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Filling a need: Young man’s project connects students with volunteer opportunities

By Stephanie Snodgrass

Sam LoDuca on the roof of the Newseum while on Washington Youth Tour.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

For Brewton’s Samuel “Sam” LoDuca, that was exactly the case when it came to creating “VoluNeed,” a texting service designed to fulfill a student’s graduation requirement for volunteer service hours.

Organized last August, the service is celebrating its first full year connecting local high school students with volunteer opportunities in Escambia County. Its motto: Bringing the hands of the volunteer to the heart of the need.

It works like this: a non-profit or community organization, such as Habitat for Humanity or a local church, sends Sam the information about their upcoming event – date, time, location, need, etc. Then Sam, through the service, texts the information to the nearly 200 students currently enrolled in the program. If a student’s schedule matches the need, they arrive to earn the volunteer hours. 

How it began

Students who participate in organizations such as the National Honor Society (NHS) and the Student Government Associations (SGAs) are required to have a certain number of volunteer hours to earn distinction at graduation. Colleges and universities also put special emphasis on community service when applying for scholarship opportunities.

The senior at T.R. Miller High School said when he began his search for volunteer opportunities, he noticed a “disconnect” between students and non-profit organizations.

“It was really during my sophomore year when I noticed the disconnect,” Sam says. “I was trying to get volunteer hours for (NHS), and I realized I didn’t know where to go. 

“I got to asking, ‘Where can I go? What can I do?’ Knock on the door, I guess, and ask if they need help?” he said of his mission to local service hours. 

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m sure others are in my same situation.’ So, I talked with mom and said let’s do something about it. I decided we could be the middleman and connect people using technology.”

And he was right.

“I knew that nonprofits needed help to fill their ranks when conducting an event,” he says. “There was no influx of people, so I saw an opportunity to fix that. We weren’t sure how to implement it. We thought maybe a website or social media, but we ended up doing it as a text service.

Sam LoDuca, center, with the Washington Youth Tour group at the Marine Corps Museum. Photos by Michael Cornelison

“Teenagers aren’t on Facebook all that much, but everyone – and I mean everyone – checks their text messages,” he says.

The family found “Send Text,” a service that operates similar to the “Remind” system used by schools. Once established, Sam began handing out business cards with the sign-up information. 

“The cards are just an easy way to let people know the opportunity is there,” he says.

Sam says there is a small financial obligation for the service, which is covered by his family.

“I don’t remember the dollar amount,” he says. “That’s help from Mom.”

How it works

Sam says there is a sign-up for different participating nonprofits. In Brewton, those groups include Habitat for Humanity; Drexel & Honeybee, a Brewton no-pay restaurant; Brewton Reborn, a local beautification and quality of life effort; Brewton’s First United Methodist Church’s Backpack Buddies program, which provides school children with nutritious snacks; Paws Crossed, an animal rescue mission; and more. Other city and community organizations, as well as the Brewton City School System, also participate.

“(One) recent call for action was the Burnt Corn Creek Run,” he said of the TRM Cross Country team’s annual fundraiser. “The school has a paper that is signed by event staff to log the hours for each student. So, it really is a win-win for everyone involved. The non-profit or event has staff to work and the student gets their needed hours.

“Our non-profits love it,” he said. “We also just started an Instagram page.”

Students can visit voluneed.org or text 57838 to participate.

Where it goes from here

Sam is working to expand the service to all Escambia County students and beyond. He was recently asked by Coastal Alabama Community College – which has campuses in Brewton, Bay Minette and Monroeville – to begin working with its Ambassador Program to provide college-age students with community volunteer opportunities. That project is in the beginning stages and should launch soon.

A very active student, Sam spent the summer traveling – first to the University of Alabama’s Boys State event, then to the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar and as a delegate representing Southern Pine Electric Cooperative on the Washington D.C. Youth Tour, sponsored by the Alabama Rural Electric Association.

At every stop along the way, he shared the program and its mission.

