The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

    Excerpt:

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

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

22 hours ago

Keep your money in-state: Why now’s the time to book your Alabama beach vacation for this spring, summer

(City of Orange Beach/Facebook)

Time is running out to book your vacation rental or hotel for the coming warm-weather months, however it is not because things are returning to a non-COVID “normal.”

The pandemic has put the national tourism and travel industry under siege for the last year, and Alabama’s 32 miles of white sands on the Gulf Coast have been especially hit hard.

With the climate still tough for communities and small businesses in Baldwin County that rely on visitors for their livelihood, another obstacle continues to play a part for the upcoming spring — and, perhaps, even summer — travel season. It’s also a reason why Alabamians looking for a beach getaway should act now and plan ahead.

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Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (GSOBT) is the official destination marketing organization for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, as well as the unincorporated area of Fort Morgan. The organization proudly showcases the gems that are Alabama’s Gulf beaches — a major source of tourism and revenue not just for the local area but for the state as a whole.

Beth Gendler, who is currently serving as chief operating officer of GSOBT while she transitions into the CEO role, told Yellowhammer News that Hurricane Sally’s aftermath has significantly limited the availability of rentals in the area for the spring.

“While most restaurants and attractions have reopened, there is still roughly 40% of vacation rental inventory out of service due to damage from Hurricane Sally,” she explained. “Repairs to vacation rentals and hotels have been ongoing since late September, and we expect those to start to come back over the next several months.”

That being said, it would be prudent to lock in rentals for the upcoming months now instead of waiting until the last minute.

“With reduced inventory, the early bird truly gets the worm … in this case the worm being the hotel or condo they want,” Gendler advised. “We definitely advise people to make reservations far in advance because not as many options are available to rent this spring. And as COVID vaccinations increase and people feel more comfortable traveling, we expect demand to increase as summer approaches.”

She also noted that while travel is still relatively down year-over-year so far in 2021, the outlook is encouraging compared to the worst of the pandemic.

“Occupancy for first quarter – normally our snowbird season – is down compared to last year, but that is expected with COVID still being an issue, especially for the seniors who normally stay with us for the winter,” Gendler outlined. “Right now, early March is down, but we are very much still seeing the same short booking windows we saw most all of last year (less than 30 days), so we know the second quarter could surprise us. It is very encouraging to see our local businesses ramping up their hiring for spring and summer, just like they do in normal ‘non-pandemic’ years, in anticipation of what will hopefully be a busy late spring and summer.”

At the end of the day, the past year has been extremely challenging for the industry and local communities across Alabama’s Gulf Coast. With herd immunity potentially a few months away, Alabamians have the opportunity to support their own when choosing where to travel and how to spend their money.

“The COVID pandemic has hurt a lot of destinations and so, so many small businesses,” Gendler remarked. “The travel industry as a whole has just been decimated. We really encourage Alabama residents looking for a vacation spot to strongly consider coming to their own beaches and supporting their fellow Alabamians.”

“Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two small towns with a majority of businesses being small and locally-owned, especially our restaurants and attractions. Those business owners would so appreciate the support after such a difficult year. Similar to a ‘Buy Local’ campaign, we hope Alabama residents will ‘Spend In-State’ with their vacations this year,” she concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 days ago

Frameworq brings innovation through software platform

(Doing More Today/Contributed)

Necessity is the mother of invention. But in Birmingham, a father-and-son team has devised an innovative app to help businesses effortlessly manage ongoing construction and facilities maintenance projects.

KMS, formerly Kemp Management Solutions, has spent the past decade growing the company while helping much larger businesses flourish, including Regions Bank and peer banks.

When the global pandemic hit, KMS didn’t miss a beat.

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“When we went remote on March 13, it was literally a non-event for us,” said CEO Mike Kemp. “With our new project management system, we were able to continue to do business, and manage our schedules, costs and collaboration. We have a live platform providing real-time data. It was a tremendous asset.”

The proprietary software platform is called Frameworq, which KMS provides for its clients.

“Frameworq will become a business verb like Zoom. It is that transformative a solution for the level of business,” said Marcus Lundy, supplier diversity function manager for Regions. “This software is so unique because it provides a seamless overview of project management from start to finish.”

Two years ago, Mike Kemp thought the time for such a new platform had come.

He reached out to the University of Alabama Business School’s Management Information Systems group, which helped devise a beta program. Then he brought in Airship, a local software design and development company, for their expertise in writing code.

“We drove the direction as to what we wanted to do and how it was to function, and they helped us build it out,” Kemp explained. “We spent 2019 investing in the software and rebuilding it to a workable condition by late 2019, then rolled it out.”

Every step of the way, he had his own in-house project manager: his son, James, who received his MBA at Alabama and has an eye for innovation as the KMS director of business operations.

“We realized there’s a unique market that needs to manage multiple projects all at once,” James Kemp said. “That’s our wheelhouse – managing high volumes of small projects efficiently –producing real cost and time savings for our clients. We wanted to manage our projects and reports in a clear, easy way from anywhere.”

Originally named pmngr, the Kemps are rebranding to Frameworq for the start of 2021.

“There’s a wave of new products coming in this industry space, and I think what we have is unique,” James Kemp said. “Ultimately, this is the Frameworq for your all of your projects. This is a tool to move forward. It can eventually be used to manage process and activity at scale in several different industries.”

Regions is on board. So are fellow banks, including Truist. Alabama Power is now utilizing Frameworq to manage projects for its energy services group.

“When we engage with our clients, we can bring something of value with this new tool,” Mike Kemp said. “In the construction management business, there are very few black-owned companies operating in the large corporation space. So, to come into an organization like Regions goes beyond just project management. It ties to our mission statement to bring innovative solutions.”

KMS manages offsite ATMs for Regions, tracking multiple projects with the new software.

“To date, they’ve done roughly 24 projects for us,” said John Earley, senior retail project leader for Regions. “And we have a large list in 2021 they’ll be performing. We’re looking at other ways to do things with them and grow on the project side.”

Scott Riley, head of corporate real estate operations at Regions, points out that KMS has answered each call for change.

“We’re always in a mode of testing, piloting and challenging ourselves – as well as our existing service providers,” Riley said. “We’re constantly looking for providers that we can test the market with. Frankly, a lot of those companies don’t pan out. But KMS’ solid performance and ability to innovate has not only improved us, it has also made us more efficient.”

The Kemps recognize the contributions of others, from academia to small business, in making Frameworq come to fruition. But there’s a special praise reserved for when they talk about each other.

“I’m super proud of James,” Mike said. “He took this concept of an idea I had and shepherded it through, even down to how we’d package it and secure it. It was awesome to watch. A lot of the enhancements to the system were his ideas, his understanding of the business and the ability to translate that to the software.”

James deflects the praise and returns it to the original source.

“I give the credit to my Dad for the idea,” James said. “He’s an industry veteran. He has been around tons of different software. And he could see that something new was needed for managing a high volume of smaller projects—projects ranging from $50,000 to $5 million.”

Haley Medved Kendrick is the director for the Bronze Valley Accelerator, a gene8tor program that supports innovation and technology-enabled companies created by diverse and underrepresented founders.

“Frameworq is bringing the strength and flexibility of digital project management tools,” Kendrick said. “By integrating cost and milestone functions into the tool, and aligning with the PMI standards, Frameworq’s tool can transform the way the construction industry manages their projects.”

From banking to utilities to construction, KMS is working to create something that levels the playing field for small businesses.

“It allows us to serve Regions at the highest level and give them the service they expect in the most efficient manner,” James Kemp said. “From using our software platform, we’ll be able to figure out how to do it even better by understanding the underlying analytics.”

The Kemps are determined to stay one step ahead of everyone.

“We believe continuous improvement will allow us to build on our relationships and to help our clients achieve their goals,” James added.

(Courtesy of Regions)

5 days ago

Alabama attorney Fred Gray looks back on life of ‘destroying everything segregated’

(Fred Gray/Contributed)

Few people can say they knew Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks when that internationally celebrated pair were average citizens.

Fred Gray can.

The 90-year-old legendary civil rights lawyer has known most of the most-respected figures in the modern movement toward equality for Blacks. He represented Parks and King, persuading judges to make rulings that helped shape both of their lives. Gray’s courtroom victories led to many of the most important gains in reducing the vast disparity in rights that was a reality in America when he opened his first law office in Montgomery.

“Fred Gray is truly one of the giants of not only the legal profession, but of American history,” said Patricia Lee Refo, president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association. “He is the quintessential example of the great social good which a lawyer can accomplish.”

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In 1954, Parks helped Gray set up his small headquarters at 113 Monroe St. and within a year he became friends with King. Together, the trio were in the front row of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in 1956 brought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation on public buses. Four years later, Gray convinced an all-white jury to acquit King on trumped-up tax evasion charges.

Over the next decades, Gray would win cases that affirmed the one person, one vote principle; ensured protection for marchers from Selma to Montgomery; integrated the University of Alabama, Auburn University and all Alabama public educational institutions; brought equal rights and protections to college students; ended systematic exclusion of Blacks from juries; integrated public parks; and allowed the NAACP to operate in the state. King called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

“He’s one of my heroes,” said Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Wayne Flynt. “I got to know him pretty well when I was writing ‘Alabama in the Twentieth Century,’ and I interviewed him, and I really, really admire him.”

Flynt said Gray was never intimidated in the courtroom facing white lawyers, judges and witnesses during civil rights cases. Despite efforts by whites to embarrass Gray, the Montgomery attorney “in an age of apartheid had more bone in his little finger than almost anyone I’ve ever known in their entire backbone,” Flynt said.

“His attitude was not to confront you in the sense that most whites understand,” said Flynt, Auburn University professor emeritus of history. “He was not going to raise his voice and he was not going to fling out profanities and he was not going to stomp his foot but what he was going to do is demand that you respect him as your equal.”

