It’s late on Friday night at the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art, A Center for Cultural Arts. Since last Sunday, the roar of passing trucks carrying Disaster Relief to Tornado Victims has overcome the sound of the occasional train. Flashing lights designating “Help Center Ahead” glow along Lee Road 430, our town’s mainstreet. Blue tarps blanket roof tops, while the rubble of demolished homes set along the roadside wait to be picked up and hauled away. Whole families and multiple generations have been relocated to apartments, and hotel rooms. Some have taken shelter with friends, and neighbors. Strangers hug on storm littered front lawns. I’m compelled to ask everyone I see, “how did you and your family fair through the storm?” And I do ask. I can’t seem to help myself. Everyday since Sunday, I drive through the storm’s path. Splintered trees, pink insulation clings to naked branches, the piles grow higher along the roadsides. Road blocks signal removal of debris and memories.
On Wednesday, I took funds, sent to me for people in need. I went to Wal-Mart and purchased clothes (shirts, pants, socks, undergarments, shoes, and toiletries.) Then I took an elderly lady food to eat (chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and turnip greens. She didn’t want to leave her home, she told us as she sat in her cold kitchen wrapped in a robe. We held her hands, and upon noticing how cold she was, we placed the dish of turnips in her hand and said “you need to hold onto these, they’ll keep you warm.”
Later that evening, we took pizza to longtime customer of my Dad’s. When asked if we could bring her dinner, she replied “a pizza would sure be nice.” We obliged, and delivered a few other pizzas to people we saw still surveying the damage from their front lawns. That evening, we also delivered donations to our local Fire Station, and to hotels scheduled to host families displaced by the storm.
Thursday, we returned to the art center to determine what we should do. The Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art, A Center for Cultural Arts occupies two small storefront/business suites, located in the heart of Smiths Station. The local developer who owns the building also owns apartments throughout Smiths Station. 9 families who rent from him lost their homes. Some lost everything, and they have all been relocated through his generous practice of empathy. On Thursday, we felt it was of the utmost importance that we see to some of their needs. Friends who entrusted us with their donations, quickly learned that they were able to help these individuals in need.
Also, on Thursday, we stopped by one of our local elementary schools to ask school faculty if we could do anything. As part of our Cultural Arts Outreach, we take fine art classes into Smiths Station and Salem, Alabama elementary schools. West Smiths Station sustained significant damage. Students will return next week.
When we asked, “can we do anything,” the principal(s) asked “can you be here next week?” Knowing the return to school will be difficult for students and school faculty, they felt that the arts would play an integral role in helping all return to a new and difference sense of normal following the aftermath of tragedy.
The answer was YES. We didn’t exactly know who we would manage it, but we knew that we would figure it out. With the funds donated by a friend, the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art, A Center for Cultural Arts promised to make Art Activities possible for every child returning to school next week. Our weekly adult students, offered to postpone their scheduled studio classes to afford us the time to give to the students of West Smiths Station Elementary. Many have even volunteered to assist us in passing out brushes and paint. One friend from Hillsborough, North Carolina, instead of waiting on us to ask, she called to say, “I’m on my way!”
It’s late this Friday night. Music spills through the studio and gallery, as I write some small account of the events of this extraordinary week, following unimaginable tragedy. We’ve exhausted our time, fulfilling every item on our check list. the check lists grow, and we check them off again. Phones ring and buzz, messages are sent, and the final preparations take shape.
Next week, as a community we will gather together and paint enveloped by the love and strength which binds us together as a family here in Lee County.
My heart overflows with gratitude to all who have encouraged, supported, championed and joined us to help one another.