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Social Security: Connect with Social Security via automated services

Every day thousands use it to do business with Social Security. We strive to offer the kind of services that meet people’s needs.  And sometimes you want fast and direct answers over the phone. We have that option.

You can call us toll free at 1-800-772-1213. Our automated services are available 24 hours a day and include some of the most popular services that people need. With automated services, you can request a benefit verification (proof of income) letter, replace a lost SSA-1099 (tax summary needed for taxes), request a replacement Medicare card, ask for form SSA-1020 to apply for help with Medicare prescription drug costs, or request an SS-5 application for a Social Security card.

When our automated services ask such things as, “How can I help you?” Just say, “Get a proof of income letter” or “Replace Medicare card.” Next, you will be asked for some personal information to identify yourself, then we will respond to your request. We will mail you the document or form you requested. It takes less time to use automated services than to reach a representative by phone on a busy day. 

Sometimes, you just need Social Security information such as, “What date will my check arrive?” or “What is the SSI program?” Automated services feature messages about these popular topics. If payment delivery date is the type of info you need, when asked “How can I help you?” just reply “Payment delivery date.” You will hear a recorded message stating the current month and the future month’s payment dates. Other topics include direct deposit, SSI messages, the cost-of-living adjustment, Medicare prescription drug program, tax information, representative payee, and fraud. Dial, and listen — what a simple way to stay informed.

To connect with us through our automated services, visit

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at

Rural Health: Stigma is an unnecessary barrier to mental health care

Several years back, I was conducting a community health assessment of a small, rural community in South Alabama to identify its greatest health issues and needs. My first job after finishing college was with the Alabama Department of Mental Health. Because of this experience, mental health care and needs have always been of special concern to me.

As a part of this health assessment, I visited the local outpatient mental health center to meet with the clinical director to discuss mental health-related issues, trends, and needs in the community. I was surprised when he refused to discuss such general topics until I received permission from his supervisor. This experience started me thinking about the stigma attached to certain mental health and other sensitive health conditions as a very real barrier to health care.

Keeping health conditions and issues in the closet is greatly contributing to establishing and increasing stigmas that are actually creating barriers to health care. The question must be asked:  Could this unnecessary stigma be a contributing factor in the horrible school violence in this country?  This director should have been required to get out and speak with civic organizations, churches, etc. to inform the community about local mental health.

A large portion of our population does not understand mental health. What is depression? What are the symptoms of depression? What is schizophrenia? What treatments and other options are available for persons with mental health needs? Bringing such conditions out of the closet and openly discussing them may help identify many of the undiagnosed who need assistance. It may also increase local awareness and concern to the point of producing more local buy-in and support for mental health care.

Such open and public conversation can also remove much of the stigma associated with sensitive health conditions, like mental health, HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse or dependency. Open discussion can enable many sensitive health conditions to become recognized as normal conditions that involve normal people and for which successful treatments are available.

Attempts are being made to care for patients with more sensitive conditions together with other general health care, rather than having such care provided in separate facilities. Seeing someone walking into a mental health clinic or a facility dedicated to the treatment of other sensitive conditions would virtually be an announcement that they have that condition. This integrative care model holds promise in decreasing the stigma attached to certain health conditions.

If you are a member of a civic organization, church, or other source that provides programs, I encourage you to have programs on topics that can diminish the stigmas attached to sensitive health conditions to enhance access to such health care.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Alabama Snapshots: Country Roads

Country road on our cattle ranch. SUBMITTED BY Caroline Mann, Double Springs.

Pinewood Road, Andalusia, AL. SUBMITTED BY Tina Boles, Andalusia.

North Baldwin County, January 2018. SUBMITTED BY Deborah Walters, Fairhope.

Horton Covered Bridge located off Highway 75 between Oneonta and the town of Susan Moore. SUBMITTED BY Sheila Edwards, Cullman.

Country road in Elberta. SUBMITTED BY Patti Pursley, Robertsdale.

Doug and Becky Martin, taken on County Road 832 in Wadley. SUBMITTED BY Becky Martin, Wadley.

Submit Your Images! June Theme: “Gone Fishing” Deadline for June: April 30. Submit photos online: 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 and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Tying the knot in the country

Rural wedding venues growing in appeal

Stone Bridge Farms in Cullman hosts more than 80 weddings a year. Photo by Smith Squared Photography

By Lori M. Quiller

Could the days of black-tie weddings be numbered? Probably not, but the number of weddings hosted in more casual, rustic settings are certainly on the rise in Alabama.

According to, an online wedding resource, ranch or farm-style weddings have been on the rise since 2012. Nuptials in the country can provide a rustic and memorable event for the bridal party and their family and friends, and Alabama has plenty of spaces to host your special day with a country flair.

Lisa Woodham, owner of Woodham Farms in Dothan, Ala., agreed that rural weddings have become much more popular in recent years and is a trend that’s here to stay.

“Oh, absolutely! It’s more than just country chic, I think. These types of wedding have a certain type of unmistakable charm and sweetness about them. We want people who come here to feel special.”

Newlywed Christina Clark Okarmus said she and her husband chose a Lee County farm for their outdoor wedding in September 2017 for several reasons, but it was the laid back atmosphere that sealed the deal.

