Navigate / search

Doing our part

Alabamians continue to step up to help their neighbors and others as we all navigate this time of uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic. We hope you are inspired by the stories on these pages. Please let us hear your own stories of hope by emailing us at alaw@areapower.com.

Arab church ‘Glory Train’ cheers members

Members of the Union Hill FCM Church participate in a weekly “Glory Train” parade to surprise fellow members.

Members of a church in Arab have taken to the streets in their northeast Alabama town to bring joy and smiles to their members who are elderly or shut-in. Kristi Walker, a member of Union Hill FCM Church and Arab Electric Cooperative, organized a “Glory Train” of vehicles to drive through neighborhoods to boost morale.

“The Lord put it on my heart to go around to the houses of the elderly, shut-ins and widows of our church and show them we love them,” she says. “We wanted them to know they are not forgotten during this lonely time, since they have not been able to leave their houses due to COVID-19.”

Since April 22, Walker says 25 to 30 cars have participated in the weekly parades with 100 people participating, honking horns and driving by the homes of more than 70 church members and hundreds more in between. “As we approached the houses, we would call them and ask them to step onto their porches where we would surprise them with cars decorated with balloons and signs of encouragement, with families cheering and waving.

“We have been able to uplift and inspire hundreds of people in the community,” she says. “We have gotten the biggest blessings from each and every neighborhood we have been able to parade through.”


Alabama company pivots to making high-demand face masks

By Lenore Vickrey

Workers at HomTex in Cullman have been making millions of cotton face masks. The company will add production of surgical face masks this month.

A Cullman manufacturer of bed sheets has converted its plant to make one of the most in-demand products in the United States: cotton face masks. HomTex has been churning out face masks for national companies and individuals for the past several weeks.

“By June 1, we will have received orders for and/or shipped a couple million face masks,” says President and CFO Jeremy Wootten. “The customers range from national companies to individuals. We have sold a significant amount of product to businesses in Cullman and the surrounding area as well as to companies all around the Southeast. We have sold to companies and hospitals in New York. Many of the Alabama state agencies have purchased masks.”

The success of the cotton masks led HomTex to expand its operations to produce hospital-approved surgical masks. With the

help of a $1.5 million loan from the City of Cullman Economic Development Agency, the company expects to begin making the surgical masks this month. “Our goal is to begin production of the three-ply pleated surgical face mask in June and reach full production by the end of July,” Wootten says. “We have compiled an experienced sales force to offer the product to the health care industry, the federal and state governments and to retail.”

The $5 million venture expects to add 120 jobs with the capacity to make 350 million masks a year.

The company moved its corporate office and sewing plant to the city of Cullman in 2018 but continues to operate a plant/warehouse in Vinemont served by Cullman EC. The Wootten family are longtime members of the cooperative.

The cotton masks are sold under the DreamFit brand and may be found at dreamfitfacemask.com/.


New zoo opens – and you can virtually visit

Hillary Cole pets the zoo’s giraffe. Guests will be invited to feed the giraffe when it reopens.
Photo by Michelle Rushing

By Marilyn Jones

It’s 11 a.m. and I’m at Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Well, actually I’m virtually at the zoo. Like many attractions closed because of COVID-19, the zoo is bringing the animals to the public by way of live presentations and prerecorded videos of zookeepers interacting with animals.

This day two chinchillas — Dusty and Moonlite — are playfully moving around a table as zookeeper Hannah Friess talks about the little fur balls. She describes their diet and habits, and says the rodents are endangered in the wild because of excessive trapping.

Every day at 11 a.m. on the zoo’s Facebook page, more animals are presented. Bruce Quillis (porcupine), Kevin Bacon (wild hog) and Benjamin (miniature donkey) tour the zoo and meet other animals. One video shows Benjamin meeting giraffes. Another video shows Bruce Quillis exploring the zoo.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, the zoo presents “Live with Surprise.” On Tuesday’s prerecorded “Walks with Bruce Quillis,” a baby African crested porcupine explores the zoo grounds and visits other exhibits. Thursday belongs to Kevin Bacon as a zoo-keeper demonstrates training zoo animals in a prerecorded video.

On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., it’s “Guess that Diet.” In the live presentation, the zookeeper puts together a meal for an unnamed animal. Viewers are encouraged to submit their guesses and then watch the animal enjoy its meal after the reveal.

The live and prerecorded videos offer guests a look at the new zoo that officially opened March 11. The zoo has been in the works since Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005.

Zoo Director Joel Hamilton says what makes the facility so special is the zoo offers guests the opportunity to learn about conservation and the world through a variety of different programs.

“In addition to the usual keeper presentations, we provide guests

with opportunities to get up close to select species through our animal encounters,” he says. “Whether the encounter is with a sloth, tamandua, kangaroo or lemur, the goal is to create connections and provide informative, conservation education opportunities. We have a feeding station at the giraffe exhibit too.”