Gray remains sharp as a tack, continuing to work as an attorney for the 67th consecutive year, going into his Tuskegee office each day and tackling cases as if he were beginning his career. He doesn’t seek clients but is constantly asked to provide legal expertise. He hasn’t had a vacation in years, unless one counts when he was keynote speaker at conventions in places where people vacation.

Setting out as a 24-year-old to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” Gray, by most any measuring stick, has accomplished his lifelong goal. Yet, he admits, the road to freedom for Black Americans is still far from being a freeway.

“I think that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in almost every aspect of American life,” Gray said. “I’ve been able, with a lot of help along the way, to be instrumental to do some of that. However, the struggle for equal justice continues.”

Gray said he was alarmed at incidents that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year. His concerns were amplified by the “mob that went up to the Capitol” on Jan. 6. He said the nation has made obvious progress since Blacks were brought in chains to America 400 years ago but that two major problems remain.

“Racism is not over; we don’t live on a level playing field,” he said. “Secondly, inequality still exists. I don’t care what aspect you take, whether it’s in housing, whether it’s in employment, or whether it’s in health care or even the distribution of resources, they are not equal. … This country, up until now, has never faced the racism and the inequality questions. We just haven’t faced it.”

Born Dec. 13, 1930, one year into the Great Depression, it didn’t take Gray long to realize his predicament as a Black person on the poor side of Montgomery. His father, Abraham, died when Gray was 2, leaving Nancy Gray with five children and little income. His mother’s formal education ended after the fifth or sixth grade, but she relied on a religious upbringing to cope. She worked as a “domestic” in the homes of white people. Growing up on West Jeff Davis Avenue, Gray knew nothing about the legal profession.

“When I was coming along as a child in the ’30s and the early ’40s, there were only about two professions that Black young men or boys on my side of town could do that were respectable positions; that would be a preacher or a teacher,” he said. “And I decided that I would be both.”

The Grays regularly attended Holt Street Church of Christ, which was two blocks from where Rosa Parks lived and in the same area where the bus boycott began. Fred Gray “used to baptize cats and dogs” in his neighborhood, which caught the attention of his preacher, Sutton Johnson. The Holt Street religious leader recommended to Mrs. Gray that 12-year-old Fred be enrolled in the National Christian Institute boarding school in Nashville, Tennessee. Gray would become a favorite of the school president, Marshall Keeble, who was a pioneer Black preacher nationally in the Church of Christ.

“I was actually pretty good at preaching, because he took me around at that early age … to all these churches in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and we would preach and we would end up recruiting students,” Gray said.

He graduated in 1948, returned to Montgomery and enrolled at Alabama State College for Negroes to become a teacher. Gray’s family had no car and, because his mother’s home was on the west side of town, he had to take city buses to classes at the college that is now Alabama State University on the east side of town.

“I found out then that Black people in Montgomery had some serious problems,” Gray said. “One, they were being mistreated on the buses, being told to get up and give white people their seats. A Black man had been killed on one of the buses. I concluded that while I didn’t know anything about lawyers, and didn’t know any lawyers, I understood that lawyers help people solve problems, and I thought Black people in Montgomery had problems. … Everything was completely segregated and we were just mistreated in every aspect of life.”

Gray graduated from ASU in 1951, deciding he wanted to be a preacher, teacher and lawyer. Because Blacks weren’t allowed to attend law schools in Alabama, he applied for and was admitted to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the first time he had ever lived in a white environment. In 1954, he graduated and took the Ohio bar exam, then came home and took the Alabama bar exam, passing both. On Sept. 7, 1954, Gray was licensed to practice in Alabama, becoming one of a handful of Black lawyers in the state.

Gray had been supported in his law school efforts by Parks, ASU professor J.E. Pierce, Montgomery civil rights activist E.D. Nixon and others. He’d followed his mother’s instructions to “Keep Christ first in your life, stay in school, get a good education and stay out of trouble.” She’d told him it was fine to be a lawyer, but to never stop preaching. Gray would preach at Newtown Church of Christ in the midst of important early civil rights trials and he continues preaching today.

Even before the bus boycotts, Gray was being groomed for that historic stage. He’d hardly begun practicing when he was hired to represent 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who’d been arrested on March 2, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery city bus.

“That was my first civil rights case, before Judge (Wiley) Hill. And I tried to explain to Judge Hill that she was not a delinquent … but they were trying to enforce the segregation laws, and they were unconstitutional, but the judge didn’t listen to me,” Gray said laughing. “He was nice and respectful but he found her to be a delinquent and placed her on unsupervised probation, which meant that she didn’t have to report to anybody. She didn’t get involved in any more trouble.”

Parks and Gray had been having lunch together in his office, which was just down the street from where she worked as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store. They talked for a year about the buses, desegregation, fairness in society for Blacks and what needed to be done to overcome those problems.

“I knew that, though she never told me what she would do, I felt confident that she would not get up and give her seat if the situation arose,” Gray said.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks did not give up her seat.

Fifteen years later, Gray and Thomas Reed became the first Black members of the Alabama House of Representatives since Reconstruction. In 1970, Gray would become noted for his legislative expertise and oratory, but four years earlier he had been set to make history alone, prior to some last-minute vote-counting.

“It came out that I was elected (in 1966),” Gray said, “and then down in Barbour County, when the absentee votes came in, I had lost by the amount of votes that I had originally won by.”

After the loss, Gray decided to move from Montgomery to Black-majority Tuskegee, where he set up a law office and was elected to the state governing body. Soon afterward, he learned of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and began representing the victims of the government effort in which Black men were offered free health care without being told they suffered from the disease. Gray won a lengthy court battle for the victims, which ultimately led to a public apology from President Bill Clinton. Gray wrote about his experiences in “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study” and his autobiography “Bus Ride to Justice.”

In his career, Gray has been lauded nationwide, including honorary doctorates from more than 10 universities. He was the first Black president of the Alabama Bar Association. He is in the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. He received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. He was the National Bar Association president in 1985 and a decade later inducted into its Hall of Fame. Gray was named in 2019 as a “Living Legend” by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and also as an Alabama Humanities Foundation Fellow.

Throughout his eight decades as a preacher, teacher and lawyer, Gray has credited his success to the earliest influence instilled by his mother.

“The Lord has played a major role in all of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t handle a case that I didn’t think the Lord would be pleased with what I was doing. Because I had, first, to be sure that what I’m doing is not contrary to God’s law and, secondly, it’s not contrary to my own basic religious background. So, it played a major role in all of it.”

Gray’s legal work and courtroom battles will be his legacy. He recognizes his role in societal changes since the 1950s has benefited Americans but Gray longs for more to be done in the nation he reveres.

“We need to, one, acknowledge the fact that racism and inequality is wrong, and that needs to start at the top. I’m glad the president (Biden) has taken a step in that direction,” Gray said. “But it also needs to go from the Supreme Court, the CEOs, the heads of our educational institutions, the heads of our fraternities and our sororities and the heads of our religious organizations.

“We have to acknowledge that racism and inequality is wrong,” Gray added. “We have to come up with a plan … and while we talk about it starting at the top, we must also, every one of us individually, needs to realize that racism and inequality is so ingrained in this nation.”

Over his career, Gray has handled thousands of lawsuits. Legal precedent finds his name alongside some of the most important cases in Alabama and American history. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed him in the movie “Selma,” persuading federal Judge Frank Johnson to allow King and others to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. It was a milestone decision, yet legal experts and historians often debate about which of Gray’s cases is most important.

“When a person comes to a lawyer’s office, they usually have a problem,” Gray said. “And they don’t care how many cases you won or lost, all they want you to do is to devote effort to him and his case and get him the results he thinks he’s entitled to, whether he is legally entitled to it or not. I think all of my cases are the most important case I’ve had.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 days ago

Alabama actress, singer, songwriter Abigail Barlow scores with her musical ‘Bridgerton’

(Abigail Barlow/Contributed)

“OK, but what if ‘Bridgerton’ was a musical?”

That’s the question that Abigail Barlow, who grew up in Birmingham and lives in Los Angeles, posed to her TikTok followers in early January. The post included “Daphne’s Song,” the first song Barlow wrote based on the hit Netflix series about debutantes in Regency-era London. She also posted “I Burn for You,” and after partnering with former child prodigy Emily Bear, has written 10 more songs.

“Bridgerton: The Musical” is taking on a life of its own, with Barlow and Bear fielding interview requests from PlaybillVarietyNPR, the BBCSiriusXM radio and others.

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“I’m in absolute awe at the reaction so far,” says Barlow, who worked with Red Mountain Theatre Company when she was in Birmingham. “I’ve been posting my original music on TikTok for years, so this response was more than I could ever ask for as a songwriter.”

Barlow thought about moving to Nashville to pursue songwriting, but she decided on Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of her sister, actress Anna Grace Barlow (“Supernatural,” “Scream Queens,” “The Young and the Restless”).

“She’s my absolute biggest cheerleader, and vice versa,” Abigail Barlow says of her sister. “I’m so grateful that she lives five minutes away from me in Los Angeles. She has absolutely mastered her own art, and she always gives me advice on the best way to master mine. … I owe it all to family.”

Barlow, who is an actress as well as a singer/songwriter, got some notice in 2020 with the release of her song “Heartbreak Hotel,” which some commenters said put off a “Taylor Swift vibe.”

“I was just writing what I was feeling,” she says. “I was very into this boy I was seeing at the time, but I was still so traumatized by the ghosts of boyfriends past. If it gives off Taylor Swift vibes, that’s one heck of a compliment.”

Then came “Bridgerton,” an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels, which premiered on Netflix in December 2020. One of its producers is Shonda Rimes, whose TV work includes “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

“I binged the entire series and was in awe of the dialogue and masterful storytelling,” Barlow says. “It’s incredibly poetic. The music basically writes itself. There was one piece of dialogue in specific that inspired me to run to my piano and start writing: ‘You have no idea what it’s like to be in a room with someone you cannot live without and yet still feel like you’re oceans apart.’”

That’s the crux of the faux-turned-real relationship of Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset, the lovers at the center of “Bridgerton.”