“It was a perfect fit for us,” Okarmus says. “We visited a couple of other places in the city, but they just didn’t seem to be the right fit. The farm was far more laid back, and that’s more our style. The farm had housing for our family to stay all week and have plenty of space, and there was a playground for the kids, too. All these things fit into our budget nicely, and it just felt like the right spot for us.”

Christina and Matt Okarmus were married last fall at a farm in Lee County. Christina says the relaxed setting was a perfect fit for them.
Photo by Rob Smith, FlipFlopFoto

All kinds of venues

Alabama has a variety of locations for couples looking for the perfect rural wedding spot.

The Hitching Post Farms is 30 acres of land in Eclectic, Ala., owned by Diane and Robert Crosby. While it may not have started off as the couple’s dream to host weddings on the property, now it’s truly a labor of love.

“A lot of our clients want that outside, rustic look for their wedding,” Diane Crosby says. “They want their wedding to be different and special. We work very hard to make that happen for them. Every wedding is always something special, not just for the couple, but for us, too. I feel like it’s my responsibility to fulfill these dreams of these brides who come here and have been planning their weddings their entire lives. It’s an honor to help fulfill those dreams for them.”

However, The Hitching Post Farms was almost lost before it began. The Crosbys had rented the property for a time before eventually purchasing it for themselves. Their dream was to build their perfect home, but they decided to build a barn instead to use for family camping events. Then tragedy struck.

“When the tornadoes came through in 2011, it took out our home. So we started building on to the property to what we have now. It took 18 months to rebuild. Out of that destruction we were able to make something very special and beautiful that we can share with others,” she says.

For couples looking for an all-inclusive, but still farm-style location, Stone Bridge Farms in Cullman, Ala., has been hosting weddings since 2010 and does more than 80 each year. It’s an old family tradition that owner Ron Foust has been working to bring back to life.

As a young boy, Foust remembers his grandfather, a minister for more than 50 years in Cullman County, performing marriages, baptisms and other ceremonies on the family property. Slowly over the years, parcels of the family land were sold. Foust began buying it back until he could restore the family’s 75-acre estate so he could carry on his family’s tradition of hosting weddings on the property.

According to event coordinator Janet Fortner, Stone Bridge Farms handles catering and flowers, as well as photography, for their clients. There’s even a baker on staff, although it’s not mandatory to use the staff baker.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to do everything at one place. We would like the event to be a one-stop-shop so it’s less stressful for our clients,” Fortner says. “We have a design team meeting with our brides on day one, [so they can] get to know them from three to four months out from the wedding. Then we’re there with them to help get them down the aisle as stress-free as possible. Our goal is to make each event as stress-less as possible.”

Stone Bridge Farms, a customer of Cullman EC, offers lodging with five cabins and three homes on property for rent to out-of-town guests. The location doesn’t host only weddings, but also corporate retreats, meetings, birthday parties, showers and other events.

Beyond the farm

Wills Creek Vineyards at the Windmill in Attalla.
Photo by Janie Coppey.

If the rustic charm of a barn or farmland isn’t quite what you’re looking for, did you know there’s a vineyard in North Alabama at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains?

Wills Creek Vineyards and Winery in Attalla, Ala., is a working vineyard — and not what you might expect from an outdoor wedding venue.

“When I think of Napa Valley and I see pictures of weddings in Napa, I’m reminded of our wedding space next to our vineyards where it’s lush and green — it’s just such a different setting than a rural barn setting,” says owner Janie Coppey. “Our location is special because you can see the Appalachian foothills that run on the other side of the road, and depending on the focal point of the photographer, some of those mountains will be in your photos. In the spring, summer and fall, everything is so colorful and makes a beautiful setting for a wedding.”

Wills Creek Vineyards and Winery and the event space is two miles away from the six-acre vineyard. The vineyard is a popular destination for bridal showers, brunches, proms, class reunions and other events, thanks to the location’s covered event space. With an on-site coordinator to help pull details together, Coppey says the goal is always to take as much stress off the client as possible.

“Brides, grooms and their families have enough stress, so we want to take as much of that off them to help make their day as special and memorable as possible. We want them to enjoy their day, have beautiful memories, and enjoy the vineyard while they’re here,” Coppey says.

Tips for finding a rural wedding space

Ask questions. If you’re on a budget and using an outdoor space, you should know up front if there are set-up and cleaning fees, what decorations are provided, and whether it’s mandatory to use the venue’s caterer and florist. Have an idea of how many guests plan to attend. Your quote will be based on this number. Do your research. It’s fine if you haven’t settled on your wedding style when you meet with your venue representative, but your meeting will go much better if you have some ideas. The venue will most likely have an event planner on staff to help you along in the process.



Hitching Post Farms offers a rural setting for weddings and receptions in Eclectic. Photo by Alex & Dylan Photo and Video.

Songs about Alabama and the stories behind them

By Emmett Burnett

Songs of Alabama have enriched lives since the state was a state of mind. But our songs in the heart, notes in the head, and lyrics in memory are more than meets the ear. How many tunes about the Heart of Dixie can you name? (And by the way, “Heart of Dixie” is the title of the 2013 debut single of country singer Danielle Bradbery – though it isn’t actually about Alabama.)