The zoo is impressive, given that Gulf Shores’ population is about 10,000 and neighboring Orange Beach is only about 6,000. There are 300 animals in the zoo including carnivores, ungulates (large animals with hooves), primates, small mammals, birds and reptiles.

The zoo is the first American zoo to be built from the ground up in more than 20 years, according to Hamilton. The 25-acre facility (compared to the previous seven-acre zoo) is located at 20499 Oak Road East and far enough inland to be safe from hurricanes.

Hamilton says the hub of the zoo is a carousel with paths leading away from it. He adds that you can cross a boardwalk to Bayer Butterfly House and then onward to see Africa. “Other pathways lead to the Americas or between our two ponds where islands house lemurs and spider monkeys.”

Above all else, the new zoo provides a much more spacious, protected and enriching environment for the animals, which is evident when watching Bruce Quillis walking along pathways and visiting animals.

The zoo also offers a Soaring Eagle Zipline and a fine dining restaurant — the Safari Club. The restaurant reopened on May 11.

For more information:

To watch videos and live presentations starring zoo animals:facebook.com/alabamagulfcoastzoo.

Safari Club restaurant: safariclubgulfshores.com

The zoo website: alabamagulfcoastzoo.com.


Auburn nursing grad’s stint on Navy ship puts her on front lines

By Jack West

Megan Arnett was sent to New York City less than a year after becoming a nurse.

While millions of Alabamians were riding out the Coronavirus storm in their homes with their loved ones, one Auburn graduate was fighting the virus while onboard a floating hospital nearly 1,000 miles away from the Plains.

Ensign Megan Arnett was sent to New York City, the American epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, less than a year after becoming a nurse.

Arnett, who is from Madison, graduated from Auburn in August 2019 and specializes in pediatric nursing. However, after graduation, Arnett joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the USNS Comfort, the hospital ship that was recently stationed in New York Harbor to help the city’s belea- guered healthcare infrastructure.

Arnett said she had been in Norfolk, Virginia, the Comfort’s homeport, for a few months before being deployed to New York.

“As soon as there was talk in the media about the governor calling for us, needing us to be up here, I knew to go ahead and start getting my bags packed,” she says.

Kaley Arnett, Megan’s younger sister, said that packing is not her older sibling’s strong suit.

“She called us kind of freaking out because she doesn’t know how to pack a bag well,” Kaley says. “My dad’s our expert packer.”

So, roughly a week before Megan was set to be deployed aboard the Comfort, Kaley and her parents went to see Megan in Norfolk. “We went to Norfolk to help her pack up and visit with her because we didn’t know how long she was going to be gone,” Kaley says.

The uncertainty and emotional instability that can accompany a military deployment is not something new for the Arnett family. Megan and Kaley’s dad, Adam Arnett, is a retired Marine Corps officer. Megan said that connection was really helpful for her while she was in New York.

“My dad understands what it’s like to be in a deployed status away from home,” she says. “I call my parents every night and vent about my day which I think is what really helps me the most.”

Given the situation in New York and the conditions that Arnett has worked under, venting to friends and family seemed understandable. While Arnett lived aboard the Comfort, she actually worked on the pier that connected the ship to the city. Her job was to help transfer patients from ambulances to the ship while simultaneously acquiring their medical history.

“Once we find out an ambulance is here, we have to put on all PPE — gown, mask, gloves, face shield, everything — pretty quickly,” she says. “The nurses down here — there’s five of us — we’re in charge of going through the paperwork, finding the patient’s COVID status and any of their past medical history. We then bring those patients up to the ship.”

Like most nurses, Arnett works 12-hour shifts. Unlike most nurses, Arnett’s patients come from one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.

“We’ve seen people from all walks of life,” she says. “Everybody speaks a different language which is cool because we have so many people on this ship that are from all over the place and translate for us.”

Kaley said that while she worried about her sister’s safety, she also knows that these experiences were what drove her to become a Navy nurse in the first place.

“I was scared for her because obviously this COVID-19 situation is really intense and she was going to be dealing with all of these patients,” Kaley says. “But she joined the Navy to explore the world and push herself outside of her comfort zone, so I was mainly just excited for her.”

The Comfort left New York Harbor in late April, and Arnett was in self-quarantine because of her direct exposure to the virus. Her family was expected to visit her when it was safe to do so. Kaley said that while there’s a lot of emotion around getting to see her sister again, that might manifest itself in surprising ways.

“I’ll definitely hug her,” she says. “I would cry, but now I know she’s safe.”

Megan said that she hopes once all of this is over, people will become more aware of their own vulnerabilities.

“I think what people should really take into account is that you’re not invincible,” she says. “You’re not. Nobody is. Nobody is just straight up protected from any of this. So, it’s better to follow the guidelines because they are there for a reason: to help you.”

Jack West is a senior at Auburn University and editor-in-chief of the Auburn Plainsman.