The excitement that “Bridgerton” created on Netflix translated to TikTok, with Barlow and Bear’s musical work gaining not only attention from fans, but from fans singing the “Bridgerton” songs themselves. They’ve heard from Quinn, the author of the books, as well as “Bridgerton” cast members Phoebe Dynevor (Daphne), Nicola Coughlin (Penelope) and Luke Newton (Colin Bridgerton).

Barlow, 22, says she has enjoyed writing with Bear, a 19-year-old who has worked with Quincy Jones.

“We just click when we write,” Barlow says. “It’s almost like magic.”

The two are self-admitted “fangirls” of “Bridgerton,” which will have a second season on Netflix. “It’s a Regency-era ‘Gossip Girl,’ and what young woman wouldn’t be obsessed with that?” Barlow asks.

The future of the musical “Bridgerton” is unknown, but if it became a full-scale project, Barlow would love to be considered for the role of Daphne.

“She’s headstrong, yet delicate; determined, yet patient,” she says. “She’s everything I love in a leading lady, and with all the music we’re writing for her, she’s slowly becoming a dream role for me.”

Whether that ends up being on stage somewhere is still in the air, but Barlow and Bear are enjoying the ride.

“We’d love for it to be a project that goes the distance, but we’re just so grateful for all of the support, and we’re trying to live in the moment and take each exciting opportunity as it comes,” Barlow says.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 days ago

Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program participants thriving, becoming leaders

((Auburn University/Contributed)

Not only are members of Auburn University’s Tiger Excellence Scholars Program (TESP) enjoying their college experience on the Plains, they are thriving and evolving into leaders.

Nearly 300 students involved with the program – designed to support the persistence and retention of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, low-income families and first-generation college enrollees – posted a 3.42 cumulative GPA for the fall 2020 semester. Administered through Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID), in partnership with the Office of the Provost, the scholars program is developing the leaders of tomorrow through its efforts.

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A total of 69 TESP students finished the fall 2020 semester with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, bolstering the group’s already strong cumulative GPA that routinely eclipses the institutional average. The majority of TESP students are recipients of the Provost Leadership Undergraduate Scholarship.

More than a dozen of the program’s students came to Auburn through the state chapter of Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), an initiative administered through the Office of University Outreach that is designed to identify potential college students from Alabama middle and high schools and provide a path to higher education. Those students finished the semester with a 3.68 cumulative GPA, further illustrating the program’s success.

“I’m biased, but I think I have the best students on campus,” said Jasmine Prince, OID’s assistant director for Inclusive Excellence Initiatives, who oversees the TESP program. “What our numbers say is that our students understand not only our commitment to ensuring they’re successful academically, but also that they’ve made a personal commitment to ensure their own academic success. We play a role in that, but it’s a lot of individual work on their part.

“It speaks to the way we’re communicating our expectations to them about what excellence looks like and what scholarly behavior is, and it speaks to their own personal commitment to what academic excellence means. It’s a big deal to be in this program.”

Commitment to excellence

The TESP model is focused on the holistic development of all scholars through intentional engagement, supportive resources and community building. In addition to financial support, TESP students are given access to academic help, mentors and other university resources.

Students are encouraged to engage with one another at a variety of social events, from movies or game nights to “success seminars” and athletic activities – often led by upperclassmen in the program. The consistent interaction gives students a sense of community, further deepening their college experience and helping new students become acclimated to college life.

“We want them to spend time together outside of an atmosphere where they have to learn something, like in their regular classes,” said Prince, who has worked with the program since 2016. “We want to give students opportunities to lead and determine how the sessions are run. Creating an environment where they feel like they can thrive is important.”

OID was forced to shift TESP operations online with the COVID-19 outbreak last year, but administrators and students rallied to adjust and overcome the obstacles. They focused on helping students adjust to virtual instruction in the wake of the pandemic.

“The very first thing we did when we all transitioned to a virtual learning environment is that we hosted one or two scholar check-ins,” said Prince, who hopes the program can involve more in-person events as the winter semester progresses. “We wanted to ensure they were transitioning well, they had what they needed at home and were communicating with their faculty members. That was important for them to have an outlet to be able to share their concerns.

“More of our experiences last spring were centered on community building. We were able to check in with them, see what they needed from us and then provide that. Fall semester, our entire program was virtual. Scholars really missed the in-person events, and we did virtual community nights, which I think also was helpful for our team and scholars.”

TESP operates with four “Pillars of Success” in mind: Academic Excellence, Leadership Capacity, Diversity and Inclusion and Future Focus. Students are taught the importance of each pillar throughout their time at Auburn and, in the process, are given a strong foundation from which to build their professional careers after graduation.

“We’re prepping them for the next steps beyond Auburn,” said Prince, who is hosting a TESP Young Alumni Panel later this semester.

To apply for the program – which has grown from 30 to nearly 300 students as it approaches its 15th anniversary – students submit an application and essay that outlines their desire to become a scholar and contribute to the university’s diversity efforts. Essays are scored by a selection committee, and then college deans make the final decisions about who is admitted.

Scholars must maintain a 3.0 cumulative GPA to remain in the program, and students may keep their scholarships for all four years of their collegiate careers by meeting the requirements. OID has partnered with Academic Support to provide academic coaching to any TESP students who need extra help acclimating to college or boosting their GPAs.

An opportunity to thrive

For senior public relations major April Alvarez, TESP helped offer a way for the Montgomery native to become the first person in her family to attend college.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it to college,” Alvarez said. “Not only has (the scholarship) given me the opportunity to be here, but it’s given me so much more than that. There’s a community behind it, so I have these mentors I can lean on.

“I just remember when I got here and thinking, ‘Wow, my world is forever changed.’ I really saw everything from a whole new lens once I got to Auburn and realized I can do well and get this degree, but also have all this knowledge of how to be successful in the professional world.”

Alvarez is president of Students for Clean Water – an Auburn group that works with the Birmingham-based Neverthirst clean water ministry to provide water filters to Nepal and raise awareness for the global water crisis that plagues many nations. In addition, she is interning at Lee County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and helping the association promote its efforts to aid abused and neglected children.

Alvarez is one of the TESP Resource Consultants, the student team responsible for leading community night experiences and facilitating success seminars. The professional skills and leadership experience Alvarez has gained during her four years in the TESP program, she said, have been invaluable.

“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of it and have grown as a person,” said Alvarez, who will graduate in May. “Looking back, I just never would have thought of myself to be in this position of earning a degree and developing so much professionally. I didn’t even know what a cover letter was when I got to Auburn.

“I think having the access to all kinds of information like that has really made a difference for me and made me into more of a well-rounded person.”

Royce Williams – a freshman mechanical engineering major – followed his sister, Naja, into TESP. In addition to educating him about different facets of campus life and resources available to him as a scholar, the program has helped Royce meet people, despite the pandemic.

“It’s been really helpful in paying for my college experience, and the events they host also have been really helpful,” said Williams, a Birmingham native. “I’m more of an introvert, and with COVID going on and most classes being online, it’s been harder for me to meet new people. The activities they have are really helpful for meeting new people who have the same interests as me.

“Having less opportunities to be out on campus walking around and seeing what’s going on and what’s out there because of COVID, this program has really helped in reaching out and recommending different events and organizations to get involved with.”

Williams is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Engineering Academic Excellence Program (EAEP) and the Emerge at Auburn leadership program. He has enjoyed TESP’s success seminars, where he has begun to learn skills that will help him down the road in the workforce.

“One thing I’m really looking forward to getting involved with in college is the co-op programs, because I think it will help me learn a lot about what type of job I want to do and what I want to do outside of college,” Williams said. “So, these programs that help with interview skills and how to make a proper resume and helped me prepare for that experience have been really helpful.”

Prince said the most fulfilling aspects of the program for her and other administrators is seeing firsthand how the students grow and evolve during their time on the Plains.

“Some of the most fulfilling moments come when students have those ‘Aha!’ lightbulb moments and it just clicks,” Prince said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is why all that stuff you’ve been telling me matters.’ I love seeing all those things get put together in those moments.

“I always love seeing students graduate – although it also makes me sad when scholars leave – because our scholars are doing some incredible things. We have scholars all over the nation who are in professional or graduate school or working for amazing companies or teaching. It’s exciting to know that I was a part of preparing them to step into whatever their next chapter might be.”

No matter where her career path leads, Alvarez will take with her experiences and memories that would not have been possible without TESP.

“I’ve gotten much more than just a degree, and I feel a lot more confident as a person and in my abilities,” said Alvarez, who would love to work for Delta Air Lines or in the nonprofit or health care sectors after graduating. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience and learned a lot about myself in the process.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 days ago

Alabama’s Workshops Inc. rebrands as Workshops Empowerment Inc.

(Workshops Empowerment Inc./Contributed)

Workshops Inc., a staple in the Birmingham nonprofit world for more than 120 years, has announced a new name signaling a shift toward better representing the organization’s mission and impact: Workshops Empowerment Inc.

Established in 1900 as Workshop and Rehabilitation Facilities for the Blind and Disabled, Workshops originally employed people with vision impairment to make brooms and mops. The nonprofit later expanded to operate sewing rooms and secured government contracts during both world wars. Woodworking, upholstery and general craft work followed as the organization tackled workforce development in Alabama.

Throughout its history, Workshops has trained and placed thousands of workers who faced a variety of barriers to employment, from visual impairment to traumatic brain injury to recent incarceration. Over time, the nonprofit felt its name just wasn’t standing up to the real impact it was making in the community and its true mission of empowering people with employment barriers to enter the workforce and achieve their vocational potential.

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“The milestone of our 120th anniversary brought the opportunity to assess the organization’s name and realign it with our work and our mission,” said Joel Blackstock, president of the board for Workshops Empowerment.

“We empower people to reach their potential,” Blackstock added. “The shift to Workshops Empowerment honors our history and casts a vision for our impact moving forward. People continue to face barriers to employment, while our state faces a vast shortfall in the skilled workforce. We have experience meeting one foundational need with the other.”

