4 years ago

The inspiring story of how Alabamians are changing the world through water


(Video above: Neverthirst, an Alabama-based ministry, is building wells in some of the world’s most impoverished places.)

There are moments in each of our lives that are pivot points — events or experiences that send us careening in unexpected directions, like pinballs bouncing off of a bumper.

For Mark Whitehead, one of those moments took place in February of 2006 during a church service in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. David Platt, then the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, was delivering a sermon on Psalm 67:1-2 titled “The Ultimate Disconnect.”

“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”

In those verses, Platt explained, is a singular “truth that is absolutely critical to understanding the purpose of your life in this world. Here’s the truth: God blesses his people for the sake of his praise among all peoples.”

With that truth in mind, Platt asked the congregation a simple question. “Have you disconnected God’s purpose with God’s blessing?”

As Whitehead considered that question, he thought about the physical blessings we enjoy in the United States, and how meeting the physical needs of impoverished people in other parts of the world could open doors to meet their deeper, spiritual needs.

At that time, 1.2 billion people on Earth lacked access to clean water. If a team from Alabama could help change that stunning fact one village at a time, Whitehead thought, they could also have unprecedented opportunities to share the Gospel with people to whom they would otherwise not have access.

Neverthirst was born.

“We felt called to the hard places,” Whitehead told Yellowhammer. “It all started in January of 2008, but we did not even have a focal point for the ministry until traveling to South Sudan later that year. There are less than 50 miles of paved road in the entire country. It’s very remote. Out of curiosity, we stopped in a tiny village called Witto and asked the chief to show us where they got their water from. He took us about a mile off the road and showed us a pool of green, stagnant water. Up until that point, we were really clueless about the water crisis — even though we were four months into being a water ministry. God led us to that village and made his vision crystal clear: You can meet this massive, overwhelming need — 1.2 billion people need clean water — and you can use it as a platform to advance the Gospel around the world.”

On December 8, 2008, in the tiny village of Witto, South Sudan, Neverthirst drilled its first well.

“Seeing that project come together is hard to put into words,” said Whitehead. “The whole village knew it was coming and there were about 1,000 people there waiting for us when we returned to see it completed. It was humbling.”

That experience helped Whitehead understand how meeting people’s physical needs can break down barriers.

“When people are dying from not having water, they’re not going to give you the time of day if you just come up to talk to them,” he explained. “But when that physical need is met, they’re more apt to listen.”

To make those conversations more likely to happen, Neverthirst empowers local pastors to helm their drilling projects.

“It’s all connected to the pastors in the area,” said Whitehead. “The well gives the pastor a platform and opens a lot of doors.”

Neverthirst and other water ministries have made tremendous strides in recent years.

Since 2008, Neverthirst has completed over 5,500 projects, providing over 400,000 people with clean water. During that same time period, the total number of people without access to clean water has dropped from 1.2 billion to 663 million since 2008.

But it all wouldn’t be possible without the support of Alabamians back home, and others around the country.

“We have a lot of church partnerships, individual donors, lemonade stands, garage sales, car washes — people can get as creative as they want when raising money for clean water projects,” said Whitehead. “It can be really fun.”

Many gyms, for instance, have organized large workout events and used them as fundraisers to benefit Neverthirst. To connect it to the water ministry, the workouts included large containers full of water that could be carried or lifted while doing various exercises.

Today, Neverthirst is doing work in India, Cambodia, Nepal, South Sudan, Sudan and Chad. The goal for 2016 is to complete over 2,000 projects throughout Africa and Asia that will bring water to over 72,000 people.

“These projects make an incredible impact on the lives of these families,” Whitehead said. “Just think about the fact that, instead of spending all day finding water for their family, kids can go to school. That alone changes everything.”

And the more people here at home get involved, the more lives will be changed.

“Ultimately we want to work ourselves out of business,” he concluded. “We want to see the number of people without access to clean water go away. God has already done some incredible things, and we put it all in his hands.”


For more information about Neverthirst or how you can provide clean water solutions for a community in North Africa or Southern Asia please visit www.neverthirstwater.org

3 hours ago

Walmart announces 8,000 veterans hired in Alabama through Welcome Home Commitment

Walmart announced this week that it had hired 266,260 veterans since 2013, including more than 8,000 in Alabama.

First announced on Memorial Day 2013, the Veterans Welcome Home Commitment (VWHC) guaranteed a job offer to any eligible, honorably discharged U.S. veteran. The initial goal was to hire 100,000 veterans by the end of 2018. Two years later, the company expanded that goal to 250,000 by the end of 2020.