“When I went to Boys State, I talked to a lot of people to get the idea out there,” Sam said of his mission. “I don’t want it to be a Brewton thing. I want it to go everywhere. Students everywhere have the same need, as do non-profits and organizations.

“We talked about using a different code for different areas, so people could easily see the information specific to their hometown,” he says. “We haven’t gotten all the details worked out, but it is something that I can see developing in the future.

“Community is very important to me,” he says. “Being active and helping others is something that I have always loved to do. This project is just a continuation of that.”

Sam is the son of Brewton pediatrician Dr. Paul LoDuca and his wife, Summer. After graduation, he plans to enter the U.S. Air Force.

Spooky Photos

The haunted mansion is missing a few ghosts and this romantic couple is dying to get back. Can they hitch a ride with you? SUBMITTED BY Jackie Whitehead, Orange Beach.
Kim Fletcher and Aryssa Sullivan dressed up to scare the kids for Halloween. My niece wasn’t at all scared! SUBMITTED BY Kim Fletcher, Bridgeport.
Karen and Matt Williams dressed as Zombie Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at Dragon Con 2012 in Atlanta. SUBMITTED BY Matt Williams, Montgomery.
Bennett Strickland is a four-year-old werewolf. SUBMITTED BY Donna Speeker, Hanceville.

Submit Your Images! December Theme: “Elf on a Shelf” Deadline for December: October 31. Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124.

Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.


Social Security can help you get back to work

By Kylle’ McKinney

If you rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments or Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits and want to start working or return to work, Social Security can help. If you rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments or Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits and want to start working or return to work, Social Security can help.

A plan for achieving self-support (PASS) is a plan for your future. This plan lets you use your income or the resources you own to help you reach your work goals. You could set aside money to go to school and get specialized training for a job or to start a business. PASS is for both SSI and SSDI. The job that you want should allow you to earn enough to reduce or eliminate the SSI or SSDI benefits you currently receive. 

You should use the PASS if all of these apply to you: 

• You want to work. 

• You get SSI (or can qualify for SSI by having this plan) because you have a disability or are blind. 

• You have income, other than SSI, or resources above the resource limit, to use to get a job or start a business.

In some cases, someone on SSDI can use a PASS and become eligible for SSI while pursuing the plan. Your employment income may reduce or eliminate your SSDI benefits. Under SSI rules, any income that you have may reduce your SSI payment. But if you have an approved plan, you can use most of that income to pay for the items you need to reach your work goal.

We don’t count money set aside under the PASS when we decide your SSI payment amount. This means you may get a higher SSI payment. However, you can’t get more than the maximum SSI payment for the state where you live. With an approved plan, you can set aside money to pay expenses needed to reach your work goal. You can read more at socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-11017.pdf.

The plan must be in writing, and Social Security must approve it beforehand. To start, contact your local Social Security office for an application (Form SSA-545-BK). You can access this form at socialsecurity.gov/forms/ssa-545.html

If you need help, there are many people who can help you write a PASS, including a Ticket to Work service provider, vocational counselor or a relative. Social Security’s Ticket to Work (Ticket) program supports career development for Social Security disability beneficiaries who want to work. The Ticket program is free and voluntary. The Ticket program helps people with disabilities progress toward financial independence. To learn more about the Ticket program, call the Ticket to Work Help Line at 1-866-968-7842 or 1-866-833-2967 (TTY) Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

This Day In History: October 8, 1896

George Washington Carver
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver arrived in Tuskegee to direct the agricultural school at the Tuskegee Institute. Known as the “Peanut Man,” Carver earned international fame for his innovative use of alternative crops to cotton, including peanuts and sweet potatoes. He geared his work in Tuskegee to the “man farthest down” and brought extension resources and techniques to farmers through the Tuskegee Institute Movable School. Carver received many awards and honors, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP. He was inducted into the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame, and the George Washington Carver Museum in Tuskegee commemorates his life and achievements.

www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1064

Enjoy tasty treats and support worthy causes

The third annual Taste of Chilton County will feature a variety of tasty foods (last year, more than 20 vendors participated), with a “taster’s choice” ballot for ticketholders to vote for their favorite vendors’ foods in sweet, savory and overall categories.