“Our driving force is to see that every person in central Alabama with a disability who wants a job, gets a job,” said Executive Director Susan Crow. “The name shift reinforces our focus on people. Our success is wrapped up in the success of so many individuals that it’s been our honor to support. So, we’re partial to our new initials: WE.”

In 2017, Workshops, a United Way-affiliated agency supported by the Alabama Power Foundation, expanded programming to include handmade products under the name Avondale Mercantile. The organization has rebranded the line to “WE Made” and expanded its product offerings, from handmade wood fire starters, stinky dog sprays, linen and room sprays and an all-natural insect repellent to now making a line of bread mixes.

Emily Thornton West has been brought on to lead WE Made as program manager. “I believe in the power of meaningful employment and community to enrich people’s lives,” said West. “I am excited to build a new program and product line, but I am most excited to work alongside the WE Made participants as they gain the skills and confidence to reach their vocational potential.”

The expansion of the WE Made product line will allow Workshops to train an additional 24 people per year.  Trainees will learn about product development, manufacturing and inventory maintenance. They also train to receive their food handler’s license and “serve safe” designation. The six-month program offers trainees a chance to specialize in other areas, such as social media or learning to drive a truck. The enterprise produces quality products while providing job training to people with significant barriers to employment. Products will be available for purchase on the Workshops Empowerment website or from local retail partners.

Last year’s global outbreak of COVID-19 had a severe impact on nonprofits across the state, causing many to close their doors temporarily. Workshops shut down following Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide order in March, leaving the nearly 1,000 people who depend on its programs in a state of uncertainty. However, after putting strict safety measures in place, Workshops welcomed back program participants after seven weeks.

“We had to really make sure that everyone understands the fact that we are completely reliant on one another right now to keep things going,” said Crow. “The last thing we want is to put anyone in harm’s way and we’ve been so grateful, and lucky, that we’ve been able to continue to offer our programing through this unprecedented time.”

The pandemic, which forced many companies to ask employees to work from home, created a unique opportunity for Workshops to fill more orders by preassembling items into ready-to-ship kits or gift boxes. Some local companies are sending pandemic-related and team-building care packages to employees’ homes. This uptick in business, as well as receiving a federal coronavirus relief loan, has helped Workshops continue its mission during tough times.

“We’re very fortunate to have ended 2020 on good footing, but we are always looking to the future and open to new opportunities,” said Crow. “Whether that be new business customers or creating relationships with local businesses who have an interest in hiring graduates of our programs. We’re always striving to find new ways to help our participants reach their full potential.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 days ago

Construction of Alabama’s new Africatown museum begins

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

A permanent home for Clotilda and Africatown artifacts is one step closer to reality, thanks to an official groundbreaking ceremony Thursday in Mobile for the new Africatown Heritage House. The museum will tell the long untold story of the Clotilda, the nation’s last known slave ship, and the town created by the African survivors who once suffered aboard that ship.

“We’re happy for you to be here because this is serious stuff,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. “To make sure we never, ever forget the story of those people who made this place what it is.”

A $1.3 million contract to build the approximately 5,000-square-foot museum was approved in January by the Mobile County Commission. Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood is earmarking money from her district’s capital improvement plan to cover more than half of the projected expenses.

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“This is the kind of thing that we are supposed to be doing in our community,” Ludgood said. “I just feel honored to be in a position to work with all of our partners to bring this to reality.”

Mobile community breaks ground on Africatown Heritage House museum from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The project is also being financed with $250,000 from the city of Mobile.

“We have an opportunity to unite together to tell this story so when people will come to see Africatown they will sense resiliency,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson. “They will also understand about unity.”

The Africatown Heritage House will feature “Clotilda: the Exhibition,” curated by the History Museum of Mobile in partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission and the Africatown Advisory Council to tell the story of the final journey of the Clotilda, the settlement and history of Africatown, and the discovery of the sunken schooner in 2019 – all through a combination of interpretive text panels, documents and artifacts.

“This exhibition will be a central, physical location for locals and tourists alike to discover the details of this important history,” said History Museum Director Meg Fowler. “The exhibition will cover the story of the Clotilda and include some of the artifacts that have been recovered from the shipwreck, with a special focus on the people of the story – their individuality, their perseverance and the extraordinary community they established.”

On Nov. 10, the Alabama Power Foundation presented a grant to the History Museum of Mobile to help develop the exhibit.

“Alabama Power has been a long-standing partner with the Africatown community,” said Mobile Division Vice President Patrick Murphy. “Over the years, the company has not only provided financial support, but also provided volunteers to help with projects in the community. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Africatown through our support of the Heritage House.”

Story of the Clotilda

In 1860, two co-conspirators, Tim Meaher and Capt. William Foster, bet that they could bring African captives into the United States, although the slave trade had been outlawed for more than 50 years. Under the cover of night, the Clotilda slipped into Mobile Bay with 110 enslaved Africans, becoming the nation’s last known slave ship.

In a remarkable story of resistance and resilience, those Clotilda passengers survived enslavement and the Civil War, dreamed of returning to Africa and, ultimately, at the war’s end, established the community of Africatown near Mobile, said Fowler. Many of the Africatown residents today can trace their ancestry directly to a passenger on the Clotilda.

“The role of the History Museum of Mobile is to curate, create and, eventually, to operate the exhibition,” Fowler said. “From the beginning, two things have been very important to this project. First, anything we did had to be community-driven. We are so grateful to be working with an outstanding group of Africatown community leaders who have guided and advised us at every step of the way. Second, we are committed to an exhibition that is not only historically accurate but also is executed to the highest standards of public history and curatorial practice.”

Construction of the Africatown Heritage House is expected to be complete in July with the Clotilda exhibition to open in August.

Watch the Africatown Heritage House Groundbreaking Ceremony from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 week ago

The Valley Hotel opens in downtown Homewood as Curio Collection by Hilton property

(The Valley Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton/Facebook, YHN)

The Valley Hotel opened on Tuesday in the heart of Homewood, minutes away from downtown Birmingham.

The 129-room upscale boutique hotel is the latest addition to Curio Collection by Hilton, blending Southern charm and contemporary lifestyle with nods to local history across its spacious rooms and suites and public art offerings, chef-driven dining venues and over 7,000 square feet of meetings and event space.

The opening was announced in a release by Valor Hospitality Partners, the hotel development and management company overseeing the project. Birmingham-based HPM provided owner’s representation services for the project.

The Valley Hotel is a part of Hilton Honors, the guest-loyalty program for Hilton’s 18 distinct hotel brands.

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Located at 2727 18th Street S. in Homewood, the property will provide guests with easy access to explore the area’s distinct cultural offerings, such as local shops, art galleries and golf courses, as well as the nearby UAB campus, Red Mountain Park and downtown Birmingham’s top attractions.

“An urban retreat located in bucolic Homewood, The Valley Hotel boasts 129 tailored guest rooms, including nine suites that evoke the sophisticated and vibrant essence of Homewood,” the announcement release outlined. “The guestrooms’ fresh color palette mimics the natural environment of Homewood and its proximity to Red Mountain, while crisp wood and linen accents recall classic Southern hospitality. Bespoke furnishings offer a subtle tie to Homewood’s thriving artistic community. Additional room amenities include a 55” LCD TV, oversized bathrooms and a curated collection of original artwork from local photographers.”

Additionally, The Valley Hotel’s opening introduces three new dining venues – Ironwood Kitchen + Cocktails, The Terrace Bar and The Valley Coffee Co. – to Homewood’s burgeoning culinary scene. Curated by executive chef Doug Zuk, who is renowned in the culinary world for his work in Las Vegas, the hotel’s culinary options all pay homage to Birmingham’s industrial origins in both menu and design.

Among cast iron furnishings and intimate dining nooks, the property’s upscale full-service restaurant, Ironwood Kitchen + Cocktails, serves reimagined Southern comfort cuisine utilizing quality regional ingredients. The eatery is complemented by The Terrace Bar, which offers craft cocktails, cozy fireside seating and unparalleled views of downtown Homewood. For a more casual dining experience, The Valley Coffee Co. serves meticulously roasted craft coffee offerings and specialty seasonal breakfast and lunch items in a warm, welcoming environment.

However, the property’s ties to its location extend beyond the accommodations and dining spaces. The Valley Hotel showcases a new public art offering to the local community and guests with its outdoor art sculpture, The Outpouring, designed by highly regarded artist Salem Barker. Located next to the hotel entrance, The Outpouring’s metal construction speaks to Birmingham’s history with the iron and coal industries, while the curved elements draw on the area’s emphasis of the arts and music.

“Guests will look to The Valley Hotel as an oasis that simultaneously offers both relaxation and the opportunity to explore Birmingham’s unique history,” stated Danny Hiatt, regional director and general manager at The Valley Hotel. “We look forward to welcoming both travelers and locals and offering a thoughtful ‘home away from home’ experience in Homewood.”

For more information or to make a reservation, you can visit www.valleyhotelbirmingham.com.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 weeks ago

19-year-old from Montgomery area is first Alabamian to earn spot on U.S. Ski Team

(Dani Loeb/Facebook)

A teenager born in Pintlala is the first native of the Yellowhammer State to make the United States Ski Team.

Dani Loeb, 19, told WSFA she began her athletic career doing gymnastics at United Gym Stars and Cheer in Montgomery.

“I was really into gymnastics. I got up to pretty high levels,” Loeb told the station. “It’s really good for aerials because of the whole air awareness.”

Loeb transitioned from gymnastics to skiing around age 13, eventually catching the eye of a national team recruiter at a ski demo in Virginia.

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According to her website, she became the youngest woman to ever become a member of Elite Aerial Training Center and moved to Lake Placid, New York, to continue her training.

Loeb quickly ascended through the ranks of high-level ski and snowboard competitors, relocating to Park City, Utah in 2019. Park City is the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team’s official training site. Loeb was officially selected to the national team shortly afterward, in the spring of 2020.

The world-class skier has more in her life than competition.

