The following is a first-hand account by a Never to Yield Foundation volunteer who spent time working with the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa relief effort in the aftermath of the devastating tornadoes of April 27.
The loud honk of the 18-wheeler startled me from a state of bemusement. I had been lost in a daze after driving through the mangled remains of the MacFarland-15th intersection. How metal and cement could be reduced to such rubble I could not figure out. It was almost as if a child had decided to destroy a section of his sandcastle with a quick swoop of his hand.
But those thoughts were staggered as we approached the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa warehouse. As the 18 wheeler passed and drove around to the back of the building, I noticed a large sign written in messy handwriting: “If you don’t believe it can be done, please move out of the way of those that believe it can!” It did not appear as if many people felt the need to move out but rather to move in.
The entrance to the warehouse was partially blocked by a old fold-out table manned by two ladies wearing jean shorts and t-shirts. The scene at 9 a.m. was already alive as the warehouse appeared full of willing people, and the line in front of me was five people thick. An elderly man in front of me wore a dark blue t-shirt with a familiar poem inscribed on the back.
On his shirt, I noticed a key section of Auburn’s beloved creed: “I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.” I couldn’t help but feel this phrase being enacted in this very building.
My fear all week had been my unworthiness to be there. What did I know about helping others in the midst of a tragedy? What if the warehouse was already filled with volunteers? What if they asked me to do something I was unwilling or unable to do like run a chainsaw or drive a large truck?
Those fears were quickly squelched.
“You, take this cart to the front and start unloading the Sister Shubert boxes and bring them right here. Do not take them anywhere else. You, are you his wife? Good. Go over to the spot underneath the old ‘Produce’ sign and start sorting food boxes,” a worker named Sharon directed.
Sharon, with whom I later became acquainted, was a middle aged lady with big bushy brown hair. She wore a tight long sleeved crimson shirt and dirty blue jeans. I could tell immediately that she was in charge of this area, so I quickly followed her directions and brought brand new flattened boxes into the store.
It took 45 minutes to bring the few hundred boxes in. As soon as I finished, Sharon announced that she had to leave for the day. And she was gone.
About eight other people remained in the food section with me after Sharon departed. Many looked confused and annoyed with the lack of organization.
A man covered in black tattoos appeared and requested that someone take over the food section.
We stared at him with uncertainty until a lady named Mandy from Nashville said, “I guess I’ll do it.”
This is Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa. This is how it started, and this is how it’s run.
Willing volunteers who believe they can save the world from the harsh, unmerciful effects of natural disasters, people who honestly believe in the value of human touch even if it means simply unloading boxes from a crate into an old abandoned grocery store all working on their own and together to do what they can.
The “I guess I’ll do it” led to something more affirmed. I helped Mandy formulate a plan to use these boxes to create food care packages for families of four.
The first step was getting a few people together to set up the boxes. Carla and her daughter, who both had thick Southern accents wore Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirts, helped me set up, label, and tape the boxes. Paige and her husband, who both wore ripped up jeans and each had some kind of punk-rockish tattoo, helped sort the disorganized piles of food into manageable sections. There was the old man from Birmingham who kept bring in pallet after pallet loaded with boxes of food.
Once the boxes were finished and the food organized, we created an assembly line. Twenty empty boxes were laid out in rows. Four cans of vegetables, two cans of tuna and two cans of Spam, a box of pop tarts, Capri-suns, a four-pack of Snack-paks, cookies, peanuts, coffee,a box of cereal, and more – hopefully just enough to give a family of four enough to eat for two days.
When the twenty boxes were full, they were taped shut and loaded onto the empty pallets. Men of all ages (even some big kids from the Tuscaloosa County High School football team) came by and took the pallets to the loading dock. From there the packages went to churches, towns, cities, and families.
This system continued for four straight hours. The boxes were heavy and my back was sharp with pain. The towers of canned food and nonperishable items never seemed to diminish. The work was constant, but one could feel the purpose of the difficult task ahead of us.
Later, a new crop of volunteers arrived. A lady wearing a Budweiser t-shirt arrived ready to learn what to do to take over. Vanessa, an eight year old Mexican girl who made sure everyone there knew she was fluent at English, arrived with her father David, a large hispanic man with a thick mustache and her mother, Anna, a true motherly figure with a sweet smile and a willingness to help. Vanessa translated for the both of them.
By mid-afternoon, I was shot. Many of the earlier workers had left. Many of the new workers were ready to go the extra mile with the food care packages.
Although I did not physically reach out and touch a hurting victim of the tornadoes, I knew that my work had been worth something.
I think about the Auburn Creed and grasp a more genuine understanding of the words. There is a stanza that says, “I believe in my country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by ‘doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God.’”
I met some of my country at that warehouse. Strangers who became close friends for just a few hours. We all believed in hard work, and through Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, I can confidently say that we did justly and loved mercy.