“I was raised to help others and watched my parents and grandparents give the shirts off their backs. My sister is my role model and the person I rely on. I thought I wanted to follow in her footsteps and be a lawyer. I worked for a law firm on the team handling thousands of claims after the BP oil spill and heard the stories of devastated lives devastated because fishing, shrimping and harvesting oysters was all they knew. Some with little education. They sent notes in broken handwriting saying ‘help me, I have nothing.’ We helped many of them and I shifted my career to making our community better. I worked as development director at Mobile Bay Keeper and recently became the vice president of resource development at United Way of Southwest Alabama. I raise the money to fund the work of our 47 partner agencies. The collective impacts of nonprofits is unbelievable even with small budgets and resources. Our volunteers make the world go round.
My parents divorced when I was young and my sister was going to college. My dad moved out and my mom and I moved from Springhill to West Mobile. I was a spoiled, privileged child and my life turned upside down. My grandparents moved in with us and I helped care for my grandfather when he became bedridden. I mentor girls in the leadership program at Strickland Youth Center because I understand kids who have been uprooted and are trying to figure out who they are.
We need to know our neighbors before something bad happens. I lived in a house in a mixed-age neighborhood in Tuscaloosa when I was a student at Alabama. My neighbor, Mrs. Smith, was in her 80s and lived by herself. She reminded me of my grandmother and I was the only neighbor who became friends with her. She told me stories, gave me many cans of Coke, and fed me jello with fruit that I choked down. The Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011 hit my house hard, but it demolished hers. After the tornado passed, I ran to Mrs. Smith’s house. She was buried under so much rubble. A chimney was leaning on top of the bookshelf on top of her. I thought she was dead, but she opened her eyes when I called her name. She had been praying for God to send help. Neighbors came and we wedged a board under the chimney and rolled it off of her. Her pelvis was crushed, her leg was broken, and she was talking to her deceased husband. We put her on an old door and carried her to the church up the street. Our street looked like a war zone and it was hard to tell which direction to go.
I left her to help other neighbors. One was a bedridden man upstairs in his house. We figured out how to get him out, but my foot went through one of the stairs and a nail went through my foot. There was so much adrenaline, I didn’t feel the pain. Nothing equips you for disaster and caring for neighbors in crisis. Mrs. Smith moved into a nursing home and lived four more years. I went to see her once a week. She was so upset about losing everything that we went back through the rubble of her house and found pieces of her family Bible. That was all she had left.
We all have moments to be heroes. Thousands of people in Mobile are doing great things and making this city a special place. People want to live in a positive community of growth, care, and support. There are also areas we need to improve. We have a brain drain because young people raised in Mobile think they don’t have opportunities here. It is hard to watch friends move away. People also don’t cross outside of their comfort zones and spend time together socially. Making friendships with people a little different from us is where understanding and love grows.
I am never going to live anywhere but Mobile and want to keep pushing us forward. I want to be on the city council and the first female mayor of Mobile. The title isn’t important as long as I can make the biggest difference I can. The more people we put in positions to thrive and grow, the better Mobile will be. Each of us can make a difference every day.”
(This is the fifth story in the series “The Souls of Mobile,” with people nominated because of the good they do for the city. Their faces will also be a part of the mural “The Souls of Mobile” that Ginger Woechan is now painting on Hayley’s Bar. This mural is a collaboration with the Mobile Arts Council.
An Unveiling: Celebrating the Souls of Mobile by Ginger Woechan and block party is Sunday, December 8th from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. with music by the Excelsior Band and Harrison McInnis.)