“At age 6, Dani endured a near-death water moccasin accident that compromised her immune system for two years,” relays her site.

The incident stuck with Loeb who is now an ambassador for Children’s of Alabama, according to her Facebook page.

Loeb continued to represent her home state even though her career keeps her in colder climates. She recently posed for a photo on top of a snow-covered mountain, wearing a University of Alabama sweatshirt.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

2 weeks ago

Foundation launches to provide equitable sports opportunities to Birmingham-area youth

(ZeroZero Foundation/Facebook, YHN)

The ZeroZero Foundation on Monday announced that it will launch this week, serving the Birmingham area.

Founded last year to address perceived gaps in the sports industry, the ZeroZero Foundation will provide children with sports-related enrichment and educational opportunities through several key programs and events.

A release outlined that the ZeroZero Foundation was founded by Caleb Schmidt, an executive at Magic City marketing agency Knight Eady, after seeing three critical areas lacking in the sports industry: access, inspiration and aspiration.

The organization reportedly aims to broaden children’s perspectives and identify their passions to help them achieve a career path in sports, if they so desire. The foundation’s mission is to leverage the diverse opportunities of sports to enrich the lives of others — one child, one family and one community at a time.

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The release noted that a typical family with kids who play sports spends about $700 a year on fees, equipment and other related expenses; however, some families spend up to $35,000 annually.

“This financial gap does not allow families of lower socioeconomic status to provide the same opportunities as other more financially advantaged families,” the release remarked. “The sports industry also lacks inspiration; only four percent of children who graduate from high school will receive an athletic scholarship to play sports for their college or university. While many children dream of playing sports at the collegiate level, it is not feasible for all. ZeroZero wants children to know that a career in sports is still possible even without playing at the collegiate level. Finally, of top roles in sports outside of playing professionally, white individuals comprise most of the industry. The ZeroZero Foundation aims to close these gaps in the sports industry because when the score starts at 0-0, the foundation can create equitable opportunities for success.”

The foundation features three phases: entry, enrich and enhance. Each phase will reportedly provide unique opportunities to children from ages 6 to 18 that they would not otherwise have the ability to access.

“We are thrilled to start making a difference in the lives of countless children in the Birmingham area,” stated Schmidt, founder and president of the ZeroZero Foundation. “As someone who believes in sports and is passionate about the industry, it is time for a change. We need to create equitable opportunities for all children interested in sports and show them that a career in sports is more than just playing professionally.”

Upon its launch, the ZeroZero Foundation has 12 board members serving to further its mission:

Bertram Young- Resource Development and Communications Director, BGCCA

Caleb Schmidt- Vice President of Sponsorships, Knight Eady

Carlos Aleman- Deputy Director- Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama

Charles DeCroes- Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama- Vice President of Technology Support

Holly Dubois- Senior Accountant, Truitt Tingle Paramore Agent

Jeh Jeh Pruitt- Reporter – Fox6 WBRC

Kristina Hendrix- Dynetics, Director of Communications

Leah Drury- Founder/Owner, Battle Republic

Martin Newton- Athletic Director Samford University

Reggie Torbor- Brasfield & Gorrie- Personal Development Manager

Ron Steele- Athletic Director & Head Basketball Coach, John Carroll High School

Trent Wright- Vice President, Grease Trap Solutions, BHT

“I am looking forward to serving on the ZeroZero board and working to enrich the lives of children through sports,” commented Torbor, a former Auburn star and NFL linebacker. “I was fortunate enough to see the power sports had in my life, but not all children had or will have the same opportunities I had. ZeroZero can help bridge the gap and allow more children who are passionate about sports with the opportunity to enter the sports industry other than through their athletic ability.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 weeks ago

Mobile’s Mardi Gras kept alive with downtown porch celebration

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Mobile is the birthplace of America’s first Mardi Gras, and with pandemic safety guidelines in place, Mobilians have found an unusual way to commemorate this annual event with the Mobile Porch Parade.

Front yards throughout Mobile’s downtown neighborhoods have been transformed into Mardi Gras floats, with some even calling the alternate celebration “Yardi Gras.”

“As a descendent of Joe Cain, the father of Mobile’s Mardi Gras, it’s important to my family to safely carry on with this celebration,” said resident Heather Brantley. “Living downtown has given us an opportunity to be a part of keeping Mardi Gras alive during these challenging times. Right now, everyone is in need of some form of revelry that Mardi Gras brings. Our porch parade is another example of how our community has supported each other through the pandemic.”

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More than 400 homes and businesses registered to be part of the Mobile Porch Parade map that was designed to show parade routes for safe touring. All homes and businesses are encouraged to join in the fun through Mobile’s social media campaign by sharing photos and tagging @mobileporchparade or #mobileporchparade.

Be a part of the Mobile Porch Parade celebration by following the festivities on Facebook and Instagram.

To learn more about the history of Mobile’s Mardi Gras, visit the Mobile Carnival Museum.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 weeks ago

SAIL delivers strong academic gains in challenging environment

(Summer Adventures in Learning/Contributed)

The pandemic forced many schools to switch to remote learning in spring 2020. But it also forced a virtual shift in critical summer academic programs.

The big question: Would those summer programs be as effective in keeping kids on track?

Results from one major statewide summertime academic initiative indicate the answer is yes. That’s encouraging as leaders with SAIL plan for another summer of virtual programming.

Formed in 2012 as a project of six Alabama-based philanthropies, SAIL, which stands for Summer Adventures in Learning, operates in 15 Alabama counties, including in the Black Belt, metro Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. The Alabama Power Foundation is among the nonprofits supporting SAIL.

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This summer, SAIL will support 37 independent academic programs in the Birmingham area and in Black Belt counties. In the Huntsville area, SAIL is supporting three partners that will operate programs at 14 sites.

Academic summer programs have always been important, said Jim Wooten, chairman of the SAIL board of directors. But they proved even more critical after schools closed because of the pandemic.

Educators have long realized and confirmed that summer learning is vital to supporting and maintaining academic progress. In 2019, state lawmakers passed the Alabama Literacy Act. The law incorporated student summer reading among its requirements. In 2020, Gov. Kay Ivey promoted the Alabama Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which also supports summer learning programs.

Two Alabama school systems are collaborating with SAIL to meet Alabama Literacy Act summer reading requirements. Blount County Schools is using SAIL funding to offer reading camps for K-3 students, also in support of state education goals.

“State law requires school systems to offer summer reading camps, but leaves the implementation to each district,” said Mitchie Neel, executive director of the Blount County Education Foundation. “We know from research that how you structure a summer learning program influences how much students will learn. Partnering with SAIL allows us to meet students where they are while nurturing the whole child and bringing them up to grade level.”

In summer 2020, SAIL supported 34 programs: 14 provided in-person programs, 17 were virtual and three offered at-home curriculum. With COVID-19 health restrictions, enrollment was limited because physical distancing required smaller classes and because many families chose to keep their children at home.

For the programs that pivoted to online programming, lack of internet access in underserved, rural communities limited enrollment. As a result, enrollment dropped from SAIL’s typical participation of more than 2,500 students to about 1,250.

Last year, many SAIL programs conducted online programming for the first time. Educators had to adapt to a steep learning curve, requiring close collaboration. Wooten said extra effort was required to keep children engaged in the virtual classes. Texts, emails and one-on-one Zoom calls were used to ensure students attended classes and stayed attentive. The strategies also demanded greater parent participation. Many SAIL-funded programs reported their best-ever family involvement.

In the end, a review of the results from last summer showed that academic gains were about the same as in recent years, proving that online classes can be effective. SAIL students in 2020 gained an average of 2.3 months in reading skills and 1.6 months in math, Wooten said.

They were so effective many SAIL programs intend to keep using online strategies even after students are able to fully return to in-person programming.

SAIL’s successes are especially salient this year because the novel coronavirus is exacerbating academic losses for at-risk students. Research shows students from low-income families typically lose two to three months of reading and math skills every summer. Most of SAIL’s students come from low-income households, with 84% of the students enrolled in 2020 qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches.

The Alabama Power Foundation is supporting SAIL’s planning for this summer’s programs.

“The foundation also provides valuable leadership,” Wooten said. Tan Grayson, Community Initiatives program manager at the foundation, is on the SAIL board. Grayson worked with SAIL leaders last year to help the organization acquire devices that allowed students to participate in programs remotely.

To learn more about SAIL and to find a summer learning program near you, visit https://sailalabama.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 weeks ago

The Wine Loft has aged well as a downtown Birmingham pioneer

(Á la Carte Alabama/Contributed)

Wine needs a good aging to be its best. The same can be said of The Wine Loft, a pioneering destination that was once an oasis in a sea of vacant buildings but is now surrounded by other bars and restaurants that bring vibrancy as well as competition.

Owner Mike Dunnavant now has 14 years under his belt and he knows there is a fine line between aging well and growing stale. He talked to Á la Carte Alabama for Alabama NewsCenter about how the business continues to evolve with its food and drink offerings.

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2 weeks 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.

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“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)

2 weeks ago

Alabama actor Bradley Constant plays young Dwayne Johnson on NBC’s ‘Young Rock’

(Photo/Mark Taylor and NBC)

Though he started out as an athlete in Tuscaloosa, Bradley Constant came up with another dream when a shoulder injury sidelined him in middle school.

“I was obsessed with the Disney Channel,” he says with a laugh. “I watched it all the time and I said, ‘I want to do this,’ and I started taking classes in Birmingham every single weekend.”

Those lessons with Cathi Larsen have paid off … in a big way. Constant has landed one of the title roles in the new NBC show “Young Rock.” In the series, which premieres Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., Constant, along with two other actors, plays wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at an early age. Constant, who is 22, plays him at 15.

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The role is Constant’s first big Hollywood gig, the culmination, so far, of a career that has been fairly methodical if a bit nomadic. Constant’s Birmingham acting classes led to classes in New York, and he and his mother, Julie, eventually moved there when he was 14.