Missing home

Nashville recording artist Allison Moorer explains the popularity of Alabama namesake songs: “The word sings well. It flows,” she instructs and offers proof. “Try it. Say ‘Alaaaa Bamaaaa.’ See? It flows. You can’t do that with Rhode Island.”

Raised in Washington County, the younger sister of country star Shelby Lynne is well qualified to speak of flowing words. Allison has written over 200 songs, released 7 albums and 11 singles, including “Alabama Song.”

From her debut album of the same name, the lyrics speak of home “where the trees grow tall and green…where the skies shine bright and blue…if you’re going, I’m going with you.”

“I wrote it 20 years ago, a time when I was away from home,” she recalls. “I felt a little marooned and was thinking how special it is returning to the Deep South.”

It came from outer space

We all love “Stars Fell on Alabama,” but beware. It has a dark side. The tale of starry-eyed sweethearts was inspired by a night of terror.

On Nov. 12, 1833, the greatest meteor sighting in recorded history ignited southern skies like a nuclear bomb. There were estimates of 200,000 shooting stars per hour. And on a clear moonless night, Alabama was Ground Zero.

“In 1833 there was no news and no warnings,” notes Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “Terrified, many thought it was the End Times.”

Frightened masses shivered under wagons and in shelters – impromptu shields from heaven’s wrath. A horrified cotton planter noted, “My God, the world is on fire.”

In 1934, Carl Carmer wrote a book of essays titled “Stars Fell on Alabama,” acknowledging 1833’s spectacle. Inspired by the book, music composer Frank Perkins and lyricist Mitchell Parish realized the potential for a song of the same name.

But how does one create music based on a stellar holocaust?  Easy: Love conquers all, even flying space rocks. Hence the lyrics:

“We lived our little drama

We kissed in a field of white

And Stars Fell On

Alabama Last night…”

“Little drama,” perhaps the biggest understatement in music history, alludes to the fear-frozen night, when stars fell on Alabama.

Turn it up

The words “Sweet Home Alabama” have been embossed on automobile tags, served as an unofficial motto, and been licensed by the State Department of Tourism. And the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that made it popular? Wow.

“It has been used in various facets, from political campaigns to countless movies,” says Rachel Morris, archivist and coordinator at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. “It is perhaps the most recognized song about Alabama.”

Ironically, “Sweet Home Alabama” was written by two Floridians and a Californian, and recorded in Georgia. It is basically a protest song of a protest song.

“Lynyrd Skynyrd responded to Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama,’ which dealt with racism and slavery in the American South,” notes Alabama Tourism Department publications director Rick Harmon. But there was never a feud between the band and the artist.

The lyrics cover a broad range of mid-1970s issues, including Watergate, Gov. George Wallace, and prevailing music trends.

Many ponder the song’s famous first words, “turn it up.” Hidden message? Secret code? Buried treasure map? After years of research, the true meaning of “turn it up” is revealed: Turn it up means turn it up.

During recording, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant asked someone to increase the volume in his headphones. Unaware the microphone was live, Van Zant’s request was immortalized.

That old college try 

Visitors enjoy a tour of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia.
Photo by Marilyn Jones

You don’t know Ethelred Lundy Sykes. But if you’ve ever watched an Alabama football game, you know his work.

In the early 1920s, the Birmingham native competed for a University of Alabama scholarship and lost. But Ethelred enrolled anyway, becoming active in student life and continuing his unwavering passion for contests.

In 1926 he submitted an entry in the school’s Rammer-Jammer humor magazine’s quest for best new battle march. Sykes’ musical offering was a little ditty he called, “Yea Alabama!”

Perhaps you’ve heard it: “Yea Alabama! Drown ‘em Tide! Every Bama Man’s Behind You, Hit your stride.” Yep, Ethelred wrote that, and won $50.

“Yea Alabama!” became the University of Alabama fight song, typically sung by a choir of 150,000 at the top of their collective lungs at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The late Ethelred Lundy Sykes never wrote another song, opting instead to join the military, where he served in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, and retired as a brigadier general.

The ghost who sang “Your Cheating Heart”

Music is often described as hauntingly beautiful, but “Midnight in Montgomery” is beautifully haunted.

With close to 3 million YouTube hits, the video rivals the song in popularity. Lyrics unfold a story at Hank Williams’ Oakwood Annex Cemetery gravesite. Singer Alan Jackson, en route to a gig, steps off a Montgomery bus to pay respects to country music’s king.

But the late Hank Williams is no longer late. Jackson sees a ghost.

“I don’t know if the video and song increased visits to Williams’ burial site,” says Oakwood’s spokesman, Phillip Taunton. “People have visited the grave almost daily since Williams died (Jan. 1, 1953).” They often leave mementos like flowers, guitar picks, and bottles of beer. Which perhaps Hank Williams appreciates, because as Alan Jackson croons, “Oh Hank’s always singing there.”

Alabama, our official song

In the mid-1860s, Tuscaloosa’s Julia S. Tutwiler, educator, humanitarian, and women’s rights advocate, completed her European studies and returned to Alabama. The state of the state left her heartbroken.

