Building Alabama Forward

We are Spontaneous Unaffiliated Do-ers. Let’s get to it.

by Laura Clemons (Founder/CEO, Collaborative Communities)

Community Ties

Since April 27, I like so many others have seen and experienced things that have shown us the best and worst of our humanity. I woke up on Friday, April 29 with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. The images that were on television, the pleas for aid, the missing, it was all too much. I wanted to stay in bed under the covers and cry. But my sister scolded me to get up and go do something.

I immediately called Hands on Birmingham to volunteer, and 10 minutes later I was being deployed to help at the local Red Cross office. At that moment, I became what FEMA calls a “Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteer” or SUV.

The calls were from around the world: families and friends trying to locate loved ones, people needing help. But the hardest call was the one from the Sheriff’s’ department. They asked me if the Red Cross was compiling a list of the missing that could be used to identify bodies. They weren’t. As far as we knew, no one was. So I volunteered myself, not the Red Cross as an organization, but just me as an individual. I created a missing persons form and started documenting the calls in a spreadsheet. I spent the next two nights at the Boutwell Auditorium. As I sat on the cold floor in the big hall filled with cots and in the dim light, I talked to the survivors about the traumatic experience that had been thrust upon us.

I met a lot of  SUVs those first two weeks. Many of them streamed through the doors of places like the Christian Service Mission, working around the clock to assist with the unloading, organizing and reloading of trucks that were delivering the much needed supplies to anyone that needed them. As far as I can tell, most of the work done those first 10 days was done by the SUVs. There was no official process. We didn’t have any paperwork. We had no boss to answer to. We were do-ers that were do-ing anything that needed to be done. I believe that those tens of thousands of SUVs did an amazing job!

Then the big guns showed up: FEMA, State of Alabama EMA, United Way, Salvation Army, etc. These governmental and volunteer organizations are the professionals at dealing with disasters and they do have processes, rules and paperwork. Please don’t misunderstand. All of these groups are wonderful. It’s just that it became very difficult to know where and how we SUVs fit in. Even though we had skills, there was no place for us.

I should add that when I’m not volunteering 100 percent of my time to tornado relief, I run my own company that does, among other things, partnership building to assist in community revitalization as it relates to sustainable, livable communities. Here-in lies the problem: Once the organized groups arrived, I immediately became labeled a “for-profit company.” With this came an immediate suspicion about my “agenda.” The attitude was basically that “the professionals” have got this now so you can go back to your “regular life.”

I’ve spent the last weeks trying to find a way to fit in with the voluntary organizations and government agencies that have numerous weekly meetings. It took me two weeks and letters from a mayor, land planners, Jefferson County EMA and other people that knew me in order for FEMA and the Alabama EMA to allow me to attend these meetings. It seemed so crazy that I, who cared so much and had so many applicable skills, was having to fight to be in the room.

I believe that this is a sentiment that is widely felt by many of the affected communities. When the tornados hit, it was the locals that got themselves organized. Yet later, they weren’t at the table because unless you work for one of the non-profits or municipalities, you didn’t get an invitation.

The past weeks have been a very tense time of trying to bridge the interim between the still urgent needs of survivors and the long-term recovery plans. This has been a very difficult balance to attain, but we are doing what we can to stand up, band together and say we have something to offer to this process. I think that the process is starting to listen.

One of my dear friends, Mark Rubino (another do-er) and I got together a couple of weeks ago to catch up over a bottle of wine. We talked about how many of the lessons that were learned from disasters like Katrina weren’t being applied. He said, “We shouldn’t build back, we should build forward.” This is a term used by the groups he’s working with (Team Up Foundation and Bennu America Foundation). Now that’s a bumper sticker I can get on board with: Build Forward! And that notion has inspired me to try and help us be able to build for the future—for who we want to be, not who we were.

Currently I’m working on helping coordinate a large cooperative of built- environment associations including builders, interior designers, landscape architects, planners and everyone else that it will take to build Alabama forward. I would like for you the reader to help me. Be a do-er. We are the ones that make up the neighborhoods, communities, businesses, cities and associations. We are Spontaneous Unaffiliated Do-ers. If you know of an organization that can contribute to the rebuilding efforts, have them contact me to get connected with the other do-ers. For a list of organizations  I am working with, you can visit

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