JACKSON, Tenn. – Aug. 18, 2011 – Knee-high grass surrounds an empty playground at Holt Elementary School outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. Though the beginning of the school year was only a few days away, the deserted school showed no indications of pending activity.
But across town, in Northport, Ala., Lloyd Wood Middle School was a different story. Custodians were busy cleaning. Teachers were busy working on their classrooms. And a team of students, faculty and staff from Union University was there to help them.
The team of 10 traveled to Tuscaloosa Aug. 3-5 to help the city in its recovery efforts from an April 27 tornado that caused massive damage, destroying more than 5,000 buildings and killing more than 40 people.
“Union has a heart for people who have been through disasters,” said Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science, who was part of the Union group. Baker and the rest of the team were assigned by the Tuscaloosa Area Volunteer Reception Center to work at Lloyd Wood Middle School. The school building had been closed for a year and was scheduled for demolition.
But the school came to life again in April, when the tornado caused significant damage to Holt Elementary School, forcing its relocation. Holt finished out the year at Lloyd Wood and was preparing for another school year in the same location.
Debbie Crawford, the principal at Holt Elementary School, said that more than 500 people showed up on the Saturday after the tornado to help the school move, completing the entire task in six hours.
But even with that amount of help from the community, much work remained at Lloyd Wood. The Union team stripped layers of wax from the cafeteria floor, assembled tables and bookcases, delivered and connected computers and worked with teachers in getting their rooms prepared.
“I could not have made it without them,” Crawford said of the Union volunteers. “They came in at a time when we were in dire need of help.”
Crawford said the head custodian had been out on sick leave, and the school was struggling to get ready for the new academic year.
“They were just a shining star for us,” Crawford said. “That helped us to get our building ready for teachers to come in on Friday and students to come in this week.” Elissa Weber, a Union senior, said the trip made her want to return to Tuscaloosa in the future to help even more.
“Since I’m going to be a teacher, it’s really inspiring to see the community and the church come around them and to help without getting anything in return,” Weber said. “I admire that a lot in people, and to be a part of that is incredible.”
Northport Baptist Church in Northport, Ala., provided lodging for the Union volunteers. Johnny Nixon, the church’s senior pastor, said the tornado affected about 15 percent of Tuscaloosa and opened up a door for the church to minister and share the gospel.
He said the willingness of volunteers, like those from Union, to come and help the city in its rebuilding effort was a tremendous encouragement to the local residents.
“To know that you’re not alone, know that there are folks out there that still care, who express that, and will come and do real dirty and hard work -- and sometimes dangerous work -- just to help others, has been remarkable,” Nixon said.