IT WAS EARLY SATURDAY MORNING, April 27, 2019, when two chartered buses pulled into a church parking lot in Beauregard and close to 100 athletes and coaches from the University of Alabama stepped out. Waiting on them were athletes and coaches from Auburn University, along with other local volunteers. While most Saturdays see the schools in competition, today they were united to try to rebuild the Beauregard and Smith Station communities after they were hit by tornadoes on March 3, 2019.
The volunteers counted off, forming 10 groups of athletes representing a variety of sports. Each was given a hammer, nails and instructions from contractors before they began assembling the precut pieces of lumber that would become walls for houses being built for some of the survivors. Hammers banged nails into the boards as the sun beat down on the asphalt parking lot. As each wall was completed, athletes wrote Bible verses and battle cries on the bare wood, labeled each one and stacked them by house. House 1. House 2. House 3.
Two days later, contractors and more volunteers moved the completed walls to the residential lots and began construction of three homes that would be completed within a week. The following week, the first three families were handed keys to their new and fully-furnished homes. That was the beginning of some sense of normalcy for those hit hardest.
Those homes were built for families of employees of the East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) who lost their homes in the storm. This included the family of Maggie Robinson, a well-loved employee of EAMC, who tragically lost her life during the storm.
EAMC CEO Laura Grill was adamant about taking care of her employees and their families, but she also knew the hospital could do more. A lot more. And they did.
EAMC Chaplain Laura Eason ’18 met with Grill and other administrators to create an organization that would benefit all those affected.
“East Alabama Medical Center is the heartbeat of this community and we knew we could do so much more to make a significant impact as Lee County began to rebuild -— and throughout the recovery,” Eason said. “When I first took my ideas to our administration, they were already way ahead of me.” Within days of the storm, Mend was established and people were ready to help in any way they could. Mend is a program that brings together the many local service organizations, churches, civic groups, and businesses along with national and state organizations, to work on long-term recovery efforts. EAMC employees eagerly volunteered to shift or take on new responsibilities to help their community neighbors.
In addition to the more obvious tasks of sorting, storing and distributing donations, organizing volunteers and setting up a phone center for victims to call for assistance, Mend also assembled a team of EAMC staff and community volunteers who began working on housing.
Twenty apartments were secured for families to live in rent-free while they began the rebuilding process.
“Renting the apartments for these families who lost everything was crucial,” Grill said. “But having a roof over their heads was just part of it. They had lost everything. They didn’t have any material items to bring with them. All their furniture and basic household goods had been lost. So, our amazing staff set out to meet those needs, too.”
Mend volunteers reached out to churches, businesses and civic clubs asking for their assistance and in a matter of days, 16 apartments were fully furnished with all new items – furniture, appliances, kitchen items, food, linens, televisions and clothing. Even decorative items were included to make each feel like a home. Several groups took on multiple apartments and did everything to get them ready for the family to just open the door and walk in.
As permanent homes are built, families will take all of the furnishings from the apartments with them. More homes are being planned through Mend and the Fuller Center for Housing, with a major build planned for the fall.
But Mend is not just about organizing volunteers, distributing supplies, and building and furnishing homes.
“Mend is taking a holistic approach to heal the mind, body and spirit.” Eason said. “Housing and household goods are certainly imperative in that healing process, but we want to be a part of every aspect of the recovery for every family who needs us. These families have become our families and we want to help them until they are back on their feet, however long that takes.
“It was important to me – and to all of us – that EAMC take the lead on this because we could. We have the resources, the staff and the facilities to help in so many ways and that is what we are going to do. We will rebuild Lee County one life at a time.”
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Bo Bikes for Beauregard
Helmets glistened in the sun and cleats clacked outside Jordan-Hare Stadium on a cool Saturday. This was not the LSU football game, but the 8th year of Bo Bikes Bama, the popular charity bike ride that pedaled out on April 27, 2019. As an Auburn graduate and cyclist who recently moved back to the Plains, it was my first time participating. I was anxious and honored to be riding for such a good cause.
The opening 35 miles were rolling hills, beautiful farmlands and the small town squares of Notasulga and Tuskegee. Volunteers at every turn waved flags and clapped. Near Beauregard, we rode the “Mile of Remembrance,” a stretch of country road where we silently biked past 23 signs, each listing the name and age of one of the victims of the March 2019 tornadoes that hit Lee County. It was a powerful reminder of why we were riding on this beautiful day. Inspired by their memories, we conquered hills and seriously sore legs on the last 20 miles back to Auburn. I knew I would be back and even better next year. Just like the people of Beauregard.