“We got a rental car, packed what we could in it and moved to New York,” he recalls. “We stayed in an attic, and I slept 2 feet away from my mom for months. Eventually, we got a place in Midtown, and I started taking classes there.”

Four years later, Constant’s manager urged him to move to Los Angeles, and Constant asked his mother to make a big move again. “As awesome as my mom is, she said yes,” he says. “We only took what we could fit in a suitcase.”

That was four years ago, and the trek has had “ups and downs, lots of no’s, lots of classes, lots of growth, lots of cool commercials,” Constant says.

And finally, in January 2020, Constant’s big break came in the form of an audition for “Young Rock.”

“An audition for a show about the life of Dwayne Johnson,” Constant recalls thinking. “This is perfect! I don’t think we had ever found a role that seemed more fitting than this role. I booked it, and then March comes around. COVID hit, and things shut down.”

It didn’t shut down for long. “Young Rock” took its production on the road to Brisbane, Australia, and in a safe, COVID-19-free environment, six episodes of the series were filmed.

In the show, Johnson stars as himself, and the Rock is running for president in 2032. As he campaigns and he’s asked about his childhood, the show flashes back to his youth at different ages – Constant playing him at 15 and two other actors playing him at ages 10 and 18-20.

“It kind of pops back and forth,” Constant says.

Though he doesn’t have any scenes with the adult Johnson, the Rock was often on the set working with the younger actors.

“It was weird,” Constant says. “Me and my dad used to watch wrestling all the time, and the Rock was on there and one of my favorites. We had all of the wrestling action figures, so it was weird thinking I used to play with his doll.”

The role, though, was a perfect one for Constant.

“I didn’t have to stretch too much to play the character,” he says. “Reading the lines sounded so fluid to me.”

Constant said the younger characters on “Young Rock” are “very relatable.”

“It felt like I could just slip into it,” says Constant, who graduated from Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa. “I’m not necessarily playing the guy on TV that everyone knows. This is him as a teenager, and no one knows what he was like as a teenager. There’s a lot of reality and relatable situations that normal people can relate to. He wasn’t always this big famous person with lots of money and no issues. Things his family was dealing with is stuff a lot of people everywhere can relate to.”

Constant still lives with his mother in Los Angeles, and about this time last year, she put the sacrifices her son has made into perspective for him.

“I graduated from high school in 2016,” says Constant, whose father, William, grandparents and other family live in Tuscaloosa (Marvin Constant, who played football for the Crimson Tide, is a cousin). “Last year, my friends were graduating from college, and I booked this series. She said, ‘This is your graduation present.’”

Constant is hoping there will be more of “Young Rock,” but he’s ready for anything that comes his way.

“My goal in this career is to enjoy every bit and see where it takes me,” he says. “My dream has definitely shifted from wanting to be on the Disney Channel. I’ve fallen in love with acting in general. My goal is a lot broader now. I don’t have huge expectations. I just want to work hard and see what happens.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

HomeTown Lenders Birmingham steps up to feed Fultondale tornado victims

(HomeTown Lenders/Contributed)

Following the devastating EF-3 tornado that struck Fultondale and nearby areas in Northern Jefferson County recently, HomeTown Lenders’ (HTL) Birmingham branch wanted to not only give back to the community, but also bring local residents together in the trying time.

The HTL Birmingham team did just that, cooking and serving 500 hotdogs and hamburgers to affected residents.

“It is always great to get out in the community and serve. Today was so uplifting to see so many people working together to help this devastated community,” commented Thomas Dickinson Jr., branch manager of HomeTown Lenders Birmingham.

Giving back to the community, especially during times of elevated need, is something that HTL prides itself on as a company. Founded and headquartered in Huntsville, HTL is always proud to support its home state — and the hometowns that make Alabama special.

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A rapidly emerging leader in the national mortgage lending industry, Hometown now has more than 90 branch locations and is doing business in more than 40 states.

“Especially as we grow, we are surpassingly proud of what makes Hometown unique,” stated Billy Taylor, CEO of Hometown Lenders. “We continue to place unwavering focus on maintaining the mindset that HTL is a ministry to those who make it up, then to those that cross our path. This all starts on the local level, with the communities in which we work and live.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 weeks ago

Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama invests $1.05 million in Alabama-based research

(BCRFA/Contributed)

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA) announced an investment of $1.05 million in Alabama-based breast cancer research, bringing the organization’s total impact over 25 years to nearly $11 million.

Matching their 2019 investment, the organization will support 14 research projects throughout the state, including studies at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Auburn UniversityCerFluxMitchell Cancer Institute at University of South AlabamaTuskegee University and Southern Research. Funding was raised in 2020 by corporate sponsorships, special events, individual donations, grants from local, state and federal funders and sales of the Breast Cancer Research specialty license plate.

“Despite COVID-19, individuals and companies throughout the state stepped up for breast cancer research,” said Beth Bradner Davis, executive director of the BCRFA. “Our staff and board are truly thrilled to match last year’s investment, allowing us to support critical projects which will change therapies and treatments for breast cancer patients here in Alabama and around the world. Unfortunately, diagnoses don’t stop during a pandemic. This investment will ensure that research won’t either.”

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The BCRFA invests in projects in developing stages, providing “seed money” to attract grant funding. From there, many projects go on to win national grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others.

“The support of organizations like the BCRFA is crucial to our work at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center,” said Dr. Barry Sleckman, director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Developing projects often have an undeniable positive impact for research in the field of breast cancer. Each discovery brings us closer to a cure – and the BCRFA is helping get us there.”

The 2020 award recipients include:

  • Dr. Randall Davis; Suzanne Lapi, Ph.D.; Dr. Erica Stringer-Reasor – “Advancing the Prognostic, Immunotherapeutic, and Imaging Potential of FCRL6 in Breast Cancer” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Mick Edmonds, Ph.D. – “A Novel SRC Inhibitor for the Treatment of Metastatic Breast Cancer” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Xu Feng, Ph.D.; Douglas Hurst, Ph.D. – “RANK Signaling Pathways in Breast Cancer Development” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Selvarangan Ponnazhagan, Ph.D. – “Combinatorial Genetic Immunotherapy and RANKL Antagonism for Breast Cancer” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Troy Randall, Ph.D.; Dr. Erica Stringer-Reasor; Ahmed Elkhanany, MD – “Identifying Neo-Antigen-Reactive T Cells in Breast Cancer Using Organoid Cultures” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Rajeev S. Samant, Ph.D.; David A. Schneider, Ph.D. – “Unraveling a Novel Vulnerability of Breast Cancer” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Nan Cher (Flo) Yeo, Ph.D. – “Understanding WRN-Dependent Pathways to Regulate Genome Stability in TNBC” (O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB).
  • Corinne Augelli- Szafran, Ph.D.; Omar Moukha Chafiq, Ph.D.; Rebecca Boohaker, Ph.D. – “Development of Novel Clofarabine Analogs for Breast Cancer Therapy,” BCRFA Impact Award (Southern Research).
  • Karim Budhwani, Ph.D., DLA – “Personalized Oncology Efficacy Test (POET)” – BCRFA Innovation Award (CerFlux).
  • Natalie Gassman, Ph.D.; Michelle Schuler, Ph.D.; Marie Miguad, Ph.D. – “Targeted Nanoparticle Delivery to Reduce STAT3 and Improve Cell Killing in Triple Negative Breast Cancer” (Mitchell Cancer Institute at University of South Alabama).
  • Nancy Merner, Ph.D.; Dr. Erica Stringer-Reasor – “Breaking Research Participation Barriers in Alabama – An African American Breast Cancer Genetics Study” (Auburn University and O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.
  • Nancy Merner, Ph.D.; Clayton Yates, Ph.D. – “The Identification of Genetic Risk Factors Associated with Hereditary African American Breast Cancer” (Auburn University and Tuskegee University).
  • Jingjing Qian, Ph.D. – “Reducing Breast Cancer Risk in Alabama – The Role of Medications” (Auburn University)
  • Robert Sobol, Ph.D. – “Exploiting a Novel, Live-Cell, Real-Time Poly-ADP-Ribose Probe for Discovery of PARG Inhibitors” (Mitchell Cancer Institute at University of South Alabama).

Efforts that helped fund this year’s donation included community events throughout the state of Alabama, grant awards and corporate partnerships. Companies that sponsored included the Alabama Power Foundation, ARC Realty, Bank of America/Merrill, Caring Foundation/Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Hill Crest Foundation, iHeart Media, Protective Life Foundation, Renasant Bank, Robert M. Meyer Foundation, Sirote & Permutt, Spectrum Reach, Tameron Automotive, Thompson Family Foundation, Thrivent Financial, Wind Creek Wetumpka, UAB Benevolent Fund, Vulcan Materials Co. and more.

About half of the total $1.05 million donation was raised through sales of the BCRFA specialty car tag. Available at DMVs statewide, nearly 14,000 vehicles in Alabama sport the Breast Cancer Research tag. The BCRFA invests 100% of funds from tag sales into research.

The BCRFA supports a comprehensive approach to battling breast cancer through collaborative and innovative research to help diagnose, treat, prevent and eradicate the disease. All funds raised remain in Alabama, supporting local research, which in turn, makes a national impact.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

Alabama State University, Alabama Shakespeare Festival formalize partnership for students’ benefit

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Alabama State University and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival officially became partners Thursday.

Dr. Quinton T. Ross Jr., ASU’s president, and Festival Artistic Director Rick Dildine signed a Memorandum of Understanding to continue an academic collaboration “enhancing the artistic education” of ASU students enrolled in the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

In a news release distributed by ASU, Ross said he hopes the agreement and relationship with the famed theater will “broaden the educational and career opportunities of ASU students by building pathways of diversity and artistic enrichment.”

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In his remarks during the live signing, Ross said he’s excited to continue the relationship formally and hopes it will broaden the sights of the university’s students and provide an avenue to foster their talents in acting and production through internships, training and the opportunity to gain class credits.

