hungry,” Austin responds.


(Austin Perine is a young Alabama Bright Light who proves some heroes do wear capes from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.)

Austin wears a superhero cape when he goes on his feeding outings with his father, T.J. Perine. At Linn Park recently, the little guy handed sandwiches and drinks to the homeless. Every time, he exclaimed, “Don’t forget to show love!”

Show Love is the name of the nonprofit the elder Perine started.

“This whole thing started when we were sitting at home watching Animal Planet and a baby panda was abandoned by its mom,” Perine said. “Just to give him an answer, I told Austin that the panda would be homeless. Then he asked, ‘Well, are people homeless?’ and I said yes. That sparked an idea for him to want to come and feed the homeless, so here we are just a few months later.”

A few of the homeless at Linn Park knew little Austin with his superhero cape, and exchanged hugs and fist bumps. Those who did not know him were flabbergasted. One homeless man said he’d never seen anything like this.

Most people are concerned with their own well-being. The few who show this level of dedication to serving others are usually adults with a giving spirit. For Austin, it’s not about age but empathy.

Austin explained how doing this makes him feel inside.

“When I feed the homeless it makes me really happy and I think what I do is very special,” Austin said. “When I grow up I want to be president. My jobs when I become president would be to feed the homeless and to chase the bad guys out of schools.”

Austin’s efforts have garnered worldwide attention from media outlets interested in his story.

“We’ve been on CNN, NBC and CBS, and we’ve been covered by news in France, Germany and England,” Perine said. “Austin has been doing his thing and has no idea; he’s just being Austin. I think it’s remarkable. Every day I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m still alive, because this is like a dream.”

Austin continued handing out sandwiches and drinks when he got a huge hug from a woman sitting on the steps at Linn Park. She had a grocery cart full of bags and clothes and other items, most likely all she owned.

“When I get hugs from the homeless, it makes me feel great inside,” Austin said.

Remember this: Austin Perine is only 4 years old.

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(Courtesy Alabama News Center)