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Ethan Allen employees Matt Jenkins and Brock Arrowood arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last week with a trailer packed with supplies bought by their fellow employees at the Maiden furniture plant.
The scene they discovered was hard to believe.
"It looked like a bomb had gone off. There was nothing but rubble," Jenkins said. "There were entire areas that were just gone. There was nothing there, but trash, and then right across the road, everything was still intact."
The people, too, bore the burdens of a handful of tornadoes that swept across Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia on April 27. More than 350 people were killed in those storms, including 200 throughout Alabama and at least 41 around Tuscaloosa, where $2,000 worth of supplies arrived thanks to donations by employees at Ethan Allen's Maiden
operation. All total, cash contributions collected in Maiden helped purchase 70 cases of bottled water, 16 boxes of diapers, baby wipes, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes and pet food.
"Once we got down there, it was evident how much these people needed it," Jenkins said. "The news media is there covering it and showing the pictures, but until you get down there and actually meet the people, you have no idea how devastating it was."
People in North Carolina and Maiden may be far removed from places like Tuscaloosa, but they remember how devastating a natural disaster can be. Many remember Hurricane Hugo's destruction in 1989, and they also remember who came to North Carolinians' aide in their time of distress more than 20 years ago.
"There were a lot of people from Alabama, Georgia and Florida that came and assisted us, and the people on our plant floor recall that," Jenkins said.
That's why when images of devastation began flowing from Alabama throughout the nation, the people inside Maiden's Ethan Allen plant decided to take action.
"Employees here seem to be very, very caring, and they want to participate in it, and in some way make a difference," Ethan Allen's Maiden Plant Manager Randy Rose said, adding that collecting $2,000 from employees was just the beginning. "You hear them say, 'It could've been us, and we hope they would do the same thing.' ... There seemed to be a real sense of 'can I make a difference?' and it came from the community as well."
With a groundswell of support building around the Maiden community, Rose and his management team at Ethan Allen made a few phone calls, and put together a supply drive, Hearts on the Highways. Supported by Ethan Allen employees and citizens and businesses throughout the area, as well as Ethan Allen's own "strong trucking program," Rose said the supply drive aims to fill a transfer trailer and send it to Tuscaloosa.
"We have been very fortunate, we all have a good job," said Ethan Allen 15-year employee Joel DeHart. "We have been blessed in a lot of ways.
It is our opportunity to pass a little bit of that along, to help our neighbor. If we were in that position, somebody would step up to the plate to help us."
Rose points out that, even during recession, Ethan Allen has been hiring employees, with a Maiden payroll now approaching 900 employees. Many of those people have been working overtime, too.
"They felt like they really needed to share," he said. "I don't think anybody here knew someone that lived there, but they still wanted to give. ... Everybody has jumped on board. It builds strong character and a strong team for us that people want to give."
Even vendors and suppliers that serve Ethan Allen have offered to make contributions, Rose said. Once word of the Hearts on the Highways supply drive began to circulate through employees' churches, and the Ethan Allen vendor and supplier bases, Rose said the company got "a ton" calls from people asking "What do you need? What can we give?"
"The commitment so far has been overwhelming," Rose said. "If everything that has been committed shows up, we will have to have another trailer."
Right now, Ethan Allen is accepting donations Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m, though Rose said employees have volunteered to sit with the trailer in the evenings and weekends, too. The drive is open to the community, and many area churches are spreading word about the mission.
Suggested donations include: all sizes of diapers, baby formula, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, towels, bottled water, non-perishable foods, pet foods, flashlights/batteries and blankets.
Donations will be accepted through May 20, but the supply drive may continue as a need persists, Rose said.
In fact, Rose said the message from people in charge of transporting trailers for Ethan Allen is "if you fill them up, I will haul them."
"It makes you fill good that you can actually make a difference.
Obviously nobody is just rich and can give everything, but to just give anything you can and know you are making a difference in somebody else's life ...," DeHart said, adding Ethan Allen's Maiden employees have families and can empathize with the struggle. "I can only imagine what they are going through. You see the kids on the news. Well, I have three children, and it breaks my heart to know there is no place for them to go tonight and lay down and go to sleep. They have lost everything."
For questions or donations to the Ethan Allen plant, call 428-9361.