Tackling Tornado’s Aftermath in Alabama
On Sept. 3, the Kent State University Golden Flashes football team takes the field in Alabama for the season opener against the Crimson Tide. Setting aside the rivalry, a group of five members of the Kent State community are making an earlier trip to Alabama to help with relief efforts caused by a devastating tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27.
Kent State players Spencer Keith, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Lee Stalker and Jacquise Terry, along with Alan Ashby, Kent State’s assistant athletic director for communications, travel to Alabama on July 21. Coordinating their trip with the American Red Cross and the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa organization, the student-athletes and Ashby will spend the next two days working on a Habitat for Humanity house in Holt, Ala., for a family displaced by the tornado and volunteering at the City of Tuscaloosa’s McAbee Volunteer Center. In addition, the Kent State group will hold a football clinic at Holt High School for a group of underprivileged kids who were displaced by the storm.
“Our players are excited to go down and lend a helping hand in the Tuscaloosa community,” says Kent State head football coach Darrell Hazell. “What life really boils down to sometimes is being able to help those in need. These four young men will represent the Kent State community well.”
The Kent State players are scheduled to meet with Alabama coach and Kent State alumnus Nick Saban, ’73, M. Ed. ’75, who led the Crimson Tide to a national championship in 2009. Saban and his wife, Terry, also a Kent State graduate, have pledged $50,000 from their Nick’s Kids Fund to Project Team Up to help rebuild homes in a nearby town devastated by the twister. Saban’s players and staff also have pitched in to aid with the relief efforts as the town struggles to recover.
“On behalf of the entire American Red Cross organization and the people of Tuscaloosa, I thank you and your student-athletes for your spirit of volunteerism,” wrote Bev Leigh, development director with the American Red Cross of West Alabama chapter, in an email to Ashby.
Check back for updates and photos from Alabama and follow @KSUAthletics on Twitter.
Update: Thursday, July 21
(This is the first in a series of reports from the Kent State football visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to help with the tornado relief efforts.)
Delayed But Not Deterred
Let’s hope that the rest of the trip goes a little smoother than today. After a full (and hot) flight from Cleveland to Charlotte, we arrived at our gate to discover that our connection to Birmingham had been cancelled.
After some haggling, wrangling, pleading and a little good fortune, we ended up on a flight to Montgomery. A much better option than spending the night in Charlotte — as all the remaining flights Thursday to Birmingham were booked.
Unfortunately, we lost out on a good meal in Birmingham and had to settle for dinner in the terminal. We also missed an opportunity to see the path of the tornado from the air on the descent into Birmingham. From what I’ve been told, it’s hard to even comprehend what you’re looking at due to the size and the scope of the destruction.
A two-hour drive from the airport in Montgomery put us in our hotel just before midnight in Tuscaloosa.
Despite the travel struggles, everyone is still looking forward to pitching in at the Habitat for Humanity house Friday. We were also buoyed by the fact that everyone we talked to today was so appreciative of us coming down to help out in our own small way.
Our day begins bright and early with a 7 a.m. breakfast with Bev Leigh from the Red Cross. After some pancakes, he’s going to give us a quick tour on the way to the home site. Check back for more updates this weekend.
- Alan Ashby
Update from: Friday, July 22
(This is the second in a series of reports from the Kent State football visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to help with the tornado relief efforts.)
An Eye-Opening Experience
Yesterday’s travel woes were quickly forgotten upon seeing the swath cut by the tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa back on April 27. Now nearly three months later, the sight is stunning, heart wrenching… and nearly incomprehensible.
One minute you’re driving through a residential neighborhood, the next you’re on the face of the moon, at the center of a bomb blast. It’s difficult to put into words the scope of the devastation.
But out of that destruction, hope is rising one 2x4, one nail, one paintbrush, one chainsaw and one volunteer at a time. For roughly eight hours, we had the privilege of working alongside a number of dedicated volunteers who have started the long, arduous process of rebuilding the hardest-hit areas.
The Habitat for Humanity site we were pointed to by the Red Cross featured two homes currently under construction. We had the pleasure of working alongside some great folks from both Auburn and Alabama (cats & dogs getting along!) among other hard-working, dedicated groups.
Some members of the Alabama football team also joined us for a few hours. In roughly six weeks, they will be our opponent on the football field, but for an afternoon they sweated and toiled in the hot afternoon sun right along side Golden Flashes Jacquise Terry, Lee Stalker, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen and Spencer Keith.
Crimson Tide head coach, and Kent State grad, Nick Saban stopped by to offer thanks and words of encouragement after returning from SEC Media Day. He and his wife Terry (also a graduate of Kent State) played a big role in the funding for the construction of the two houses through their Nick’s Kids Fund.
To say it was a memorable experience would be an understatement. Today we witnessed compassion and a remarkable ability to bounce back from the absolute worst of circumstances. And today we helped put a roof on a house that in a few short weeks will be inhabited by a family hoping to reclaim a little bit of normalcy after literally having their world turned upside down.
We met countless fine people, including Brandon, an erstwhile kindergarten teacher who was the construction manager on the site. His patience, skill and ability to direct a small army of highly unskilled workers was amazing in its own right. It is on the back of people like him that this city will rise back up from the ashes.