Tutwiler felt we could do better. Documents provided by Courtney Pinkard, reference archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, noted Tutwiler’s thoughts: “Never for a moment doubt the outcome of struggle if maintained with courage and devotion to principle.”

Around 1868, she wrote a poem, which later became “Alabama,” a rallying cry set to music by Birmingham composer and organist Edna Cockel-Gussen in 1917. It became our official song by a vote of the Legislature on March 9, 1931.

Several attempts have been made to replace it. “It has an elementary school auditorium assembly feel to it, but you aren’t going to please everyone,” says Kevin Nutt, folk life archivist at the Archives. “’Sweet Home Alabama’ was floated as a replacement. Who can sing that?”

For now, Tutwiler’s classic rules. Each stanza ends with “Alabama, Alabama, We will aye be true to thee!” May it be said by us all, in music, lyrics, and song.

Famous art is right at home in Alabama

Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), New York Office, 1962, oil on canvas, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection

By Marilyn Jones

Alabama may not be synonymous with fine art, but our museums are home to some truly world-class collections and pieces. You can appreciate their  beauty or perhaps their emotional power; some offer glimpses into our history, telling us about our culture and where we came from. Whatever the purpose, you can make new discoveries with a short drive to one of Alabama’s fine art museums.

Birmingham Museum of Art 

Richard B. Coe, American 1904–1978, Down Town Birmingham, about 1935, etching on paper. Photo courtesy Birmingham Museum of Art

The museum has an impressive collection of more than 27,000 objects representing cultures from around the world including Asian, European, American, African, Pre-Columbian and Native American art. The museum also houses the largest collection of Wedgwood ceramics in North America, and its holdings of Asian art are the most extensive in the Southeast.

Katelyn Crawford, The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art, says one of her favorite exhibits in the American galleries is Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham, an exhibition featuring detailed etchings of Birmingham during The Great Depression.

“In celebrating industrial Birmingham, Coe joined fellow Alabama artists in creating a body of American scene images of the South,” says Crawford.

Admission is free;, (205) 254-2565.

Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University

“Grey Fox,” 1843, Hand-colored lithograph, The Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller Audubon Collection. Photo courtesy Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University

“We value all artwork in our collection, not because of their individual monetary value, but the value in what the piece can teach us about the time and culture in which it was made,” says Museum Director Marilyn Laufer.

“Our Advancing American Art collection … (was) acquired by the university in 1948. Looking at those pieces, we get a real sense of the issues and ideas that concerned Americans during that World War II period,” says Laufer. “It is amazing to see how many of those concerns are still prevalent today.”

The university often hosts special exhibitions. Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America is currently on view with a comparison exhibition on the seldom reproduced four-footed mammals.

 “We’ve exhibited Rubens and Rembrandt, prints by Edvard Munch and sculptures by August Rodin. In our own collection, we have works by such renowned artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Rufino Tamayo and Jacob Lawrence,” says Laufer, reminding everyone that each “visit to the museum will provide a new discovery.”

Admission is free;

Mobile Museum of Fine Art

“Like most art museums, we view our collection less in terms of monetary value and more in terms of its place in the history of

With a collection of nearly 11,000 objects, guests can spend hours enjoying the many galleries of the Mobile Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Mobile Museum of Art

art,” says Museum Director Deborah Velders. “We are most proud of our community’s support … the vast majority of our collection of nearly 11,000 objects were gifts from this community, as is the financial support for the majority of our exhibitions and programs.

“We own artworks and crafts by many of the ‘canonical’ names in the history of art, such as Pierre-August Renoir, Thomas Moran, Louis Comfort Tiffany glass, Frederick Remington, Salvator Rosa, Robert Rauschenberg and many others,” Velders says.

“While our collection is not comprehensive nor represents fully ‘the history of art,’ it includes significant works that help students and adults alike learn more of our world’s cultures through its art,” says Velders.

Admission is charged;

Huntsville Museum of Art

Buccellati: A Silver Menagerie features a four-foot tall flamingo and a reclining giraffe.
Photo courtesy Huntsville Museum of Art

According to Samantha Nielsen, director of communications, the museum is extremely proud of its exhibit Buccellati: A Silver Menagerie.

The silver creations were designed and fabricated in Milan, Italy, by the luxury jewelry firm of Buccellati. Betty Grisham of Huntsville donated the works of art to the museum.

“We have the world’s largest (Buccellati) public collection,” Nielsen says. The artists combined Renaissance period techniques, luxury materials and the extensive use of texture engraving to create objects of great beauty.

Buccellati clientele included the Vatican as well as the Royal Houses of Italy, Spain, Belgium, England and Egypt. Highlights of the museum’s collection include a four-foot tall flamingo, a reclining giraffe and a marine centerpiece consisting of Mediterranean Sea creatures arranged around a natural amethyst geode. “The latest addition is a family of deer commissioned by the museum to honor Betty Grisham.”

One of the museum’s most famous pieces is Luigi Lucioni’s Ethel Waters. “The official unveiling of the painting was held at the museum on Feb. 1 during the opening celebration of African American History Month,” Nielsen says. “This historical painting was thought to be lost and hadn’t been seen by the public since 1942.”