The event will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Chilton County Senior Connection, Plaza Shopping Center in Clanton. It’s hosted by the Rotary Club of Chilton County and Chilton County Senior Connection.

Proceeds will support local charities that serve children. For tickets or more information, call Gordon Swenson at 205-907-4219 or the Senior Connection at 205-755-8227.

Talladega Superspeedway celebrates 50 years:

Fans can meet legendary drivers and see iconic cars Oct. 11-13

By John N. Felsher

In a Dodge Charger Daytona on March 24, 1970, second-generation NASCAR star Buddy Baker laid down a lap at 200.447 mph at the year-old Talladega Superspeedway. The speed, the first to top the 200-mph barrier, set a stock car record that would last for over a decade. ISC Images and Archives

Five decades ago, William “Big Bill” France looked for a new place where drivers could race. France, a former racer himself, helped found the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1948 and created the Daytona International Speedway in Florida in 1959.

“Big Bill wanted something bigger, faster and wider than Daytona,” says Russell Branham, the Talladega Superspeedway public relations director. “He wanted to create the ‘palace of speed,’ where drivers could go faster than at Daytona and have more room to pass or maneuver.”

France enlisted the help of Bill Ward, an Anniston insurance man, to look for suitable land with enough acreage to build a racetrack close to a major highway. Ward found the deactivated Anniston Air Force Base between Anniston and Talladega.

“Bill Ward was very instrumental in bringing the racetrack here,” Branham says. “He believed it would be an incredible economic boost to this area and the entire state. He was right. Each year, our races bring in about $434 million to the state of Alabama.”

Richard Brickhouse, the 1969 Talladega Superspeedway winner, in the inaugural Talladega 500. ISC Images and Archives

Ground broke on the 2,000-acre site on May 23, 1968. The new 2.66-mile long Alabama International Motor Speedway included embankments rising five stories high at 33 degrees. In 1989, the name changed to the Talladega Superspeedway.

The first race, the “Bama 400 Grand Touring Race,” ran on Saturday, Sept. 13, 1969. Ken Rush drove his Camaro to victory. However, that race was only a warm-up for the first main event – the Talladega 500 scheduled to run the next day. 

“Leading up to the big race in 1969, most of the drivers felt like their tires would not last through the entire race,” Branham says. “Many big-name drivers pulled out of the race on Saturday because they didn’t think they could run at those speeds for 500 miles on those tires.”

France asked the drivers who raced on Saturday to compete again on Sunday and even offered them some extra incentive money. Only 12 drivers scheduled to race on Sunday competed, but the field included 24 drivers who raced that Saturday. Richard Brickhouse won that first Talladega 500 driving at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour.

The Talladega Superspeedway saw many other great events and records set during the past five decades. In 1970, Buddy Baker became the first driver in NASCAR history to exceed 200 mph. In 1987, Bill Elliott, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, set a speed record when he drove 212.809 mph in a 1987 Ford Thunderbird.

People can see Elliott’s record-breaking Thunderbird when the Talladega Superspeedway celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 11-13. That weekend, fans can see several other iconic cars and meet some legendary drivers. 

“We’re going to bring back some historic cars that have made their mark here over time,” Branham says. “Dale Earnhardt won 10 times at Talladega. We’ll have one of his cars here. Will also have cars from David Pearson, Richard Petty and others. Some Hall of Fame drivers like Bobby and Donnie Allison and other great racers will be here to meet their fans.”

A $50 million facelift

Also during the 50th anniversary celebration, fans will get their first look at the $50 million renovation and upgrade to the track facilities. Announced in July 2018, the project had two phases. Phase One included building a new tunnel to allow recreational vehicles better access to the track. The project finished in April 2019.

“The racetrack has had a glorious past, but the future is extremely bright with the transformation of our infield project,” Branham says. “What we’re getting ready to unveil will set the stage for the next 50 years. With the brand-new incredibly large vehicular tunnel in Turn 3, RVers can go in and out of the racetrack throughout the race weekend as they please. Previously, once people got into the track, they were locked in until after the race. We also added new RV spots on the iconic infield.”

