One year ago today, after returning from a Spring Break outing with The Girls, we decided to cool off in the pool. As I watched them splash and frolic, I logged onto FB and saw disturbing status updates from my friends and family back home in Alabama. Things like “angry skies here” and “debris falling in my yard y’all”. Immediately, I jerked up the phone and called my sister in North Alabama. Luckily, I got through, but what I heard on the other end was soul-shaking. My big sister, whom I’ve always known to be a pillar of strength, was crying hysterically. My own voice cracked, as I asked “What’s happening? Is everybody in our family okay? What do you need?”
That phone call changed my life. Forever.
Some of the most devastating tornadoes on record ravaged my home state of Alabama that day. This EF-5 skipped over my sister’s home, but made contact with the ground just down the road from her, tearing up an entire community, quite close to my brother’s home. But that wasn’t the worst of it. My niece, Meaghan, who taught middle school in Tuscaloosa, was literally in the center of the devastation, and my sister couldn’t get down there to her. A mother’s panic. I know that feeling. Fortunately, I am happy to report that her life was spared by a sheer miracle from God, while everything around her crumbled. However, when the dust settled, she would discover that many of her students had been effected, and life would never be the same. Never.
For those of you unfamiliar with what a tornado looks like, you can see the one that ripped through Tuscaloosa here. And the devastation and confusion left in Limestone County, where I grew up, can be seen here. So many small rural communities were affected though. Some completely wiped out...Hackleburg, and Phil Campbell, just to name a couple.
I knew I only had one choice: start gathering donations to send back home. So that’s what I did. Without a clue in the world how I would get them there, I began collecting clothing and supplies. I blasted on FB that ‘my people’ needed help, and arranged a drop-off point at the school my girls attended. My friend Jen Levinson, who is the genius behind Jen’s List, helped get the word out too. Donations began to pour in. In 72 hours, I had more than I knew what to do with.
My own family had just downsized into a new house three weeks earlier, after losing ours to foreclosure (which I will get to later, in a different post). So I had plenty of boxes. But they were full of our stuff. What to do? Unload our stuff onto the floor and put the much-needed supplies for the tornado victims in the boxes. Bingo! By the time the sorting and boxing at my house was over with, it looked like I belonged on an episode of Hoarders. I shit you not.
Anyway, despite the rapid response of friends, and the kindness of complete strangers, I still had a very big problem: WTF was I going to do about getting the donations 2000+ miles across the country to their destination? After calling multiple shipping companies, AND the USPS to see if they would ship the boxes for free, like they did when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I pretty much hit a dead-end. I even contacted Charlie Sheen to see if he would be willing to bankroll it, since he was in need of some good PR at the time. At first the response was promising, but then he decided to donate a million dollars himself. Which let him off the hook. Soon, it became clear that I might have to rent a truck and drive them myself. Or rather, have The Man drive them
Then something wonderful happened. A friend from college, Spence Maughon, who saw my desperate pleas on FB, and who also happens to live in LA, sent me a message about another relief effort being organized here in town, in conjunction with Toomers for Tuscaloosa and RollBamaRoll. If you know anything about the history of Alabama Football, you know what a miracle it was for Auburn fans to be helping Alabama fans, because although both are state universities, they are bitter rivals on the field. Just Google “Iron Bowl“. But I digress. A few emails later, I was in contact with the ring leader. A truly remarkable woman named Ashli Wolf. A kindred spirit who loves Alabama as much as I do, and knows exactly what a “church key” is. Over the course of the next few weeks, she would become my new best friend. She was already well into the organization of the T4T effort, so her house became Ground Zero. This is what it looked like in the days leading up to, and finally the night before the first truck left:
LITTLE DID WE KNOW, BUT THIS WAS JUST THE BEGINNING, FOLKS.
Just after I snapped this photo, and while all the volunteers were busy sorting, boxing and getting this stuff ready for travel, The Man, decided to make a phone call. To Fox 11 News-LA. Just to give them the heads up about what we were doing out there in Woodland Hills. They sent Hal Eisner to cover us live, for the 10 o’ clock broadcast that night, and then sent Phil Shuman back out the next morning before the truck left. Needless to say, it opened up a few more possibilities to get help for the folks in Alabama. You can watch the clip here.
