13 Jan

Tiny shack in ruins less than 100 yards from Habitat project

Thursday afternoon I weaved through the wasteland once packed with homes and businesses – razed by 1-2 punch of the April 27 tornado and eight months of debris removal – and pulled up at 118 29th Street, the future home of storm survivor Appie Jones.

The Habitat for Humanity sign proclaims the house is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church and Nick’s Kids – but I’ll always think of this as the Assumption College house, where 13 big-hearted, hard-working students and escort Paul Belsito put in five vigorous work days. They caulked and sanded and puttied and painted, inside and out; they sawed and installed woodwork beneath the eaves, sheathed the porch columns, installed and stained doors.

Compared to that joyful commotion, the house seems lonely now, in the late afternoon light. The students flew out early Wednesday morning, on their way back to the frozen north while I lingered behind, getting in some quality time with family and friends. They had as productive and inspiring a week as anyone could expect from an immersion experience: Tuscaloosa isn’t known for its breathtaking peaks, but the students obviously had a mountaintop experience. I imagine a few of them might be wondering how to hold onto the high, perhaps even how much they have contributed in the grand scheme of things.

Out of sight, out of mind?

I wish they could see what I saw after they left – and what I’ll keep seeing, and feeling, every visit home, for the rest of my life.

Start with the house. It seemed quiet and modest enough when I cruised by, Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy either done for the day or working elsewhere, leaving only two guys pouring the sidewalk. But this single-story home stands tall against the backdrop – ravaged shacks a few hundred yards away, then a flat void where the tornado destroyed about 100 lower-income homes and killed six of the people who lived in them, then, still farther away, the gash that continued for miles to my right, exposing landmarks once unseen from this street.

The house, even amid the irrecoverable loss of 52 people and thousands of homes, has me thinking about something hopeful.

"Roll Tide Roll": My game-night uniform.

Something called transformation.

Transformation that is slow, transformation that is arduous, transformation made possible in large part by the fresh energy and enthusiasm of volunteers such as the ones who came to my home from Assumption.

Or perhaps I should say transformations, as some are conspicuously public – this particular house is easily seen from the thoroughfare of Greensboro Avenue –and profoundly intimate. It’s the latter that has me continuing to write this, on my mother’s kitchen counter, when I really should be packing for my own flight back to Massachusetts.

Bear in mind that while I am a native Tuscaloosan, for all practical purposes, I haven’t lived here since 1981. Three decades erode both the strength of emotional connections and the vividness of memories, paved over by newer experience that, I have told myself, are more relevant to who I am today.

But for the last 24 hours, I’ve felt a change. Yesterday I drove by a patch of campus I normally attach no personal significance to whatsoever – only now it’s the path we walked our first afternoon in town, when, despite exhaustion, the students were eager to see the University of Alabama campus, gawk at the massive stadium, and flood the bookstore – intent on buying shirts that would declare their allegiance to Alabama football and Tuscaloosa as a whole. While this might be dismissed as a typical souvenir-gathering impulse, it turned to predict a wholehearted investment on the work site, where they were anything but tourists. Meanwhile, the trip led me to places I’d never been myself. One example was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – barely built back when I left Alabama – which I will write more about in this space come Monday. Another was the restaurant where owner (and former Alabama and Miami Dolphin star Bob Baumhower) went against policy to provide reserve our students a table, allowing them to watch Alabama’s 21-0 crushing of LSU in an appropriate setting.

Other places transformed include the very kitchen in which I now sit. It’s a relatively new home – miles from the house in which I grew up – but behind the stool on which I sit, what was once a nice but unremarkable dining table is now the place where, on their last night in town, our students abandoned more comfortable seating to huddle around Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy and his wife Heather. I won’t visit this space in the future without feeling a bit of the deep warmth, humor, and appreciation shared by Alabamians and Tuscaloosans.

Students, along with Mom, listen to point made by Dewayne, bottom left

On that night Dewayne told how his friend James, a coach and construction supervisor who set up the Bauhower restaurant experience, had told Dewayne on Assumption’s first day that while most groups who come in have one or two stars, he could look into the eyes of “each and every person” and tell early they were all fully engaged. Dewayne said it more eloquently than this, but at that point in the proceedings, I was too moved to take notes.

Fortunately I do have the notes of students, a whole paper bag full of them, left over the course the week by students as the spirit moved them. The first night student leader Marissa Reis taped up a small paper bag for each group member, plus a bag marked “Land family.

I saved the reading of mine until two hours ago – spreading them on this counter so my mother and I could experience them together. We marveled for a good half hour, feeling some of that warmth come back all over again; Mom also allowed as how this gave her that much more insight on why I loved working at Assumption, what makes all that snow and ice worthwhile.

I suppose this week’s experience is just a moving reminder of something true all along – that our past always informs our present. In this case, it took a group of students less than half my age to help me see my hometown, and my life, in a fresh and affirming light. But what I hope the students take from this is that I’m just one local, in the loosest sense of the word; who knows how many thousands the SEND students impact over the years.

They may not get to come back to see the lasting impact, and even if they did, the subtler changes I feel this morning give no outward sign. But they have all done their bit to transform lives – including, this morning, my own.

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