Most race fans stay in the area five to six days, but others arrive in RVs as much as 10 days before race day to get a good spot in the infield. During a race weekend, the local population swells by about 180,000 to 200,000 people. In contrast, Montgomery had a population of about 200,000 in 2018.

Dale Earnhardt scores his 10th TSS victory, becoming the all-time winningest driver in the track’s history, doing it in dramatic fashion, coming from 18th to first in less than four laps to take the lead at the white flag. It is his final career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. ISC Images and Archives

“Twice a year, we become one of the largest cities in Alabama,” Branham quips. “During a race weekend, about 73 percent of our fans come from outside of Alabama.”

Phase 2 of the project includes the Talladega Garage Experience. This will allow fans to see the drivers and their teams working in 22 garages as they prepare cars for the next race. It also includes a 35,000-square-foot Open Air Club with a giant video screen, kids’ zones, concessions and other new amenities.

“The centerpiece of our new project is the Talladega Garage Experience,” Branham says. “This will give fans a ‘locker room’ experience where they can get up close and personal with the drivers and teams working on their cars just a few feet away. Drivers and team members might walk over to the fans and sign autographs. We will also have a brand-new Victory Lane so fans can watch the end of the race from the grandstands and come down to see the Victory Lane celebration.”

At 7 p.m. Oct. 11, fans can participate in the “Big One on the Boulevard.” This includes a Mardi Gras-style parade where drivers will throw out beads and other items. Fans can also compete against each other in fun contests while drivers announce the events. On Oct. 12, race fans can attend a concert featuring Riley Green. At 1 p.m. Oct. 13, the main event, the 1000Bulbs.com 500 begins. People who buy a ticket to the Sunday race can see the Saturday night concert for free.

“Big Bill France could have built this racetrack in many other places, but he chose to build it here in Alabama,” Branham says. “The Talladega Superspeedway has been a Crown Jewel for Alabama since 1969. No other racetrack provides the excitement and incredible finishes like Talladega where multiple cars running 200 miles per hour battle for the lead. We’re proud to have been a part of Alabama history for 50 years.”

For more visit talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 877-GO2-DEGA. For tickets, call 855-518-RACE.ν

The brand-new Talladega Celebration Plaza is part of the transformation – The Talladega Superspeedway Infield Project, presented by Graybar. Illustration provided by Talladega Superspeedway

Music for the ages: Alabama woman puts her lullabies into a new speaker for young listeners

By Alec Harvey

For more than 30 years, Mae Robertson has been singing lullabies – not just an occasional “Rock-A-Bye Baby” to her children, but an array of lullabies recorded as albums.

“It started in 1986 after my daughter was born, and a friend overheard me singing ‘The Water is Wide’ to her as a lullaby,” says Robertson, who has been singing since her college days. “He said, ‘That’s a really weird song to sing as a lullaby,’ and I said, ‘It’s perfect. You have to find interesting songs that you enjoy singing that are peaceful and calm.’”

And that’s exactly what Robertson ended up doing, recording five albums in her “lullaby and lovesongs” series that included such songs as “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Hush, Little Baby,” “What a Wonderful World” and “All the Pretty Little Horses.”

That first lullaby album, released on cassette, was “All Through the Night” in 1994.

Cut to 2017, with Robertson, now a grandmother, putting together “All That Matters,” the latest lullaby album.

“I thought I was done, and then I had grandbabies, and I discovered I was singing a whole different group of songs to them,” says Robertson, who lives in Birmingham. “I wasn’t singing the same songs to them that I sang to their father.”

But she was singing, and it was while singing to her first grandchild that an idea occurred to Robertson. As owner of the children’s store Cottontails in New York and Connecticut in the ’80s, she was no stranger to entrepreneurship.

The Lullabuddy comes pre-loaded with 33 songs and about two hours of music.

