A lot can happen in 48 hours.
Between Tuesday evening and Thursday evening, we heard a rumor that First Lady Jill Biden was coming to Walker County, confirmed it, reported it, scrambled to find out if we would be part of the press pool, thought we wouldn’t be and made plans, confirmed we would be and made plans, watched hours of tornado coverage, heard a rumor the visit was canceled, confirmed it, reported it.
I had a different column planned for this week. I changed it, not so that I could write about First Lady Jill Biden but so that I could write about the reason she was coming – the Jasper Area Family Services Center.
To set the scene, I need to go back to May 1, 2011, the day that Gov. Robert Bentley came to Cordova.
A press conference was held at Cordova High School, which had been turned into a relief center for tornado victims. There was no plan for this, but people had basic needs, and when they showed up at the high school, school officials did the best they could. They didn’t ask for permission. They just got to work.
As the press conference began, Bentley was flanked by some regional officials from a national nonprofit that had arrived at the high school shortly before him. As I remember it, no one from the school was introduced to Bentley and certainly was not invited anywhere near the microphones.
I found the principal standing in actual shadows off to the side and asked her what was going on. She gave me a weary smile and said something to the effect of “Jennifer, you know they’re not here for us.”
Not for the first time or the last, I felt a surge of white-hot anger. It was my people who were hurting, my people who were helping and one of them was telling me that four days into the disaster, they weren’t a part of their own story.
After the press conference, she and I went off to a classroom and talked about what was going on at the high school. They didn’t ask for the recognition, but they deserved to be the headline in their own story. The governor and the nonprofit leaders and the TV reporters all went home that day, but the story wasn’t over. Ten years later, it still isn’t.
This column is not about Jill Biden. It’s not about her husband. It’s not about politics.
It is about the Jasper Area Family Services Center. It’s about the story.
When most people heard about Biden’s visit, their first question was “Why?” It’s a valid one. The most famous visit by a presidential administration was 80 years ago, and that was for a high-profile funeral.
When they come at all, presidents and their stand-ins come to Birmingham, come to Tuscaloosa, come to Selma. They do not come to Walker County.
From an administration standpoint, this visit was part of the larger “Help is Here” tour promoting the American Rescue Plan. Stay with me here. Don’t get distracted in this exact moment by how you feel about the Bidens, the stimulus or what they name things.
Someone at some high level decided that the Jasper Area Family Services Center was a good place within driving distance of Birmingham to talk about the importance of early learning and alleviating child poverty, goals of the administration and the stimulus. Why? Because it is what the staff at the Center do every single day.
Go back to the Daily Mountain Eagle newsfeed from Thursday and read some of the stories we have written about the Center over the years.
Read about all the programs they brought into the former home of West Jasper Elementary School when they relocated there in 2019. Read about how this facility that could have become an eyesore (as old schools in this area often do) has been put to use helping children, parents, adults who can’t read, individuals with mental health needs, survivors of domestic violence, the homeless.
Read about executive director Donna Kilgore, who has spent more than 30 years in social services.
Go to their website at jafsc.org and read about the services they offer.
Read about Thrive Together Walker County, a collaboration between local educators and the Center, funded by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham and the Walker Area Community Foundation, which breaks the cycle of generational poverty through counseling.
Read about HIPPY. Read about Baby Talk. Read about the Fatherhood Initiative. Read about the UAB Early Head Start Program.
Go back to some of our early pandemic coverage and read about the helpline that was established to help people impacted by COVID-19. The idea was to provide one number that people could call to learn about all the resources that could help their situation. That helpline was housed at the Jasper Area Family Services Center.
Go to the Center’s Facebook page and see the faces and read the stories of the people doing this work.
They don’t do it for recognition, but for one brief moment, it looked like a national spotlight was going to shine on the staff and the services of the Jasper Area Family Services Center. For a day at least, Walker County was going to be known not for missing persons or for opioids but for good things.
The First Lady’s press office has said the trip was called off out of respect for the loss of life and property that happened on Thursday.
If she had made the trip, I have confidence that Jill Biden would have been greeted warmly by those who voted for her husband and by those who did not because it’s an honor to host a First Lady. Decent people act how their mamas raised them in moments like that.
She isn’t making the trip, but the work goes on at the Jasper Area Family Services Center. People need help, and that’s what they do there.
Don't miss it. They are the story.
Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.