That is how California for Alabama was born. After the word got out about the FB page, we were flooded with tons of donations and volunteers from all over Southern California. Everything you can imagine, from hand sanitizer, toothbrushes and diapers to work gloves, shovels and cleaning supplies. Offers from a company in Moreno Valley poured in for free boxes to sort things into. Corey and Ruthie Braun, both UA Alumni, and owners of Chick-fil-A in Rancho Cucamonga, fed our volunteers. People donated entire apartments full of furniture. There was even an air hockey table!
So, how did we get it all there?
At first, the plan Ashli and I had was straight out of “I Love Lucy”. We were going to split the cost 50-50. She’d tell her hubs that I paid for it, while I told mine she did, just like something Lucy and Ethel would pull. One way or another, that stuff was getting there. Fortunately, Conway Trucking Company stepped in, and supplied us with a rig, a driver, and not one…but TWO 28 foot trailers to help with that, plus they covered the fuel costs! And again, Hal Eisner came out to cover the second round.
People helping people, and belonging to each other. It just doesn’t get any better, does it? Powerful stuff to restore faith in humanity going on up in there, folks. And again, it didn’t stop once the truck rolled out of the driveway. In August 2011, with the help of Jennifer Blake, another sweet Bama Belle living in LA, we were able to hold a benefit and raise some money. With these funds, trees were purchased from Habitat for Humanity and planted where so many had been ripped from the soil. This made us, and Mother Nature happy
In closing, I would like to add that during all of this havoc, my oldest daughter was doing her required, 5th grade, state report on…you guessed it: ALABAMA. Not only was she able to report all the usual things needed to educate someone on the Great State of Alabama, she also included a section on how the tornadoes impacted the area and its victims. In addition, she told about how she, herself was able to directly help. The whole experience effected her deeply, and it was reflected in her report. Here was her display:
On this one year anniversary of the worst devastation Alabama has ever known, let me say I am beaming with pride to claim both Alabama and California as my home. I proudly display my Southern roots like a badge of honor as I journey through my Hollywood life. Today I salute you both!
*A very special thanks to my husband, Chris, who jumped onboard this effort with both feet, never once calling me crazy or saying it couldn’t be done. He stretched his time to its limits, juggling a busy work schedule with running the wheels off his truck picking up and dropping off people, as well as donations all over Los Angeles. HE MADE THE CALL THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING. His love for me, and my home state was never more apparent than during this crisis, and his unwavering support will never be forgotten.
**There are so many people who contributed to this effort, both here, and on the receiving end in Alabama. Here is a list of those I didn’t directly mention in the post: my sister, Shane Jackson and her ‘boots on the ground’ crew from Churches Involved in Athens, Alabama; David Wolf and the precious Wolf children (Joseph and Ava); Kirsten and Jeff Mason, and their family; Sarah Rathburn Hancock; Michael Brock; Paige Ryan; Cliff, the driver of the first truck; Sara Dean and her man, Kevin; Aubrey and Matt Vick; Deborah Guilfoyle and her family; Kim Poirier; Kecia Newton and her hubby; Ryan Stephens and the United States Navy men stationed at Port Hueneme; Kelly Flores; the guys at Tosh.0; Margie; Kathy Krodel Chester; all the parents and staff at First Presbyterian Weekday School; Leslie Aqua Viva; Lori Nelson; Heidi Myers; Eric and Elise Gilbert; Victoria Vaccaro; the band, OK GO!; Alfred Hopton; Kit Wallace and Blued Eyed Entertainment; Karen Sinclair Drake and her amazing company, Sophyto; Ann Mangini & Rafinity; Tracy Flores and her man, Alec; the driver of the second truck whose name I never knew; and ALL THE OTHERS WHO CONTRIBUTED GENEROUSLY, WITH NOT ONLY DONATIONS OF TANGIBLE GOODS AND SERVICES, BUT ALSO THEIR TIME AS WELL.
God Bless You All.