“My first grandson, Johnny, is 5 now, and I would sing songs to him every night, and I wanted him to have my music when I wasn’t there,” Robertson says. “I bought an iPod and a speaker, but it was very cumbersome. It just wasn’t working. It just sat on the shelf in his nursery.”

A granddaughter, Frankie, was born next, and early on, she was in a California hospital for about three weeks. “My son brought the whole get-up I had set up for Johnny to the hospital, and the nurses would come in and say, ‘This is so peaceful.’ The nurses kept saying they wished they had something like that they could put in all the hospital rooms. As I sat there holding Frankie, I thought, how hard would it be to invent a little speaker that comes preloaded with songs. Well, I learned how hard it could be.”

Filling a need

Like her children’s store, the Lullabuddy was born out of necessity. 

“I think I’ve pretty much been the kind of person who said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I’m going to figure out how to do it,’” she says. “At the time I came up with Cottontails, there was not a baby store in Westchester, and every mother I met was getting on a train and going into the city to shop. … As for the Lullabuddy, music is available everywhere, but it’s not easy to make a playlist for your child and play it. It’s complicated. I thought I could make it really simple, and that’s totally where the idea came from.”

Mae Robertson came up with the idea for the Lullabuddy as she sang lullabies to her grandchildren – Johnny, Frankie and 9-month-old twins Lyla and Lucas.

The idea took some time – about 2 ½ years – to become a reality, as Robertson and her partners tested various speakers and then remastered 33 songs specifically for the new product.

The Lullabuddy is a small Bluetooth speaker pre-loaded with songs from Robertson’s lullaby albums, including the singer’s take on songs from Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Taylor and Tom Waits. It’s available on Amazon and the lullabuddy.com website for $60 (as well as at A’mano and Once Upon a Time in Birmingham),

The speaker can shuffle songs or play them in order, or it can be used as a speaker for anything people want to play on it.

“I find it hard to explain what it is,” says Robertson, whose voice has been described as “luminous” by The New York Times. “But the minute you turn it on and hear it, everyone says, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It’s unlike anything already out there, and that has been a real challenge for me. My favorite description of it is when someone called it a 21st-century music box.”

Performing isn’t foreign for Robertson. It’s in her blood. The daughter of Virginia Samford Donovan – the namesake of Birmingham’s Virginia Samford Theatre – she has recorded 10 albums, including the lullaby series. Her great-nephew, Iain Armitage, is the star of TV’s “Young Sheldon” and “Big Little Lies.”

Already, Lullabuddy has earned awards from the likes of the National Parenting Center and the National Parenting Products Award, and there are rave reviews from customers on Amazon, too.

“We received this speaker as a baby-shower gift, and it is one of my favorite things we received,” one buyer says. “We play it for her each naptime and at night. I really love the timer feature that makes it shut off after a certain amount of time – perfect for her to drift off to sleep to.”

Robertson and her husband, Webb, attended a toy and gift trade show in New York in August, and they hope that, along with mentions in the likes of People magazine, will pay off.

“I’m super proud of how people are reacting to it and the awards it is winning,” she says. “I’m so excited to get it into retail stores across the country.”

In the end, Robertson’s goal with Lullabuddy was simple.

“The main goal of Lullabuddy was to make it really easy to play some sweet music for your baby,” she says. “Music you can play without giving up your phone or making a playlist or even having internet. Music you can take with you in the car or on a walk or on a trip. Music that will calm them and that parents actually enjoy as well.”

Alabama’s own ‘Great American Read’

McCammon holds a copy of his newest book, Cardinal Black; the back cover features a photo of him in early 1700s period attire. Photo by Michael Mixon

Robert McCammon is the only living Alabama author to have a book named to PBS’ “The Great American Read” list of 100 beloved 100 books. (Harper Lee, who died in 2016, topped the list with To Kill a Mockingbird). McCammon’s apocalyptic novel Swan Song, co-winner (with Stephen King) of the 1987 Bram Stoker Award, was #94 on the list. It is one of 23 novels the Birmingham native has written since graduating in 1974 from the University of Alabama, where he was editor of The Crimson White. Many are bestsellers, including his 1978 breakout novel, Baal, Boy’s Life and Gone South. Although he enjoys a loyal international fan base, he still lives in Birmingham.  We talked with him as he was wrapping up his latest book in the popular Matthew Corbett historical fiction series. – Lenore Vickrey

When did you first begin writing?