“We’re forever grateful to our veterans for their service, and it’s an honor to offer them opportunities at Walmart,” said Doug McMillon, president and CEO. “To reach this goal so quickly says a lot about our company as a great place to work and build a career. I’m proud of the commitment we’ve made to veterans and their families, and I’m thrilled that so many have decided to join us. They are critical to helping us achieve a more diverse and inclusive future.”

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Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have a long history of supporting veterans, service members and their families by investing more than $40 million in programs that support job training, education and innovative public/private community-based initiatives.

The Military Spouses Career Connection program, started in 2018, has opened additional opportunities and support for military families. To date, the company has hired 19,045 associates and continues offering any military spouse hiring preference when applying for a job.

“We’re proud of our achievements and the opportunities presented to the talented service members who’ve honorably served our country,” said Brynt Parmeter, senior director for Walmart Military Programs. “Now, it’s our responsibility to continue preparing these men and women for meaningful futures with the Walmart community.”

Parmeter is now looking to the next chapter in Walmart’s commitment to veterans and the communities they serve. He says his team is taking an interest in employment, entrepreneurship, learning, health and wellness initiatives when looking to the future of Walmart Military Programs.

“This is such an important time for us,” he said. “Our company is committed to finding new ways that we can build relationships and engage with members of this community to advance and improve both economic opportunity and overall well-being.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 hours ago

University of Alabama Theatre and Dance releases online performances, lessons

While live performances and instruction on the University of Alabama campus are paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UA Department of Theatre and Dance is releasing weekly performances and lessons through two new video series.

“In an effort to remain connected to our audiences, the chair and associate chairs of the department began brainstorming ways we could stay connected to our community throughout the summer while also contemplating ways to continue supporting the department’s social mission of making the arts accessible to everyone,” said Lawrence Jackson, associate chair of dance. “Presenting art virtually has become a crucial strategy for arts organizations and programs to keep audiences engaged during this time.”

The Virtual Black Box video series showcases theater performances on the department’s YouTube channel. New performances are planned for each Monday and Friday at noon.

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Jackson said the heads of dance, theater and musical theater selected works that represent the quality of work produced throughout the department.

The Movement Series will feature mini-masterclasses taught by the department’s world-renowned faculty. Lessons will be each Wednesday via Zoom. All sessions are free, but registration is required.

“At a time when in-person gatherings are no longer possible, we feel it’s more important than ever to encourage our audiences to stay engaged culturally and artistically while we weather important social distancing guidelines,” Jackson said. “Virtual arts presentations help lift our spirits during difficult times and keep us connected to our family, friends and colleagues from afar through collective concerts, online classes, workshops and seminars.

“We would like for audiences to understand that the benefit of having art in your life doesn’t have to disappear despite the current challenges we face. This season’s arts and cultural experiences aren’t going away. They just might be presented differently.”

For a list of upcoming Virtual Black Box videos and Movement Series lessons and registration information, visit theatre.ua.edu/virtual-series.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 hours ago

Macon County organic farmer cultivates ambitions with ag startup

TUSKEGEE, Alabama – A startup, minority-owned organic farm in Macon County is expanding its crops and customer base, fueled by an ambitious vision to carry on the region’s rich history of agricultural innovation.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farm, which includes about 25 acres of raised-bed bio-intensive organic vegetables, this year invested an additional $500,000 to increase plantings and seek new business.

The move, which brought the farm’s total capital investment to $1 million, is paying off in a big way. Lifetime, already a supplier to Whole Foods stores in Alabama, recently began selling to the grocery chain’s Braselton, Georgia, distribution center that serves 400 locations.

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The farm also is now selling to Albert’s Organics, one of the largest organic produce wholesale distributors in the U.S. It also supplies Publix stores and has begun supplying Alabama schools, with orders for nearly 30,000 heads of organic lettuce for Elmore County Schools’ summer feeding program over the next two weeks.

Lifetime is believed to be the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Alabama, and owner Nelson Wells wants to grow it even more, to the largest in the Southeast.

At the same time, he wants to deepen its roots in Tuskegee and Macon County. Wells was drawn to the area after one of his advisors invited him to Tuskegee University to watch a video about the institution’s history, its founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver.

Learning more about the famous African American scientist and inventor Carver – who developed hundreds of uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans and transformed U.S. farming practices during his tenure at Tuskegee – struck a chord with Wells and his own biracial heritage.

“That changed my heart,” he said. “It made me want to be a part of the rich history of Macon County and Tuskegee, Alabama. I’m half black and half white, and I saw how important it was to continue the legacy of what George Washington Carver was to the world. He was at the forefront of modern agriculture.”

GROWING RELATIONSHIPS

Wells isn’t your typical Alabama farmer. The 6-foot-6-inch California native is a vegetarian and former surfer who played football for the University of Southern California before he moved to Alabama to be closer to his family.