After a refreshing shower, we had dinner at a beautiful restaurant on the Black Warrior River. Sitting around the table, it was hard to believe that we were only a few miles from the utter devastation we had immersed ourselves in for most of the day.
Tired and sunburned, but with a new outlook on the frailty of life and the capacity of humans to get back up when punched squarely in the jaw, we called it a night.
More Saturday from Tuscaloosa.
- Alan Ashby
Update from: Saturday, July 23
(This is the third in a series of reports from the Kent State football visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to help with the tornado relief efforts.)
It’s The Little Things That Count
Trying to wrap your mind around the scope of the destruction left behind in the wake of the April 27 tornado is almost impossible. So today was spent on the little things — both figuratively and literally.
The day got started with a clinic for nearly 20 underprivileged kids who were displaced by the tornado. With a big assist from Holly Hart and her Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa group, we met the kids at a local high school for some football, friendship and fun.
Three hours later, I think it’s safe to say that both groups came away all the better for the experience. The kids picked up some football fundamentals while hearing from the players about the hard work, dedication and the necessity of staying on the right path in order to achieve your goals and dreams. Meanwhile, the players saw firsthand that you can’t ever take anything for granted and to cherish your blessings.
After saying goodbye to the very appreciative kids and signing quite a few autographs, the players headed across town for one last volunteer activity through Temporary Emergency Services. On a wall in the orientation area, there was a map showing the various cities, states and countries from which the scores of volunteers had come over the past three months. It was truly humbling to add our names to the list.
Just as we had the day before, we had the great fortune of working with another group of fine people. Our work today reminded us of all the little day-to-day items that most of us take for granted. We spent the afternoon sorting boxes in a warehouse that included everything from clothes, to bedding, to bottled water — all of which had been donated. We even hauled 15 bags of stuffed animals from another location.
Helping build a house was a special opportunity Friday, but in many ways today was just as eye opening because it drove home the reality that thousands of people, while fortunate to escape the storm with their lives, lost everything they had.
After a quick tour of the University of Alabama campus, including a stop at Bryant-Denny Stadium where the Golden Flashes and Crimson Tide will square off on Sept. 3, it was back to the hotel for a shower and some down time.
Then it was off to Dreamland for the only part of the day that wasn’t little. An iconic part of the Tuscaloosa landscape, Dreamland serves up hearty portions of ribs, sweet tea and quite possibly the best banana pudding you’ll find anywhere.
As we have for the past two days, we encountered a number of people in the restaurant who were extremely grateful for what we were doing. It was truly heartwarming to hear their comments and really reinforced that while our contribution was a seemingly small one, it was making a difference in the lives of many.
As the table next to us got up to leave, one of the gentlemen said “Roll Tide and Go Flashes!” Thanks to all the wonderful people we’ve encountered over the past couple of days for making us feel right at home. It’s an experience we’ll never forget.
- Alan Ashby
Update from: Sunday, July 24
(This is the last in a series of reports from the Kent State football visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to help with the tornado relief efforts.)
No pictures today, only memories.
I’m going to take this opportunity to brag about Spencer Keith, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Lee Stalker and Jacquise Terry. These four young men represented Kent State with pride during our stay in Tuscaloosa. Not only did they voluntarily give up one of their last free weekends until December, they worked their tails off on Friday and Saturday, as their sunburns and dirty laundry will attest.
It was a pleasure to get to know them a little better while seeing them interact with people from all walks of life that we came across during our travels. From wide-ranging backgrounds themselves, the quartet embodies all that our coaches look for in a student-athlete.
A few more observations from our stay, in no particular order:
- Southern hospitality isn’t just a phrase or a myth, it’s the real deal. We encountered it at every turn of our trip.
To the Brandons, Hollys, Bevs and the countless other volunteers in Tuscaloosa: keep it up! What you’re doing is making a difference in the lives of more people than you realize.
- No matter what you’ve seen on television, the devastation from a tornado of that magnitude is breathtakingly horrific when you see it in person. Words cannot adequately describe it.
- This commercial is not an exaggeration. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvyknw4VClE)
- I would be remiss without thanking the staff of the Courtyard Marriott for bending over backwards to make our stay a pleasant one. It started with the manager, Tina, and went down through every last employee that we dealt with.
On a personal note, I’m dealing with a family issue right now — one that seems pretty bleak. But my spirits have been buoyed by what I saw in the faces of the people we encountered the last three days. People who had their lives ripped apart and scattered across the Alabama countryside without prejudice. What I saw was hope.
It brought to mind the lyrics to a Matt Nathanson song off of his latest album:
“Hope, hope will put the colors in the sky, hope, hope will set this world of wrong to right, to right”
Hope is a tremendously powerful word. It has the ability to transform, to encourage, to heal. And that’s the most important thing that I’m taking with me from our time in Tuscaloosa.
Signing off from the Charlotte airport.
- Alan Ashby
Keep an eye on the web site for a video later in the week that will feature some sights and sounds from the trip as well as the players’ thoughts on what they experienced.