I remember writing a story about an invasion of giant grasshoppers and reading that to other kids in my first grade, so I guess I would’ve been six. When I was a freshman at Banks High School in Roebuck they had a writing contest that I won with a story about a dying soldier in Vietnam. The prize was $10, but the real prize was that a teacher—one of the contest judges—had written on my paper the question, “A freshman wrote this?” that I suppose was directed to the other judges. That, unfortunately, was the first and last year they had the contest.

You’ve talked publicly about the lack of encouragement for your writing that you received at the Birmingham Post-Herald, where you worked on the copy desk. Was there any professor at UA who did see writing talent in you, and encouraged you to pursue that?

Yes, there was, though I’ve forgotten his name. He was a creative writing teacher, and he seemed to like my work, but it became weird because whenever any of the other students read his or her work this professor would look at me and say something like, “What do you think about that story?” So it became a bit uncomfortable for me, being expected to give my opinion on everyone else’s efforts!

What’s your typical pattern for writing these days? Do you have a secluded place in your home where you do your research and writing?

Late night, starting around ten or so and going until I’ve figured I’ve done enough, which can go on all night. The night belongs to me. I’ve always been a night person and remain so. Many years ago—many years!—I had to write down all my questions about a subject and trek to the library, but of course now with the internet that’s not necessary. But I’ll tell you that I could never write the Matthew Corbett series (set in the 1700s) without the internet of the 21st century…there are just too many things that demand research. If I had to go to the library to look up everything, each book would take years to write!

Tell us about the online video you star in, “My Creations.”

A friend of mine is a film director. I told him what I wanted to do and that I had the song—or the “rap”, if you please—and we went from there. I do believe it’s the first music video ever made by a fulltime writer who is not also a working musician. The reaction has been exactly what I hoped…that it was just “fun,” and we really had a great time doing it. (Watch the video at robertmccammon.com)

I read that your next project was The King of Shadows, in the Matthew Corbett series, followed by a book of short stories. Is that still on track?

Yes, still on track. I’m hoping to finish The King of Shadows next month and then I’ll be doing a book of Matthew Corbett short stories before I do the final book in the series. After that I have a couple of other projects in mind that I’m looking forward to. Several years ago I was planning to retire when I got to “my age,” but now…no way.

As time goes on, what book or books of yours do fans seem to appreciate the most?

Swan Song, Boy’s Life and the Matthew Corbett series. Of course, sometimes I get comments from people who’ve just read my first few books and love those. Sometimes it hits you out of the blue that a reader says a book you wrote 30 years ago has had a profound and positive influence on either them or a loved one. The Wolf’s Hour has a pretty large following too, and I’m always getting requests to do a sequel to that, which is why I did the semi-sequel The Hunter From The Woods a few years back. But people want more. Which is good for me!

What books would we find on your nightstand?

You would find a mix of history, books on music and books on board games (which I collect, and I have thousands of them) and also a few of my also-vast collection of science fiction magazines like Analog, Fantastic, Worlds Of If, and Amazing, which introduced me to reading as a kid and I now have every one of the issues that (no joke) my grandmother threw away! Now if only I could afford to get back all the Batman comic books of the 1950s and 1960s that she tossed out!


Kiwifruit: A new Alabama-grown fruit for fall

Fall fruit season is here, a time to enjoy locally grown apples, pumpkins, pears and many other Autumn-ripening favorites, including a newcomer to the fall lineup — Alabama-grown kiwifruit. 

These darling egg-shaped super-fruits, which are packed with exquisite flavor and exceptional nutrition, are native to China where they have been revered and cultivated for centuries. Kiwifruit gained its current name and an international fan base after growers in New Zealand successfully commercialized and marketed the crop. Large-scale production soon expanded to other countries, including Chile, Italy and the U.S., primarily in California, which established a thriving kiwifruit industry in the 1980s. 