Promoting healthy living through clean eating has been a lifelong passion for Wells. He and his family have been involved in running another organic farm in Verbena, and he and his partners courted Tuskegee for several years with their plans for a commercial organic farm.

Carver’s imprint on the region was a big draw, as was the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural researchers at Tuskegee University. Wells has begun building relationships with professors and students.

Lifetime started last year as a joint venture with the Macon County Economic Development Authority. The MCEDA provided the land, a former hayfield purchased and owned by MCEDA as a potential industrial site, as a “proof of concept” farm.

That growing season went well, and this year, Lifetime expanded its farming area from 10 to 25 acres and tweaked its crop mix to match the demand of its existing and targeted customers. Products include all types of bell peppers, sweet peppers, watermelon, tomatoes and leafy greens.

GAINING ACCESS

Across Alabama, there are 20 to 25 certified organic farms and possibly another 100 or so that follow organic practices but are not certified organic, said Don Wambles, director of Agriculture Promotion for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

To his knowledge, Lifetime is the largest USDA-certified organic farm in the state, he said.

Wambles and his office assisted Lifetime with gaining access to markets and also provided direction on applicable USDA programs.

The state offers many advantages for all types of farmers, he said.

“Alabama has a great climate and abundant water resources to allow agriculture to be bountiful. We are a very diverse state, which allows producers to choose whether they want to grow organically or conventionally. We have an abundance of customers for either production system the farmer chooses and we support all farmers.

“With Lifetime’s commitment to grow even larger, they will be able to meet the demand for locally grown organic produce while creating jobs and assisting the economic health of their community and surrounding communities,” he said.

NEW GROWTH SECTOR

An organic farm isn’t a typical economic development project, but it’s one that is well-suited for rural areas, said Joe Turnham, director of the MCEDA.

“As economic developers, we’re all so programmed to go out and get industrial sites, and we should, but very rarely do we think about going out and getting a tract for an ag startup,” he said.

Lifetime has provided new jobs for 20 to 30 people in the community, and it represents new business for utilities and other local services, Turnham said.

Another notable benefit is that the type of products and processes involved in organic farming are not common in the South, so Lifetime is helping to forge a new growth sector.

“Our strategic plan has always called for an agricultural component of economic development in Macon County,” Turnham said.  “We’re the home of George Washington Carver, and we really wanted to have a purposeful, high-value project for that agricultural vision. This fits perfectly.”

In addition to the farm’s land, MCEDA has provided in-kind services and also helped the farm’s operators make valuable connections, such as those with state agriculture officials and others at Tuskegee University.

“Last year, they hit every milestone and had beautiful crops. It wasn’t quite what buyers wanted, but they proved they could do it. This year, they are growing to meet the demand profiles of Whole Foods and Publix,” he said.

Turnham said he is excited about the farm’s growth potential.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement that once they’re really profitable, maybe there will be a small rent or royalty that comes back to MCEDA that we can put toward helping the next company.”

BUILDING ON A LEGACY

Along with expanding its existing customer base, Lifetime aims to do more in promoting organic farming from its home base in Macon County.

The farm is participating in Sweet Grown Alabama, a new marketing effort by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries to promote farmers and products across the state.

“Our goal is to have a vegetarian restaurant here in Tuskegee, and we would also like to do farming and cooking demos here,” Wells said. “We want to increase the understanding of the importance of healthy eating and its effects on the body and mind.”

Beyond that, Wells wants to continue growing ties with Tuskegee University and collaborate on research involving organic farming.

“My dream is to continue the legacy of George Washington Carver and Tuskegee University that was the forefront of modern agriculture at one time,” he said.

“This could change the world in organics.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

7 hours ago

Herds and the policy response to COVID-19

Governments implemented strict policies to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The widespread response suggests that governors and presidents saw COVID-19 as an unprecedented public health threat. Or did it? The economics of herding suggests possibly not.

The “Wisdom of Crowds,” also the title of James Suroweicki’s excellent book on this subject, implies this interpretation. Experts in each state reviewed knowledge on the virus, its potential lethality, and vulnerabilities of their state. Each lockdown decision provides evidence of a perceived threat.

Independent, informed evaluations represent our best way to approach the truth. The argument is not that voting establishes truth; experts can be wrong even if they all agree. The consensus of experts is more likely to be correct.

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The policy response could reflect other factors. We should remember that safety is a luxury good; as people and nations become wealthier, we spend more on safety. The potential for say 100,000 deaths from a pandemic will be far less acceptable today than 50 years ago. Yet crowds are not always wise; the “Madness of Crowds” is another possibility. The independence of expert judgments affects whether we gain wisdom or create a herd.

