Senior Graphic Design student Katelyn Armstrong has been through this before as a 10-year-old growing up in Houston. A tornado ripped through her city in a nearby neighborhood. “It took years for the area we lived in to be able to rebuild and become normal again,” she says.
When Armstrong, a student advocate for UAB Student Government Association (SGA), was approached by SGA President Brad Watts to secure volunteers to be ready to go out Thursday and Friday, she knew just what to do.
“When the tornado first hits, they’re in the search and rescue phase and you can’t really go in and help with debris,” says Armstrong, a Madison native. “The best thing you can do is get everyone organized and wait for someone to tell you where to go. We wanted to organize 100 to 150 volunteers so we went to Facebook.”
The Blazers for Birmingham Facebook page was created, and Armstrong and other students began spreading the word through emails to student life, housing, deans and anyone else they could think of, asking them to forward the information along to students.
The page had 75 “Likes” within the hour of its creation. By the end of the first week, more than 623 students had joined the network.
Armstrong has been in close contact with the volunteer organization Hands on Birmingham. More than 400 UAB students have signed up under the UAB Students group on the Hands on Birmingham website. When Hands on Birmingham finds out where needs are in the community, they communicate those to Armstrong and she relays it to her army of volunteers. They have responded.
“We’ve had students go out and volunteer in Pratt City and Concord, and they say their lives have been changed,” Armstrong says.
The Blazers for Birmingham group also has held several drives on campus to raise money and collect food and clothing for storm victims. The items were delivered to Daniel Cason Ministries, a United Way Distribution Center that works specifically in Pratt City, Pleasant Grove and Concord.
The first student drive, which lasted just seven hours on the Sunday following the tornadoes, almost filled up a 10-foot truck. A subsequent drive three days later netted enough supplies to fill two 20-foot trucks to maximum capacity.
“I’m in awe, and I’m overwhelmed by the UAB family,” Armstrong says. “That’s the word that’s the best way to describe UAB — family. I’m not just a student, I feel a part of something bigger because people are so passionate about the city they live in as well.”
There were many students doing some heavy lifting. Surgical Physician Assistant student Carrie Cole, a firefighter with the Gallant Volunteer Fire Department, worked in the Shoal Creek area of St. Clair County along with classmate Laura Winn. The seniors spent the first weekend after the disaster clearing debris and lending a hand wherever they were needed.
“In how many other fields do you have the privilege to help someone at the absolute worst moment of their life, and have them place their absolute trust in you — a stranger?” Cole says. “Be it with my fire department or in the medical field, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I am able to help someone.”