About that same time, Auburn University horticulture professor and small fruit expert Billy Dozier saw potential for this semi-tropical fruit here in Alabama. Working with Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station researchers across the state to evaluate kiwifruit varieties and their cultivation requirements in our southeastern growing conditions, Dozier soon identified one the biggest challenges for kiwifruit production in Alabama: our winter. Or, rather, our lack of winter.

According to Matthew Price, director of the Chilton Research and Extension Center in Clanton, which has been the hub of Auburn’s kiwifruit research all these years, kiwifruit are much like apples and peaches. To properly set fruit, they must be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for a specific number of hours each year, which can be a challenge here in mild-wintered Alabama. 

Dozier and his team addressed that issue as they developed new varieties of kiwifruit designed to thrive in Alabama. To date, Auburn has released five patented cultivars including one of the fuzzy-coated, green-fleshed, sweet/tart-tasting kiwifruit that we’ve all grown to love, as well as several smooth-skinned, yellow-fleshed, tropically flavored (think pineapple/mango) golden kiwifruit cultivars, which possess an extra special quality. 

The brown marmorated stink bug, an introduced and invasive pest, is one of the primary pest challenges for Alabama kiwifruit growers and for kiwifruit production worldwide.

“Golden kiwifruit require 750-850 chilling hours, depending upon the variety, whereas most green kiwifruit varieties require over 1,000,” Price explained. 

It took some three decades, but in 2014 Dozier’s vision truly took root. That’s when Clint Wall, one of Dozier’s former students, and his wife Jenny began planting AU Golden Sunshine kiwifruit at Alabama’s first commercial-scale kiwifruit operation, Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative in Reeltown. The orchard now is home to more than 40,000 vines which are already producing enough fruit to supply select grocery store chains in Alabama and beyond, a market that holds great promise for further expansion.

Kiwifruit is also a promising crop for gardeners who want to harvest some of their own fall gold and green, though the growing the fruit does require a degree of effort — and at least two plants. Why two? Because kiwifruit are dioecious (male and female flowers are produced on separate plants), so at least one plant of both genders (or up to four females for each male) are needed for pollination. 

“On top of that, care must be taken to ensure that the vines bloom within the same time period,” Price says. “If they don’t, there will be no pollination, which means no kiwifruit.”

Kiwifruit have a lot to offer, but they also expect a lot from their growers. They need well-drained soils, trellises to support their heavy vines, significant amounts of water and fertilizer and extra protection from spring freezes and a variety of pests. 

When brown marmorated stink bugs feed around the stem of kiwifruit, they cause significant damage that can reduce yields and lower fruit quality.

“Kiwifruit is a labor-intensive crop,” Price admits, “but for a home gardener with just a few vines, it is very doable.” Plus, he says, “Kiwifruit are packed with so much flavor and nutrition, it’s worth the time and effort to grow your own.”

Now is a prime time to find locally harvested kiwifruit at area grocers and farmers markets, and also to see the kiwifruit plantings at the Chilton REC, which welcomes visitors and is open most weekdays. (Call ahead at 205-646-3610 to check hours or schedule an appointment.)

In addition, information on growing kiwifruit is available through local Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices, from Petals from the Past nursery in Jemison (205-646-0069) and from other reputable kiwifruit plant suppliers.

October Tips

• Cut and preserve herbs for use during the winter.

• Save seed from flowers, vegetables and herbs. 

• Plant shrubs, trees and perennials.

• Plant lettuces, spinach, turnips, radishes, onions and garlic. 

• Test soil and add amendments as needed. 

• Prepare garden tools, equipment and supplies for winter storage.



Catfish, seafood top the menu at Top O’ The River

By Aaron Tanner

For more than three decades, the Sharp family has served top-notch food at its chain of Top O’ The River restaurants across eastern Alabama.

Top O’ The River first opened its doors in Anniston in 1982. The family later added locations in Gadsden in 1983 and Guntersville in 2002, along with a location on Pickwick Lake in Tennessee in 2012. Having multiple locations allows the Sharps to expand their brand while being close enough to their home to maintain day to day business operations. 

