Courtesy of The Crimson White
A new playground in Phil Campbell, Ala. will bring a little normalcy back to the small community devastated by the April 27 tornadoes.
Two nonprofit organizations, Alabama Forever and Nick’s Kids Fund, have teamed up to bring a place for families to spend time together back to the community.
Alex Sokol founded Alabama Forever on April 28, 2011, one day after the storm. He said he is happy to be able to give to a community that lost so much.
“Phil Campbell is a town of 1000, and 27 died,” Sokol said. “That is roughly three percent of their population. So, for us to be able to bring a tiny, tiny, little bit of normalcy and joy into kids’ and families’ lives is an honor to be a part of. It’s a blessing to us. We’re so happy to do this for them.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his wife Terry Saban founded Nick’s Kids Fund to assist with the needs of children when Nick Saban coached at Michigan State. Terry Saban agreed that the playground is important to the recovery of the community.
“The devastation that the city of Phil Campbell experienced in the tragic tornadoes of April 27, 2011 was incredible,” Terry Saban said. “Nick’s Kids Fund is honored to work alongside Alabama Forever to help resurrect a place of community fellowship and remembrance for the area. We are optimistic that the playground for young children will encourage hope for those affected by the storm.”
Sokol said he is thankful for the relationship Alabama Forever has with Nick’s Kids Fund.
“My favorite quote from Nick Saban is, ‘You cannot be a leader without serving others,’” Sokol said. “I have taken that to heart, and we are grateful to have this relationship.”
Both organizations have already completed other tornado relief projects and have plans for more in the future.
Alabama Forever has ongoing projects around the state. Sokol said the mission statement of the organization was left open-ended so those who most needed help could receive it.
“We started by giving out water, food, diapers and stuff like that, but we wanted to steer away from the supply game,” Sokol said. “We wanted a more lasting impact. We left the mission statement open-ended so we could help communities in need, affected by the tornado or not. We want to help communities as a whole, rather than individual families. We want to work on stuff for whole communities that have a multi-generational impact, like this playground.”
Sokol, who quit his job to start and run Alabama Forever, said the organization has been spiritually satisfying for him.
“I can’t even describe how blessed I feel,” Sokol said. “There was never a moment of listing pros and cons or wondering what I should do. God spoke directly to me, and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world.”
For more information on Nick’s Kids Fund or Alabama Forever, visit their respective websites at nickskidsfund.com and alabamaforever.org.
Everywhere Dana Dowling looks in her home in Tuscaloosa on Monday night, she will see Alabama football. On her television, of course, because as a huge Alabama fan she will watch as the Crimson Tide plays LSU for the national championship. If she looks up at the ceiling, down at the floor, over at the walls, heck, if she steps into the carport, all of it says, “Alabama football.” Even in her daughter’s bedroom, if she could peel back the drywall to reveal the frame of the house, she’d see someone wrote, “Roll Tide,” there this summer.
This is the house that football built. And if Alabama wins tonight, Dowling’s screaming exultations might be heard all the way down in Louisiana.
What a year Dana and Bob Dowling have had. They lost their home in the April 27 tornado that killed 50 people, left 7,000 unemployed and destroyed thousands of buildings in and around Tuscaloosa. Then they were showered with support in the form of a new house and in new friendships and in hope where once there was despair.
Life, better for the love poured into it, went on. They got a new son-in-law and a new granddaughter and had their biggest and best Christmas in years in which they crammed 13 people into the new house that football built.
And now the men they credit with helping to rebuild their lives are playing in the biggest game of their lives.
So, yeah, they’ll be watching.
The Dowling house is the first of 13 being built in a partnership between Alabama coach Nick Saban’s Nick’s Kids Foundation and Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa. The No. 13 represents Alabama’s national championships in football. “We’re hoping that tonight is going to make 14,” says Heather Poe, office manager of the Habitat for Humanity. Habitat expects the number of houses it will build in Tuscaloosa will eventually be in the hundreds.
Win or lose tonight, this Alabama team will go down in Tuscaloosa as one that accomplished far more than any stat sheet or won-loss record shows. The Dowlings’ story is just one of countless examples of the way the football team, led by Saban’s example, reacted with love, charity and hard work in the face of death and devastation.
Dowling affirms all of this except the “or-lose” part. That’s just not within the realm of possibilities. Alabama will win, it’s just a matter of how the team will do it. “There’s more than one team that can win? That confuses me,” she says, with the wry sense of humor that helped sustain her through a summer of dread and fear. Alabama will win, it’s just a matter of by how much. “I know they’re playing another team. But that’s just for TV.”
There is joy and laughter in this house, and it sounds glorious. Under the floor upon which Dowling rests her feet tonight, there is insulation, put there by student volunteers who came from … wait for it … LSU. How incredible is that? Students from the two schools playing for the national championship helped make it possible for Dowling and her family to watch the national championship. None of the LSU kids wrote, “Geaux, Tigers” anywhere. Good thing. Dowling has a sentimental streak a mile wide but it narrows at kickoff. She loves those kids at LSU with the strength of a thousand tears. But …
“It doesn’t change who I want to win. Don’t confuse that. It’s like my Auburn kids,” she says, referring to students from there who worked on her house. “I absolutely, totally love my Auburn kids. That doesn’t mean that I want them to win. They can win when they’re not playing Alabama. I’m fine with that.”
Turning serious, Dowling says this: “As far as the impact overall, no, it doesn’t matter (who wins). As far as after all Nick’s Kids and the university and college students have gone through, and all of the turning around and giving back to the community, it’s almost deserved. They deserve the reward for everything they’ve done.”
Roughly 75 percent of the Alabama football players worked on either the Dowling house or another Habitat house nearby, though few of them had construction skills. Then again, skills don’t matter when you’re as strong as a moose, like D.J. Fluker, a 6-6, 335-pound offensive tackle. From the ground, he threw sheets of plywood onto the roof.
In the months after their home was destroyed, Dana and her teenage daughter, Marilyn, were traumatized by the tornado. That they are alive to tell the story is pure luck. Outside their front door, they could see a red minivan, way up high in the sky. One neighbor’s trailer disintegrated in seconds. Another was taken apart in two pieces. The roof of the Dowling’s trailer lifted just enough for Bob to see out … but then it dropped back down. He likes to say God peeked in and saw them and let them live. Their trailer stayed intact. But when movers tried to relocate it, it collapsed on itself.
Slowly but surely, as their home was built, so were their hearts, and they’ve given back some of what they’ve been given. Dana and Marilyn have volunteered on other Habitat houses in the community. And for Christmas, that big Christmas with all the family in the new house, Marilyn asked for and received tools and a tool belt.
Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban speaks to the media before the start of the Nick's Kids Charity golf Tournament at Old Overton in Vestavia Hills, AL.
Nick's Kids Foundation