Helping Alabama's Kids Weather the Storm

Jul 21, 2011, 12:00 PM, Posted by

On April 27, 2011, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders program graduate (2009-10) Beth Albright Johns, M.P.H., assistant vice president for Early Childhood Initiatives and Education and the Success by 6 program at the United Way of Central Alabama, watched as much of her hometown was destroyed by tornadoes. While helping her friends, neighbors and colleagues in any way that she could, Johns also focused on her primary role, finding ways to protect the emotional health of the children affected by the tornado.

file Beth Johns, fourth from left, and the rest of the Birmingham, Alabama Ladder to Leadership team.

On April 27, 2011, the largest outbreak of tornadoes in the history of our country hit the southeastern United States and my home state of Alabama. Living in my part of Alabama, I am used to severe weather, but the 27th felt different. The day started with a sense of foreboding, but given our weather history, worrying about it was out of character. In our community, a warning of severe weather generally means watching experienced meteorologist, James Spann, roll up his sleeves and get down to business to help us prepare. So that April day, we tuned in only to watch Spann struggle to maintain his composure as the tornado destroyed Tuscaloosa. I became more and more alarmed as I watched it devastate the communities of friends, colleagues and other neighborhoods where I work and tear through my hometown of Birmingham. Numbing disbelief set in as Spann said, “Oh my God, take cover…it’s out of control.”

First Responders

The next day, April 28th, the community sprung into action. Our boardroom became the statewide 2-1-1 help line headquarters. Calls poured in from people asking for assistance or asking: “What can I do to help out?” Over 13,000 citizens registered through Hands On Birmingham and 2-1-1 to assist with the clean up and recovery. Pallets of clothes, water, generators and people from all over the country arrived to help. While trying to help others, my co-workers were also searching for loved ones and focusing on our job—protecting the mental health of children affected by the storms.

We immediately went to work with local agencies to advocate for mental health assessments for post-traumatic stress disorder among the kids.

Our staff at Success By 6 and our early childhood program partners gathered to assess the damage to child care centers to see if families, child care providers or owners had housing, mental health or financial needs in the five counties that we work in. Because we also coordinate Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in Jefferson County, the library’s regional coordinator asked me to distribute 6,000 copies of the much-loved children’s book, Corduroy, to comfort displaced kids. We distributed books to disaster organizations on the front lines throughout Alabama. With 41 counties declared disaster areas, books went to kids in Birmingham, Cullman, Tuscaloosa—all over the state.

The leadership and sheer power of the human spirit revealed during the storms is what stood out for me. South Hampton School principal Johnnie Finkley is the first example that comes to mind. His home was destroyed, but he worked tirelessly to create a summer camp at his school for kids displaced by the storm. More than 200 children were given a safe place to recover and respite from the havoc at the camp. We also created Camp Birmingham, using a new school and community support.

Kids Heal and Move Forward

That was two and a half months ago. Taking a look at our community today, I can truly say we are strong, resilient people in the South. Last Friday (July 8th), camp South Hampton held a closing ceremony. The kids did an interpretive dance about the April tornadoes using the old Commodore’s hit song, Brick House. It’s their way of showing that they are beginning to overcome the tragedy and rebuild their lives, though we know the storms will always haunt these kids.

All over the county, people are rebuilding and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will leave soon, which is a good sign. When it comes to recovery, my boss says, “this is not a sprint, it is a marathon, so it’s what will happen long term to our kids and their families that will be most telling.”

But some days, I still get lost in the damage when I visit communities that were hit. It’s still like a war zone in some places with blue tarps and twisted trees everywhere. Then you turn a corner or crest a hill, and there are homes untouched, vegetable gardens flourishing and kids playing.

These thriving neighborhoods show the promise of the rebirth that can be accomplished through good leadership and vision. Now, as I carefully consider the storms and the strength and teamwork exhibited by the community, I can’t help but wonder, what would Birmingham be like if everyone banded together like that on other issues like education, hunger or homelessness? Just think what we could do.

I am watching a storm blow in over Birmingham as I write this. I am a little scared now when storms rise, but when I look at how much we accomplished by banding together, I am hopeful.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.