“We had family members that wanted to expand the business within controllable distance,” says Bill Sharp, who oversees operations at all locations. 

The star of the menu at Top O’ The River is the farm-raised catfish and fresh seafood.  Twice a week, seafood is brought in from the coast, while catfish comes from Mississippi weekly.

“We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer likely are our only one.”

Before the main course, instead of hush puppies, each table gets a complimentary skillet of made-from-scratch cornbread that is mixed with jalapenos, corn, and scallions. The signature mustard greens often accompany the cornbread.

“We decided cornbread complements the coleslaw and greens more than the hushpuppies, so we include those with the entrees,” Sharp says.

In 2019, the Alabama Tourism Department named the Gadsden location’s catfish and mustard greens as one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” (The Guntersville location also got a place on the list for the fried pickles.)

The most popular entree on the menu is the “riverboat special,” which includes a half pound of catfish, hushpuppies, a choice of baked potato or fries and an order of cornbread, coleslaw and pickled onions. Other seafood items include shrimp, shrimp scampi and crawfish. 

Erika Buckelew, left, and Are Caries, employees at Top O’ The River in Guntersville, prepare to serve of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. Photo by Allison Law

Those in the mood for something other than seafood or catfish can order prime cut steaks and chicken, while the hand-battered fried pickles and onion rings are favorite appetizers. 

All menu items are cooked to order; the batter used for the catfish, seafood and chicken is the same recipe used since opening day.

Top O’ The River’s website bills itself as one of the Southeast’s largest catfish and seafood restaurants. Each location can seat up to 700 people along with banquet facilities that can seat up to 200 for private events. During busy nights, as many as 100 employees are on hand at the Guntersville location to ensure that the process of seating and serving customers runs as smoothly as possible. 

“To serve a large number of people in a short amount of time, every facet of our operation must be efficient,” says Chad Opdycke, general manager of the Guntersville location. 

With such a vast seating area, the Guntersville location can turn over groups of customers as many as five to seven times on weekend evenings. “We always pride ourselves in not letting the customer wait once they sit down,” Sharp says. Those eating at the Guntersville location can pass the time while waiting for a table admiring the large aquarium that displays different types of fish.

For those who want to dine with a view, the Gadsden location overlooks Neely Henry Lake, while the Guntersville location has views of Lake Guntersville. “The main comments we get for the water views is that customers are willing to wait for a window seat,” Sharp says.

The fried catfish and fries, the “Riverboat Special,” is one of the most popular items on the menu. Photo by Allison Law

The Guntersville and Gadsden locations also have a marina where those out on the water can arrive by boat and come inside the restaurant to dine. 

Despite having a large clientele of locals, some customers drive from as far as Birmingham and Huntsville to eat at one of their locations. “It is not only an honor but a little bit of added pressure to have customers drive from miles away to eat with us,” Opdycke says. “We always strive to provide the best food quality and customer service possible, and to treat every customer like they are our only one.”

The consistency in food quality and customer service and having the same menu at all locations has changed little since Top O’ The River first opened.  

“Consistency sounds easy, but that can be the most difficult part of this business,” Sharp says. “Customers know what to expect when they arrive.”

Despite the large staff, employees feel like a member of the family, which translates to the quality customer service that guarantees repeat business. “Treating our employees like family creates a fun and positive work environment, which helps with employee retention,” Opdycke says. “I feel like our employees extend this same treatment to our customers.”

Top O’ The River

7004 Val Monte Drive, Guntersville, Ala. 35976

(256) 582-4567

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday

5-10 p.m. Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday

12-8 p.m. Sunday 

1606 Rainbow Drive, Gadsden, Ala. 35901

(256) 547-9817

(same hours as Guntersville location)

3330 McClellan Blvd., Anniston, Ala. 36201

(256) 238-0097

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday

5-10 p.m. Friday; 3-10 p.m. Saturday

11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday

www.topotheriverrestaurant.com