Dildine also expressed excitement about the relationship. “The first word in both our entities is ‘Alabama,’” he said. “When you build a community, you cannot build it alone.” He added that he hopes the relationship furthers the theater’s goal of providing experience and network-building for students, particularly students of color.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1972 at a high school auditorium in Anniston and moved to Montgomery in 1985. The theater offers a host of professional productions from Shakespeare to modern works.

Alabama State University was founded in 1867 in Marion as a teacher college for former slaves and played an essential role during the civil rights movement. Today, with more than 7,000 students, the Montgomery-based university offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks 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.

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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)

3 weeks ago

Alabama’s Jesse Lewis Sr. has seen and made nearly a century of history

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Jesse J. Lewis Sr. has lived almost a century of history and, along the way, made some of his own.

Born Jan. 3, 1925, Lewis last month celebrated his 96th birthday. He grew up in the Great Depression, dropped out of high school, served under Gen. George Patton in World War II, suffered through the racial hatred of Jim Crow and the civil rights era, became a serial entrepreneur, earned five academic degrees, served in the cabinet of one of Alabama’s most controversial politicians, spent a decade as a college president and this past year witnessed a deadly pandemic unlike anything he has seen while watching the social justice movement unfold.

Across 11 decades, Lewis has learned many life lessons, which he shared in his book “One Man’s Opinion: Together We Can Do This,” published in 2020. Lewis sat down recently with Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite for a conversation on legacy, lessons learned, the events of 2020 and how people can work together toward a brighter future.

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Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite chats with Birmingham business and community legend Jesse Lewis Sr. from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Lewis said he wrote the book “primarily for young Blacks” to help them understand how to succeed in life. The book emphasizes education, entrepreneurship and the power – and necessity – of voting as Lewis shares his life story and what he has learned along the way.

As Crosswhite said of the book, “Your intended audience may have been young Black people, but I will tell you there are lessons in the book for people of every color. … It is a book of optimism and hope, and some tough talk and straight talk, and I know that’s what you intended it to be.”

Lewis’ story begins in Northport, Alabama, where his grandmother Sarah Davis raised him and four of his younger cousins in a small shotgun house.

“I was the oldest, and the bad thing about being the oldest, you’re the one who has to bring some money home to feed the other children,” Lewis said. “All these kids didn’t have no father. We learned how to make a living. It was the responsibility of everybody to bring home a little piece of money every day. That’s one of my great assets.”

He developed that asset cutting grass, selling pies his grandmother made and helping run a laundry business. Lewis honed his entrepreneurial skills in the Army, which he joined during World War II. He was a high school dropout and just 16 years old. “If you were a person of color and you walked up … they didn’t ask you nothing,” he said.

Lewis sent “every penny” of his pay to his grandmother. He did laundry for other soldiers and sold them candy and other items so he’d have some spending money.

His commanding officer was from Auburn and appointed Lewis battalion supply sergeant. The battalion built bridges and it was Lewis’ job to make sure the soldiers had the supplies they needed.

“They didn’t know I didn’t have any education. I had just finished the 10th grade,” he said.

What Lewis figured out is that when given the opportunity to hire a dozen soldiers from the battalion to keep the supplies going, “I picked out the smartest ones in the group. I was the dumbest in the group.” Lewis said the battalion “won every award for two years on having the best run battalion in the 183rd Engineers.”

After the war, Lewis used the GI Bill to get an education. In 1954, after he graduated from Booker T. Washington Business College in Birmingham, he created Jesse J. Lewis & Associates. The company was one of the nation’s first Black-owned PR firms and now operates as Agency54, a full-service marketing and advertising agency.

When Lewis was a student at Miles College in Birmingham and working at the school newspaper, he called Alabama Gov. George Wallace and asked him for an interview. Wallace, a staunch segregationist, agreed.

“I was the head of the publication and my dream was to interview George Wallace,” Lewis told Crosswhite. “I asked him, I said, ‘Governor, are you a racist?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ That shocked me. … He said, ‘Yes, I am. I wasn’t born one, nobody is born one, but I was trained by my grandfather and my father. They trained me to be a racist, but I’m not training my children to be racists. And in addition to that, I’m not going to die a racist.’”

In 1964, just after the height of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Lewis founded The Birmingham Times, as he put it in his book, “because there was no voice within the Black community to speak for it.” While Lewis no longer owns the newspaper, it continues to publish weekly. He is its publisher emeritus and still contributes an occasional column.

After Lewis’ interview with Wallace, the pair forged an unlikely friendship that led to Lewis working on Wallace’s 1968 independent campaign for president. Lewis says of Wallace being paralyzed from shots fired by Arthur Bremer during Wallace’s 1972 campaign for president: “My guess would be if he had not gotten shot he would be president.

“Gov. Wallace was one of the best politicians I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Lewis said. “He just had the knack of saying the right thing at the right time. He was one of my favorite persons out of all the people I know.”

Lewis said he was asked once about running for public office and he strongly considered doing it – until his wife, Helen, “told me she wouldn’t vote for me. I said if your wife is telling you she won’t vote for you, you’re not a politician.”

In 1975, Wallace appointed Lewis to be the state’s director of Traffic Safety, becoming the first Black since Reconstruction to serve in an Alabama governor’s cabinet. Lewis drew criticism from many Blacks at the time for going to work for Wallace.

In 1978, the state Board of Education appointed Lewis president of Lawson State Technical College, a position he held until 1987.

Through the decades, Lewis continued to create businesses. He established the Lewis Group, a public policy consulting firm, in 1995 while Jesse J. Lewis & Associates continued operations as Elements Communications. Lewis merged Elements with the Lewis Group in 2013. The firm rebranded as Agency54 in 2016, and Lewis continues as its chairman.

This past year, more than six decades after Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus sparked the modern civil rights era, a series of deaths of unarmed Blacks – several at the hands of police – triggered a social justice movement across the United States. Crosswhite asked Lewis to compare the two movements.

“The only comparison you could make, once upon a time Alabama was classified as one of the worst states in the world as it relates to treatment of Blacks,” Lewis said. “That’s not true today. … I can see the progress. I can feel the progress.

“It’s not where it should be, but as my grandmother said, ‘Be going in the right direction.’ We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Even before the social justice movement swept across America this past summer, the country had confronted, and continues to confront, COVID-19. More than 441,000 Americans (including about 7,700 Alabamians) have died as of Feb. 1, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center tracking.

Lewis, ever the optimist, believes the pandemic will make Americans a stronger people.

“You’re going to come out with some better people. You’re going to come out with people having more sensitivity to one another. They’re helping one another more and more and more,” he said. “It’s not going to end today, but I’m going to guarantee when this thing is over … you’re going to have people pulling together more than they ever have before.”

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

Hoover teen runs virtual camp teaching kids how to code

(HooverCamp/Contributed)

A high school student from Hoover and two of his friends have teamed up in the last year to offer an online summer camp in computer programming to Alabama students ages 8-14.

Shaams Nur, 15, founded last year what is now known as HooverCamp with fellow high schoolers Leo Song and Victor Song. Nur is president of the camp, which offers sessions in entrepreneurship in addition to coding.

Students at the camp participate via videoconferencing software. The camp will host its next session in summer 2021. Those attending learn the basics of coding over a week and make a final project that is either a game or animation.

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Coding is mentioned by economic observers as one of the most critical skills for the future of the American workforce. Coding’s availability in public classrooms has increased in recent years but is still not universally offered.

Nur told Yellowhammer in a recent interview that he was first introduced to coding as part of an optional enrichment program at Bluff Park Elementary School.

When he was “in the third or fourth grade” he made a game about a turtle trying to make it home after getting lost.

“I really loved that feeling of creating my own project, and I just want kids today to have that feeling too, but the thing is there are no classes that teach kids how to do this in our public school system,” Nur relayed about his early days of coding.

HooverCamp ran its first session in the summer of 2020 and ran two sessions in the winter, including their first in entrepreneurship.

Students interested in signing up for the summer 2021 session can go here. Nur said he and his team are still working on what the pricing will be for the coming year.

He promised the cost would be inexpensive, saying, “Our goal is not to generate revenue, we’re just trying to make an impact and let kids know that there is more to this career path than math and science.”

HooverCamp charged $60 for one of the winter sessions and $100 if a student attended both.

“We donate half our profits regardless to the Hoover Public library, we already did that this winter,” Nur added.

HooverCamp teaches its students to program in the computer language Scratch, designed by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to be accessible by beginner coding students. Nur said he used the same language when he was first learning to code.

Yellowhammer asked Nur why he chose the age range 8-14 as eligible to take part in the camp.

“The reason we teach eight-year-olds is because we want to introduce them to the topic earlier. Studies have shown kids are more creative when they’re younger. … We really want to introduce them to these topics,” he noted.

The reason for the cap at 14 was simpler. Nur, at age 15, didn’t want to feel like he was lecturing students his age or older.

Nur said he hopes to create a self-sustaining version of HooverCamp by inviting students who excel to become teachers of future sessions.

“We can make this a huge thing in the Birmingham community, even the Southeastern region,” Nur said about the future of HooverCamp.

More information about HooverCamp can be found on its website.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

4 weeks ago

Alabama Power’s Reid Buckner is an unsung hero with an extra eye on safety

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Reid Buckner is a “detective” who locates problems for Alabama Power before they become critical and create power system failures and outages. He uses infrared thermography to locate equipment that is overheated. Buckner, a marketing technician in the Enhanced Power Quality group, also focuses on problem-solving and analysis, helping assure that power is within the proper specifications.

“I was lucky enough to get the job in Power Quality and it’s turned out to be, I think, a good fit,” said Buckner, who has worked at the company for five years and joined his current team in 2019.

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Reid Buckner is a “detective” for Alabama Power from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Upon entering the Power Quality group, Buckner underwent safety training at the General Services Complex in Calera, completed a power quality investigator training course hosted by the Electric Power Research Institute, and earned his Level 1 and 2 certifications in infrared thermography.

“Reid is becoming an expert in the use of infrared thermography and finding problems,” said William McCraney, Buckner’s supervisor.