Admission is charged;

Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

The museum collections “feature primarily American art, and particularly that of the Southeast and Alabama,” says Senior

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Mrs. Louis E. Raphael, ca. 1906, oil on canvas, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection

Curator Margaret Lynne Ausfeld. It has grown to represent 200 years of our country’s history.

“One of the earliest works … in the American paintings collection was made by an anonymous artist around the 1870s right here in Alabama and most likely in Montgomery,” she says. It depicts Montgomery in “an earlier frontier era, most likely during the very early 19th century when Alabama was a territory or during early statehood.”

The museum also features William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck. “Chase’s Woman in a Chinese Robe is an excellent example of this artist’s skill as a portraitist and still-life painter,” Ausfeld says. Other outstanding works include Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hills Before Taos and John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Louis Raphael.

Other notable pieces include Mary Cassatt’s Francois in Green, Sewing and an example of 19th century marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, Hiawatha’s Marriage.

“The museum’s best-known painting is by the American 20th century painter Edward Hopper, New York Office,” but Ausfeld stresses there are many collections in the museum as well as programs designed to educate the public about art and this museum’s collection.

Admission is free;

2017. Park and Building photos. Jonathan Long photography.

Avoiding the ‘grandparent scam’

By Richard Bauman

I answered the phone one morning and heard someone who sounded like our grandson, Edward, say, “Hi grandpa, it’s your favorite grandson.” And that’s how the “grandparent scam” usually starts.

That jovial greeting is usually followed by a tale of woe. In this instance, Edward was supposedly in New York for a buddy’s bachelor party. He had wrecked a rental car and been arrested for DUI.

Then comes the plea for money. He needed $8,000 to pay his fine and to fix the car. “Please help me out, grandpa,” that’s followed by another plea: “Please don’t tell my parents. I’ll explain it to them when I get home.”

My response to the fake Edward: “You’re a fraud,” and I hung up on him.

I knew that Ed wasn’t at a bachelor party in New York. He lives in California, and is a 14-year old high school freshman.

What should you do if you get a phone call supposedly from one of your grandchildren claiming to be in another state, or even a foreign country, and desperately needs several thousand dollars to get out of a jam?

First, be careful. Our natural inclination is to jump in and help but that could be the worst thing to do. Instead of reacting quickly:

Take a deep breath or two, relax and be noncommittal

Ask for a phone number where you can later reach him/her

Contact the supposed grandchild’s parents, siblings and others who would know if he or she is away from home as claimed.

If you know your grandchild’s cell phone, call him/her and leave a voicemail if need be, or text asking him/her to call you.

Be wary if the caller doesn’t sound like your grandchild; ask about it. Scammers usually will say it’s a bad connection or he/she has a cold or make some other vague explanation for their odd sounding voice.

Typically, grandparents are asked to wire the money to some out of state or out of the country location. Sometimes grandparents are told to buy several thousand dollars in prepaid debit cards and then phone the “grandchild” with the scratch-off numbers on the back of the cards. They can then use those numbers to get the money.

According to the National Council on Aging, the grandparent scam is successful because it is so simple, and devious, and it uses one of older adults’ most reliable assets – their hearts.

Older people are often easy targets for such cons, according to the AARP, because:

They’re more likely to be home during the day

They expect people to be honest

They are less likely to act when defrauded.

Further, the National Council on Aging estimated that senior citizens are robbed of about $3 billion annually via various financial scams.

Scamming grandparents can be lucrative for well-practiced criminals. Especially since the odds of being caught and prosecuted are slim.

One incarcerated scammer told journalist Carter Evans: “You can make $10,000 … in a day if you do it properly. Once you get them emotionally involved, then they’ll do anything for you, basically.”

“The effect (of the scam) on the victims is so great. It’s not simply the loss of the money. They feel stupid, they feel gullible, and they have nightmares about it and anxiety and depression,” says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellyn Lindsey, who successfully prosecuted the scammer that Carter Evans interviewed.

There are also email versions of this swindle. You receive an email supposedly from a friend who is in a foreign country, and has been robbed and needs money to pay for a new passport, his/her hotel and airfare home. I received such an email from my friend Connie, who said she was stuck in London. I knew it was a scam since Connie had died six months before the email arrived.

Recently, my wife received an email plea for help from a nun she knows who was ostensibly stranded in the Philippines. She called the nun’s cell phone and learned she was not stranded in the Philippines or anywhere else. She told Donna she had received numerous calls from people concerned about her well-being.

If a supposed grandchild, relative or friend either calls or emails and claims to be in dire need of money, after having had some devastating experience in either another state or a foreign country, fight the urge to react quickly to the request. Take the time to verify his or her story. It might truly be someone in need of help, but the call or email is more likely just an attempt to separate you from your money.

Lastly, when you receive a call from a number you don’t recognize, let your voicemail answer the call. Scammers don’t usually leave messages.

Sweet surprise: Union Springs cook bakes up an unplanned success

FPH Bakery is located in a renovated downtown building that housed Holmes Café for 55 years.

Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay

Some say anything tastes better served on fine china and scooped up with a silver fork or spoon. At FPH Bakery in downtown Union Springs, you’ll find both fancy flatware and elegant plates in use, but the cakes, pies, soups, sandwiches and salads served here don’t need the aesthetic boost.