Training in public health affects experts’ independence. Experts in any field receive years of specialized, intensive training, in law school, graduate school, or medical school. Academic disciplines have a dominant paradigm or way of making sense of the world. Different public health experts may share the same way of thinking and make the same mistake on COVID-19.

“Information cascades” pose another problem, often seen in business. A group of managers assembles to discuss opening a new retail store. After independently assessing the merits and demerits, most of the managers see the new store as a mistake. Yet the first manager argues that the new store will be wildly successful, and the others agree. After the store fails, the managers all recall their initial misgivings.

What happened? Each manager knows her personal assessment of the venture could be wrong and revises her assessment based on others’ opinions. Managers do not want to appear incompetent – the only one unable to see the new store’s great value.

The visibility of errors also matters. There’s (allegedly) a saying among investment advisors that “no one ever got fired for recommending IBM.” Suppose an advisor recommends a stock no one else likes. If correct, the advisor’s clients make lots of money. If wrong, the advisor will need to find a new job. By making the same common recommendation, no advisor signals below average investment acumen.

An economy or business needs to encourage occasional deviations from the herd. We need contrarian investors and thinkers. In markets, profit rewards correct contrarians. And some people are naturally contrarian. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer.”

Does the policy response to COVID-19 reveal herding? The policies involved – business and school closings, stay-at-home orders – are called nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPI). NPI have their critics; a 2019 World Health Organization review found the evidence for the effectiveness most “limited.”

A divergence of opinion suggests herding was unlikely. If proponents of NPI won out in debate, this suggests that governors and presidents found them more promising. Vigorous debate usually improves decisions.

Our elected executives, I think, face a bias to action, worsened by the 24-hour news cycle and running tallies of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Yet the nearly 50 million jobs lost since March are also highly visible. Our inability to observe deaths without a lockdown ironically makes the benefits appear larger; perhaps millions have been saved.

Eight states never issued stay-at-home orders and nations like Sweden eschewed lockdown policies, so we have not witnessed complete herding. More likely the bias to take action resulted in excessive policies, and lockdowns imposed too early in some states.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

8 hours ago

Regions Bank and Regions Foundation build on investments supporting racial equity and economic empowerment

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Regions Bank and the nonprofit Regions Foundation on Tuesday announced a $12 million commitment to advance programs and initiatives that promote racial equity and economic empowerment for communities of color while creating more inclusive opportunities for success.

“At Regions, we are committed to serving others to make life better, and we stand together with our communities in addressing the systemic racism and bias that impact so many people in our society,” said John Turner, Regions President and CEO. “As a financial organization, it is our responsibility to use our resources and expertise in ways that address disparities and create positive change. In 2018, we updated our approach to community investments by prioritizing initiatives that create more inclusive prosperity. While we have made significant progress, much more work remains to be done. The financial commitment we are announcing today represents another important step in our path toward advancing racial equity and economic empowerment.”

The $12 million commitment will be allocated by Regions Bank, the Regions Foundation and the Regions Community Development Corporation over the next two years. Initial allocations will include:

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  • $1,000,000 from the Regions Foundation for the National Urban League: The National Urban League and its local affiliates work to empower African Americans and underserved residents in urban areas by securing economic advancements, parity, power and civil rights. Regions is a longtime supporter of the Urban League and works closely with affiliates to address community needs.
  • $2,000,000 allocated through deposits in Minority-Owned Banks and investments in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs): The Regions Community Development Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Regions Bank, will set aside $2,000,000 to support the services of minority-owned banks as they help clients achieve financial goals, including homeownership, and CDFIs that work with minority-owned businesses to support their growth and success.
  • Additional portions of the $12 million will be allocated based on needs identified in conjunction with community partners. Regions will focus on three key areas to address underlying factors associated with racial disparities and economic empowerment.  Specifically, these investments will seek to:
    • Advance minority business development
    • Increase minority homeownership rates
    • Reduce the digital divide by increasing web accessibility in underserved communities
  • Investments will also be based on input from Regions associates gathered through listening tours conducted by company leadership during the month of June. These tours provided an opportunity for associates to share ideas, observations and feedback on ways Regions can address social needs.

“By making significant investments through our financial resources, as well as through volunteerism and community involvement, Regions is working to advance racial equity, help create greater social justice, and deliver meaningful benefits across the communities we serve,” said Leroy Abrahams, head of Community Affairs for Regions Bank. “Our teams have deep relationships with organizations on the front lines of moving our communities forward. We are working hand-in-hand with these organizations and will develop additional community partnerships to achieve our shared goals of racial equity, expanded opportunities, and a more just society where everyone can prosper.”

Regions maintains an extensive, year-round program encouraging associate volunteerism and community support. For additional details on programs and initiatives championed by Regions and its associates, visit the Community Engagement section of Regions.com.

(Courtesy of Regions)