A major portion of Buckner’s job involves traveling to commercial, industrial and residential customer locations to ensure company equipment is functioning properly to avoid system interruptions.

“This job is very interesting and it’s something different nearly every day,” he said. “I have enjoyed my time here and don’t plan on going anywhere else.”

During the pandemic, Buckner and other Power Quality personnel were tasked with examining Alabama Power equipment at hospitals and nursing homes. Buckner inspected more than 300 facilities to prevent outages at these critical businesses.

Buckner and his wife have two daughters and five grandchildren, all under the age of 7.

“The grandchildren are a big part of my life,” Buckner said. “I like to do outdoor things. I like to shoot and hunt and do some fishing, but mostly it’s the grandkids.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 weeks ago

Uncle Mick’s adds Cajun flavors to Alabama’s Fountain City

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

You might have an ahnvee and not even know it.

Ahnvee is Cajun slang for “hunger,” as in: “I’ve got an ahnvee for some good gumbo.”

Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café in Prattville can satisfy that hunger. In fact, the restaurant’s chicken and sausage gumbo is one of the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. It really is that good, with tender pieces of smoky chicken, spicy slices of andouille and finely diced “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers and celery) in a roux-dark stew with a healthy, but not overwhelming, bite.

But Uncle Mick’s shrimp creole over dirty rice or the wonderfully rich shrimp a la creme or the crawfish etouffee or even the not-so-Cajun-sounding pork tenderloin in a savory red wine cream sauce also are worth a visit.

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Mickey “Uncle Mick” Thompson opened his restaurant in February 2009, aiming to serve authentic, scratch-made Cajun food in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Thompson is not Cajun, but he has a definite passion for this rustic Southern cuisine, and he learned from a Lafayette, Louisiana, native. The guy was a Cajun and a master carpenter. Thompson hired him for a two-week stint, and the man ended up staying on for 17 years. “We cooked and we ate, and we cooked and we ate,” Thompson says. “And that’s where I learned to enjoy Cajun.”

Uncle Mick’s packs the satisfaction into Cajun cuisine from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Thompson is a businessman who, after some three decades of success in the Montgomery-River Region real estate market, retired and pretty quickly recognized that retirement was not working for him.

So, he did some research and realized that authentic Cajun food is hard to come by between Birmingham and Mobile. Plus, he loves this kind of country cooking. And, because Cajun dishes usually are made in large, one-pot quantities (and get better the longer they simmer), this kind of cooking lends itself to no-frills cafeteria-style dining.

No frills, however, doesn’t mean an impersonal experience. A visit to Uncle Mick’s is exactly opposite.

The first thing you’ll notice is Lacy Gregg, Thompson’s daughter and the restaurant’s manager, greeting customers at the beginning of the steam table line. She’ll ask if you’ve been there before, if you have any food allergies, if you like spice or not. Then, even if there’s a line of people out the door, she’ll offer you some samples. After all, not everyone likes alligator, or they might not think they do.

“Once I get them past the idea of eating gator,” Gregg says, “most people love it.” In fact, the alligator sauce piquante was one of the best dishes we tried during our visit — the gator was surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. Also, the spicy, tomato-based sauce had a delicious, back-of-the-throat bite.

This “try before you buy” approach with every customer is simply what they do here. “From day one, we’ve always done the tasting,” Thompson says. “And the reason we do that is because people don’t realize what it’s supposed to taste like … unless you’ve been to Cajun country.” New Orleans, he adds, is more about Creole cooking.

The tasting tradition is part of their commitment to customer satisfaction. “Good service doesn’t cost a thing,” Thompson says. “People take the time to drive from Montgomery or Birmingham – people come from all over to eat – they need good food and good service and a good place to sit down and enjoy it.”

Uncle Mick is a Cajun ambassador of sorts. He’s the friendly guy with the gray ponytail walking around the restaurant greeting people and posing for photos with some.  His restaurant’s website has a Cajun FAQ section to explain dishes and guide pronunciations. It’s all to gently educate and encourage folks who might be unfamiliar with Cajun cuisine beyond gumbo.

“People hear about Cajun … and think, ‘heat, it’s too hot’ Tabasco and all that,” Thompson says. “But Cajun is all about flavor. You can be flavorful without the heat. You can’t just put heat in there and call it Cajun.”

Here’s another cool thing they do at Uncle Mick’s: You can order cups or bowls of the gumbo and other dishes as well as small or large plates of entrees and sides. And you can get two different entrees on both the small and large plates. It’s a good approach when there are so many great choices.

Everything – from the Louisiana-style entrees to the country-cooking sides like lima beans, cucumber salad, field peas, deviled eggs and the absolutely delicious cornbread – is made from scratch. There’s regular potato salad and a Cajun version. Thompson says he knows the folks who visit from Louisiana because they want their gumbo served over potato salad. Desserts range from caramel cake to pecan pie; some are made in house, others come from Yesteryears (another of Uncle Mick’s businesses) a few doors down.

The restaurant’s dining areas (a front room, a long hallway and a light-filled back room) are almost as much a draw as the food.

The spaces are filled with a wide variety of items Thompson has collected:  antiques (including a wood fragment of the Eagle and Phenix dam on the Chattahoochee River that dates to the late 1800s); paintings from regional artists; taxidermy birds, fish, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, deer and a bobcat; several framed wildlife conservation certificates; Mardi Gras beads and a vintage Second Line photograph; Alabama tourism posters; and architectural elements including a stunning stained glass window from a New Orleans church that Thompson had custom set in iron so he could hang it from the beadboard ceiling of the front room.

People come to Uncle Mick’s in Prattville from all over the state and beyond. The nearby military base brings in customers, so does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. “Golfers come here from all over the country,” Thompson says, “all over the world. We have guys come every year … buddies get together and come down to play for two days, three days.” They play golf, and they eat gumbo.

The restaurant caters everything from birthday parties to weddings; sells roux as well as its own house-made hot sauce; and does a brisk business in to-go items in pint, quart and (with a little notice) gallon quantities.

Of course, the pandemic dealt the restaurant a blow, but regular, loyal customers have kept the place going with take-out and, now, socially distanced in-person dining.

“Back in March of last year when the whole thing started, we dropped 60% pretty much overnight, which was a very, very scary experience going from increasing business every year to all of a sudden your business is just pretty much non-existent,” Gregg says.

“With our set-up, we were able to very quickly transition into to-go (orders), and being such a small town … we had a lot of community behind us. They were making sure that the small businesses were getting what they needed, customer-wise, to be able to make it through what was going on.”

Uncle Mick’s customers, Gregg says, range from blue collar to professionals. “I’ve had Riley Green come in and eat, and the mayor of the town comes in all the time. The secretary of state was in here a couple weeks ago. And it’s a lot of families; I love being able to see them come in.”

When Thompson and Gregg were worried about losing income from the holiday parties that usually book the back room during all of December, the Fountain City became a Christmas lights destination. “People came from everywhere to look at our Christmas lights downtown,” Gregg says. That influx of new business helped offset those holiday parties lost to COVID-19 restrictions.

Thompson says he’s happy about the consistency (in product and in personnel) he’s had over the past 12 years. There’s very little turnover with the Uncle Mick’s staff. “I treat my people fair and treat them good,” he says. “We’re like a family.”

Gregg says she’s proud of her father and what he’s been able to accomplish with his life’s second act.

“He has taken something that we didn’t know what was going to happen when we first opened the doors to something that is amazing and talked about all through town and talked about all over the state and talked about in other states. … I am proud of taking this community and making it part of our family and getting to know all these people.”


Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café

136 West Main St.

Prattville, AL 36067

www.unclemickscajun.com

334-361-1020

 

Hours

Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dinner served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Closed Sunday

 

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 weeks ago

Help pours into tornado-damaged Alabama

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey comforted survivors and thanked first responders and volunteers Wednesday during a visit to Fultondale and Center Point, two cities heavily damaged by a deadly tornado Monday night.

Numerous state and local government officials joined Ivey on Wednesday morning as she surveyed storm damage. She thanked first responders and volunteers for their tireless work.

“The people of Alabama are praying for y’all,” Ivey said. “We are here as a sign of our commitment to your recovery.”

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Governor Ivey tours tornado damage from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The tornado, rated an EF-3 by the National Weather Service, struck about 10:40 p.m. Monday, killing 14-year-old Elliot Hernandez, a freshman at Fultondale High School, and injuring 30 others.

“I express my deep condolences to Elliot Hernandez’s family and loved ones,” Ivey said. “Homes and businesses can be rebuilt, but losing a young soul to a storm like this is beyond heartbreaking.”

The tornado left a 10-mile path of destruction from Fultondale to Center Point. Karen Sparks of Fultondale said she had no idea how bad the damage was to her neighborhood until she returned today.

“It was a lot worse than I thought,” Sparks said. “By the grace of God my son and I got out without a scratch. The tornado tried to lift him out but he held on to a door. I’m just glad we got out.”

Numerous volunteers from a variety of churches and civic organizations were out in the hard-hit neighborhoods Wednesday delivering food, water and encouragement. Chris Fulaytar of Fultondale told Ivey the assistance has been an encouragement to him, his family and neighbors.

“Everyone around here has been great,” Fulaytar said. “All the neighbors have pulled together. We had people here 30 minutes after the storm hit the other night, checking on everybody. When you think of small-town Alabama, this is it.”

Alabama Power says as of 3 p.m. today it has restored power to 99 percent of the nearly 5,000 customers affected by the tornado who are able to receive it. Ivey thanked the power company along with emergency managers and first responders for their hard work.

“These are seasoned professionals that I know will get the job done,” Ivey said. “They know what to do and when to do it and I have every confidence in their ability to handle the situation. Without them, recovery efforts would simply not be possible.”

Ivey also encouraged Alabamians wanting and able to help storm survivors to contribute to the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.

“We’ve got an awful lot of work to do to rebuild this community,” Ivey said. “Alabamians always step up to help their neighbors in times of disaster. This is just another way they can do that.”

Gov. Ivey news conference in Fultondale from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)