Judging by the packed dining room and a bakery counter that almost empties every day, owner and baker Amber Anderson could probably send out her kitchen creations on paper towels, and folks would still rave.

Anderson opened French Pressed Home (FPH) Bakery in February 2017, and its quick rise to success came as a sweet surprise, especially since owning a bakery and café was never really in her plans. Always interested in cooking, she taught herself to bake and a few years ago, made a few cakes at a friend’s request. The friend liked them and spread the word.

Soon, Anderson was taking orders for her cakes weekly and then moved into wedding cakes. Demand for her desserts ballooned into more than she could handle, and with twin boys also in need of her time, she was close to calling it quits. “I realized I had to expand or fold,” she says. “So I grew and opened the bakery.”

Chocolate-drizzled Napoleans are ready for customers.

She’s been thrilled by the support of her community, a hometown she and her family adopted only a few years ago. “The people here have been so great,” she says. “I knew they would be. I fell in love with this area and its people the first time I came.”

Born, raised and living in San Diego, Calif., until 2013, Anderson and her family made their way South after the recession in 2008 decimated her husband’s contracting business and left them looking for a fresh start. “I didn’t know where we wanted to go, but I knew it was time to leave California,” she says. “I never really thought about the South, but I was looking at houses all over online, and the affordability of properties down here piqued my interest.”

At the time, Anderson was running a vintage goods business and blogging about it (her blog’s name was French Pressed Home) while dreaming of running a bed and breakfast, and a historic house in Union Springs caught her eye. “I came down to look at the house, and I liked it, but I also liked the town,” she says.

She didn’t get that first house and realized it wasn’t the right time for her to pursue a B&B, but she and her husband were still smitten with Union Springs, so they stayed (and bought a new house in the old town). The move shocks some.

“People ask me all the time about how different it must be here compared to San Diego, but it’s really not,” she says. “The San Diego I grew up in in the 1970s had this real neighborhood feel and culture, kinda like a small town. That’s not how it is today, but that’s how it was for a lot of my time there.” Union Springs’ leisurely pace and genuine people reminded her of that childhood and instantly pulled her in.

Now, she’s bringing others to the town. Lunchtime at FPH stays busy; locals come in for a box lunch (a sandwich, chips and choice of dessert) or maybe a bowl of chili or chicken and rice soup with a cup of coffee. Early afternoon sees a steady stream of people sating a sugar fix, getting a sweet snack or an entire cake or pie to go.

FPH’s chicken salad is made with pecans, grapes, celery, poppy seeds and steak seasoning.

Others drive over from Montgomery, Auburn and Troy. Many come for a bite of her claim to fame: salted caramel cake, her riff on a Southern staple that eschews the traditional cooked icing for rich buttercream with her homemade “secret recipe” caramel (with a hint of salt) stirred in. “The usual caramel icing down here is actually hard to get right,” she says. “I decided not to even try and compete with everybody’s Nana.”

And while Anderson’s baked goods – buttery croissants, fudgy brownies, fancifully festooned cupcakes, cookies, pies and more – take the front seat, driving a lot of the bakery’s traffic, a savory dish is not far behind in popularity. Whether it’s between two pieces of bread or mounded on the aforementioned pretty plates with pickles and crackers on the side, FPH’s chicken salad is giving the pastries and other confections a run for their money. Combining both fine, soft shreds and meatier chunks of roasted chicken, sliced red grapes, chopped pecans, pureed celery, a dash of steak seasoning and poppy seeds with a just enough silky mayo to hold things together, it’s creamy, crunchy, tart, peppery and salty all at once.

Housed in an old building on the edge of downtown that Anderson’s husband Bruce carefully renovated, FPH has a convivial atmosphere that’s a draw too. She used her blog’s name for the bakery, and it fits. “I love all things French, baking is associated with France, and I do want this place to feel like a home, to be comfortable,” she says.

Friendly staff, Anderson included, roll out the welcome, and exposed brick lit by glittering chandeliers provides some old-world flair. The china and silver are charming but not pretentious: All mismatched, they’re from the collection Anderson amassed in her previous business. Delights like cakes topped with bright berries and delicate napoleons glistening with drizzled chocolate perch on pedestals of varying heights on a worn wooden counter, “icing” on the spot’s appeal and hospitality.

The vibe is all Anderson, but she’s also embracing the property’s past. “It was a restaurant called Holmes Cafe, run by two brothers, for 55 years, and there were a lot of happy eating memories made here,” Anderson says. She’s hoping to continue the legacy.

She’s also hoping her presence downtown helps other businesses and encourages new ones to locate in the city’s center too. “I love this place and want to do all I can to promote this community and be a part of the positive change already happening,” she says. “It’s exciting to see new business open in this area.”

She’s equally excited by her first year’s accomplishments and looking forward to a prosperous 2018, but putting satisfied smiles on her customer’s faces is the sweet reward that turns her lips up. “This is hard work, but it’s really fun too, and for me, it’s not about making a ton of money,” she says. “It’s about making people leave here happier than they were when they came in.”

