People in rural communities across Alabama know their local Quality Co-op stores are centers of information and resources, but many may not realize the same friendly faces helping calculate seed and fertilizer needs are also making a difference in communities far beyond their own backyards. From the Southeast to South America, Co-op employees are helping people far from Alabama’s fields and gardens.
Ben Courson, manager of Opp’s Co-op in Covington County, has made multiple trips to South America with a mission team from the Ino Baptist Church taking supplies and building additions to an orphanage for girls.
"Their government won’t allow us to give a lot of details, but it’s really like visiting a whole other world. People can by gas for 10 cents a gallon, but a pair of tennis shoes costs $400. Their food is affordable, but almost all other everyday necessities are very expensive. When you look at how costly things are for one person, then multiply it by 60 girls, their expenses are hard to imagine," Courson said.
Much of the work Courson has done at the orphanage has been constructing and expending facilities for the girls, and he said the changes he has seen there are inspiring.
"One family with two daughters of their own has taken on the challenge of providing a refuge for these girls, some of whom were raised there while others came there from abusive situations. We’ve helped build additions to classrooms, and recently helped them build a large laundry area for the girls to wash their clothes. You’d have to be there to understand just how much it has evolved over the last couple of years," he explained.
Courson is quick to point out though he’s no master carpenter.
"I’m not down there saving the world. We have one knowledgeable carpenter who goes with us, but for the most part we’re just normal people, providing hands to help get the work done," he said.
"We work in conjunction with a church in their area, and some other U.S. churches have helped us with donations of clothes, quilts and funding. AFC also provided financial assistance for them and the orphanage runs its own cattle operation to generate income," Courson said.
Marsha Daniels, Coffee County Farmers Co-op in Elba, visited the same orphanage last October, and she called her time there a life-changing experience.
"It was the first time I had been out of the country, the first time I had even been on a plane, so I didn’t really go with a lot of expectations," Daniels said.
"I spent a lot of time with those girls, and it is amazing how people who have so little can be so generous in spirit. I didn’t feel like I was as much of a blessing to them as I was blessed by them."
Daniels also hopes she will be able to one day return.
"I would go back in a heartbeat. From the moment we stepped off the plane, I felt surrounded by such love and kindness. To feel that loved by people you’ve never met before is indescribable," she said.
Those in our own country are not immune to hard times though and Steve Hodges, general manager of Marshall Farmers Co-op, has spent several years traveling across the Southeast whenever disaster strikes. As part of a Clean Up and Recovery Team with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Hodges has been to numerous states stricken by natural disaster.
"We’re ready to mobilize within 24 hours of a natural disaster, and I work with chainsaw and heavy equipment operators to remove debris and try to help people in devastated areas," he explained.
Hodges was originally brought to the program by a former pastor who was involved in the program, and he has since become a team leader himself, working behind various types of natural disasters.
"My first clean-up was Hurricane Charley, and once I got involved and saw first-hand the suffering these people go through, I developed a passion for the work. Since then, I’ve worked clean-up for hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, you name it," he said.
Hodges said it would be difficult to name the most severely-damaged area he’s worked, "but I was in Columbia, MS, following Katrina, and that was certainly the most widespread devastation I’ve seen," Hodges recalled.
Because the work they do is physically and emotionally exhausting, Hodges said the crews are only dispatched five days at the time.
"We have one day to get into the area, three days of working there and another day to travel home. We carry our own food, and most of the time we sleep in sleeping bags on church floors, so there’s a lot of fatigue involved. But when you see the grief these people go through because they’ve lost so much, you want to do anything you can to help them," he said, sentiments echoed by Marsha Daniels.
"When you see how grateful people are, it makes you realize the good is accomplished by God and not by people. I wish I could have done more while I was there," she remarked.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.