By MADOLINE MARKHAM
A month and a half ago Holly Hart Shirley was not a relief worker. She was an interior designer living in Meadow Brook and working on a point-of-sale website. Today it is relief work through a different website, toomers4tuscaloosa.com and its Facebook page, that consumes her days and nights.
Shirley is part of the nucleus of worker bees behind the grassroots group Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa that sends aid directly to tornado victims as quickly as possible. “Our team never would have been hired to do relief work,” she said.
“We’re a maid, two artists, an interior decorator, a mini storage manager, a stay-at-home mom and a couple of college students.” But together they are mobilizing thousands to serve the needs of those all over Alabama whose lives were forever changed by the April 27 tornadoes.
More than 85,000 Toomer’s Facebook fans are constantly posting and responding to needs for tarps, underwear, you name it. The page is a communication hub for tornado relief efforts throughout the state, and many other relief groups publicize on the page as well.
ESPN and other national media have told the story of Alabama and Auburn fans uniting under the group to serve tornado victims. Alabama fans had supported Auburn last fall when their beloved trees at Toomer’s Corner were poisoned, and Toomer’s has encouraged Auburn fans to help those in Tuscaloosa in the wake of the EF-4 tornado.
“I think since Auburn is an agricultural school, its alums and students are used to building and doing,” Shirley said. “It’s part of the Auburn culture.”
From the Beginning
Just after the tornadoes struck Shirley stumbled upon the Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa Facebook group while looking for ways to help. She quickly became an administrator matching donations with needs on the page.
The Friday after the Wednesday tornadoes Shirley met up with fellow Toomer’s fans Christina Tatum, who lives in Helena, and Dawn Thonton, who lives in Indian Springs. The three of them bought Publix on Highway 150 out of hot dogs and drove to Tuscaloosa, where they expected to feed about 30 volunteers.
By the end of the day they had had served food to more than 900 people. They met grad students and young families who were carrying everything they owned in a plastic bag, and they were among the more fortunate victims.
“That was when we knew we couldn’t quit,” Shirley said.
She slept 26 minutes that night. Her husband, Jimbo, looked at her like she was crazy when she came home the first night, but after seeing the shocking devastation first hand on Saturday, he was on board too.
She put her interior decorating clients and projects on hold. Instead of working on designing Zeekee Interactive’s offices, she asked them to build her a website. They had it live by the first of the next week.
Saturday the team was online full speed. Six IT students from the University of Alabama started helping them field postings on the Facebook page.
Fans started writing corporations on their behalf. Trucks of food and other supplies—including one from Alaska with camping equipment and chain saws— arrived. People made T-shirts.
They consolidated the original website with one started by Alena Chandler, a Chelsea native that now lives in Tennessee. Lisa Michitti Cross, art teacher at the University of Montevallo, manned their Twitter account. Chris Fields, a friend of Shirley’s from high school who lives in New York, caught a ride from his parents’ house in Brewton, Ala., and started running their marketing, public relations and media.
“You just can’t stop,” Shirley said. Until the third week, the team was sleeping two to three hours a night. “We drank a lot of Monster energy drinks,” she said, noting how they even had a pallet of Monster donated.
Back in Birmingham
After a week and a half operating out of Five Points Baptist Church in Northport, Toomer’s moved their operations back to Birmingham to be closer to home and to serve the whole state better.
They worked out of Shirley’s home in Meadow Brook for two days as they began to see how similar their mission was to Christian Service Mission, a Birmingham nonprofit that has been providing immediate relief to the community for 40 years. “We both believe that churches are going to be the ones to serve these community’s needs after FEMA and other groups like it are gone,” Shirley said.
Christian Service Mission is now allowing Toomer’s to receive trucks at their warehouse in downtown Birmingham, and the two groups are working to make sure they are not doubling up on fulfilling needs. Two Auburn supply chain management majors, Adam Battle and Patrick Markham, are coordinating the logistics now and helping unload and load trucks.
Looking to the future
As they continue to work in the warehouse, Toomer’s is planning benefit concerts in Las Vegas, in Texas, in Enterprise and at Jordan O’Hare stadium in Auburn. They are working with an architect to design green, inexpensive, safe, affordable houses that can be built by volunteers. They will continue to match donations as needs change from immediate need of food and water to permanent need of homes.
Their mission remains to help as many as they can.
Auburn’s horticulture department is helping rebuild Brown’s Nursery greenhouse in Tuscaloosa, which will provide nine families with employment.
“We would like for everyone in Alabama to be restored to the level of life that they had before the storms,” Shirley said. And there is no doubt that she and the Toomer’s team will do whatever they can—even rely on Monster energy drinks—to make it happen.