While you’re there

The town of Union Springs is a popular day trip for groups. If you visit, be sure to check out the Josephine Art Center, 126 Prairie St. N., where you can visit the local historical museum, view Alabama artwork, create your own work of art, host a private party, book an historic tour of Bullock County, or even check out a ghost tour! More at, email or (334)703-0098.


Spring planting time: Picking the perfect plants

If, like me, you’re looking forward to home-grown summer vegetables, herbs and flowers, it’s time to get planting.

Those of you who thought ahead and started seeds inside or in a cold frame or greenhouse already have a great source of plant material ready to go in the ground. But don’t forget to harden them off first. “Hardening off” is a process that gradually transitions young, tender plants from their sheltered indoor life to the more extreme world of the great outdoors.

Start the process by putting seedlings outside during the day in a shaded, protected area for a couple of hours, then bring them back inside. Gradually lengthen the amount of time they spend outside and the amount of sun exposure they receive on each consecutive day and, in about a week, they should be ready to go out into the world. (The length of time for hardening off varies depending on weather conditions and plant type, so check seed packages for recommendations.)

If you haven’t thought ahead, though, transplants (ready-to-plant seedlings) are abundantly available at retail outlets throughout the state, and they make growing all kinds of annual plants pretty darn easy, especially if you follow these tips.

Pick smaller plants. Avoid extra-large plants and look for smaller, more compact plants that are about as wide as they are tall. Beware of plants that are overcrowded. If there are several plants in a single pot or seedling cell, it may seem like you’re getting more plants for your money, but they may be less healthy or stunted.

Pick quality plants. Buy only healthy plants that exhibit good color in their leaves and stems and show no signs of yellowing, wilting or damage. Make sure their growing media is moist and the transplants are not root-bound. Try to avoid buying vegetable, fruit or herb plants that are already flowering, and look for flowering plants that have buds, not blossoms, so you’ll ensure a longer blooming period.

Plant quickly. Try to avoid buying transplants more than two days before planting. If you have to wait longer than that to get them in the ground, store them in a warm, sunny, but protected spot and keep them well watered.

Plant properly. Gently remove transplants from their containers so you don’t damage their tops or roots, and plant them deep enough so the soil can support them as their root systems develop. Water them well immediately after planting, and water them frequently for several days after planting. Hold off on applying fertilizer, which can burn tender leaves and stimulate excessive foliage growth. Mulch around the plants to keep moisture near their roots and suppress weeds.

When buying transplants, quality is important, and one way to ensure good quality plants is to buy “local.” Look for plants that were produced in Alabama or the Southeast — that means they didn’t have far to travel to get to your garden, so they should be less stressed. If the source of the plant is not listed on the label, ask the store’s staff or manager where they came from.

In addition to transplants, many annual seeds can now be sown directly into the garden. If you collected seed from last year’s plants or know a gardener who is willing to share ones they collected, that’s ideal. But if you need to buy seed, go for quality. A great source of fresh seed — and seed that is tried-and-true in your area — is a store that sells bulk, loose seed (farmer cooperatives and feed-and-seed stores, for example). 

If you can’t find the seed or plants you’re looking for at a local store, catalogues provide exceptional choices, especially for less common selections such as non-GMO, organic, heirloom or newly released varieties and cultivars. Just make sure you’re ordering from a reputable company by checking consumer reviews and reviewing their guarantee and return policies.

Oh, and if in your excitement you overbuy seeds or transplants, don’t toss them out. Donate them to a community or school garden and share the wealth. That way you and others can look forward to all kinds of gardening rewards in the months to come.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at

Birders take flight and travel the globe

By Gayle Gresham

Looking for your travel to take flight this year? Become a birder and enjoy all kinds of new places to visit while adding bird species to your list and enjoying time spent wherever this activity takes you.

Birdwatching is rising in popularity in the United States and throughout the world. Anyone can do it, whether you live in the city, the suburbs or the country. You can set up your own feeders in your own backyard and keep a list of the species that visit you. Or, if you love to travel and you enjoy birdwatching, you can visit wilderness refuges, travel to bird festivals, and take guided tours of bird habitats anywhere in the world.

Backyard birdwatching

It’s great to start bird watching by simply looking out your window and seeing the birds that congregate in your yard or on your patio. Is that a bluebird? What type of bluebird? An eastern, western, or mountain bluebird? You can go old school by checking a field guide like Peterson’s or Sibley’s or you can look up bluebirds on  (Cornell Lab of Ornithology). Check the range map and see which is common in your region. Look at the markings and distinctive features. Many birds show enough variation to make an ID with ease. The All About Birds website also contains recordings of each bird’s song so identification can also be made by the birdsong. 

White egrec near San Fransisco Bay. Photo by Alfred Leung on Unsplash.

Going high-tech with your identification tools can make it easier to take them along when you travel. Download the Merlin Bird ID app (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) to your cell phone. The app asks five questions to help identify a bird. It then pulls up bird photos matching the description that have been seen in your region. Or, take a photo of the bird, upload it to Merlin and it will identify the bird for you. 

Those who catch birdwatching fever often keep a list of the birds they have seen or heard. A life list consists of all of the bird species seen in your lifetime while a yearly list tics off every bird species seen in a year. A list can be kept in a simple notebook, in a special birding notebook, or it can be a simple notation of date and place beside the picture in a guide book. Computer list options include Birder’s Diary software, which also allows photos, or use the eBird mobile app for cell phones, which uses GPS coordinates for bird species sightings.

As you become familiar with the birds in your backyard, you will be able to recognize when a bird not common to your area appears. When you see a rare bird, you can report it through eBird or the American Birding Society so other birders can visit your backyard and add it to their lists.

Local birding

A killdeer, which often performs a “broken wing” routine to draw a predator away
Photo by Ken Christison.

If birdwatching has captured your attention and your curiosity has grown beyond the birds showing up in your backyard, then what? It’s time for some birding excursions.

First, call someone you know who is a birdwatcher. Don’t know anyone? Start asking around. You might be surprised by which of your friends are birders. Ask at your library about birdwatching clubs or search the internet for local and state birding clubs and chapters of the Audubon Society for programs, events and field trips. You can go out on your own, but it’s helpful to have someone teach you how to locate and identify the birds. Grab your binoculars, camera and cell phone and head to the wilderness or city park.

One way to learn from an experienced watcher is to join the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which allows beginner birders to take part. Participants count every bird seen or heard in a 15-mile diameter designated circle over a 24-hour period of time between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The count acts as an annual census of birds across the world.

Travel birding

Your interest in birds has been piqued and now you’d like to see species of birds that are not local to your area. It’s time to travel! You can either travel to see birds in a certain locale or go on vacation and see what interesting birds are in your planned location. Once again, the internet can help you identify places to see birds. There are more than 562 National Wildlife Refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the United States. Visit the website for locations and information. There are also 10,234 state parks and 58 national parks, giving you plenty of opportunity to travel and find birds. 

At least 38 states have American Birding Association Birding Trails. A designated Birding Trail system links wildlife refuges, state parks and national parks in a state, along with noted habitats found along the route. The trails may be hiking trails or highways to drive. Information on state birding trails can be found on the internet. 

Red-tailed hawk watches a squirrel
Photo by David Morris on Unsplash

The World Birding Center in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas features nine locations with more than 500 species of birds at the convergence of two major migration flyways. Bird festivals are another great way to see specific birds and take part in workshops and tours. Many festivals coincide with migration to see the greatest number of species in a set place.

Competitive birding

You’ve learned to identify birds, enjoy the challenge and you’re ready to dive further into birding, perhaps on a competitive level. There are various events for all ages sponsored by bird organizations. Join The Big Sit! hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest — 24 hours of sitting in a 17-foot diameter circle with a team counting every birds species seen.

“Big Day” events or birdathons are sponsored by bird associations and often raise pledges for their societies and conservation by counting how many species of birds can be seen in 24 hours. They can be done individually or in teams. The Global Big Day is sponsored by eBird and on May 13, 2017, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries turned in 50,000 checklists with 6,564 species of birds spotted in one day. That is more than 60 percent of all of the species of birds in the world. 

Stretching that day to a year, The Big Year is the ultimate challenge in birding. It is a competition to see who can see the most birds in one year in a specific geographical area.

A little curiosity and a greater awareness of birds can take you in many directions. Travel, see the country, see the world, and see the birds as you go! Maybe a Big Year is in your future.

Gayle Gresham writes from her electric-co-op powered home in Elbert, Colorado. She now has Merlin Bird ID on her phone and is ready to go watch some birds.

Alabama’s trails offer an abundance of bird-watching locations

Alabama has an abundance of bird species – 430 at last count – to watch, from the Tennessee border to the Gulf Coast.

The Alabama Birding Trails is a system of eight trails highlighting the best public locations available to watch birds year-round. According to its website,, our state provides a critical habitat for hundreds of bird species, from the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker to the now flourishing bald eagle.

As interest in wildlife observation grows, more people want to explore our amazing biodiversity, which makes Alabama second only to Florida in the Eastern U.S. in total number of species of plants and animals.

The eight Alabama Birding Trails unify existing and potential birding sites into a series of cohesive trails and loops that are collectively marketed as part of a statewide system. Many of the sites along the various trails are already being used by thousands of birders and other visitors annually.

The Alabama Birding Trails program recently announced the addition of 10 new birding trail sites, bringing the total number of locations to 280 in 65 counties. Two of the new sites are on Forever Wild properties: the Wehle Forever Wild Tract near Midway, and the Yates Lake Forever Wild Tract near Tallassee.

Brown-headed nuthatch in Alabama. Photo by Mark Langston.

The eight other sites are: Heflin’s Cahulga Creek Park; Coosa County’s Flagg Mountain, near Weogufka; the Lee County Public Fishing Lake, near Opelika; the Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve and Nature Center, in Auburn; Minooka Park, in Jemison; the Moss Rock Preserve, in Hoover; Shades Creek Greenway, in Homewood; and the Smith Mountain Fire Tower, near Dadeville.

Alabama’s Birding Trails offer the public a chain of eight geographic regions: North Alabama, West Alabama, Appalachian Highlands, Piedmont Plateau, Black Belt Nature and Heritage, Pineywoods, Wiregrass, and Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Specific information on each region is available at the website.

This project is a collaborative effort by the Alabama Tourism Department, University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Birmingham Audubon Society, chambers of commerce across the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Forest Service and others.