Leicia Fairchild was leaning against a fence at a park with her 9-week-old baby on Monday when a group of volunteers from Evansville’s CJ’s Bus offered her a seat under the shade of their tent.
Fairchild lost everything in the April 27, F4 tornado that destroyed her home here, taking with it hundreds of lives.
Red streaks, signs of a possible infection, showed on her leg after she stepped on nine nails climbing out of the rubble of her home. She had no shoes and had to bathe her baby in a bathroom sink at the nearby Red Cross shelter.
Within minutes of meeting her, volunteers from CJ’s Bus found clothing for Fairchild’s baby. A woman from a local church gave Fairchild the shoes off her feet. Other volunteers went to Walmart to buy a baby bath. Alyson Jackson, a volunteer from Gulf Shores, took Fairchild for a tetanus shot she desperately needed.
The volunteers set out from Evansville on April 30, three days after the deadly toradoes swept through Alabama and much of the South, killing at least 329 people and destroying communities across seven states.
Disaster recovery is the mission of CJ’s Bus, a not-for-profit organization founded by Kathryn Martin, whose 2-year-old son, CJ, was among 25 people killed when a tornado swept across Evansville and the surround- ing Tri-State in 2005.
The aim of CJ’s Bus is to provide a safe place for children and a temporary distraction from the constant reminders of what they’ve lost.
Volunteers brought the bus to Tuscaloosa to help people like Monique Chandler and three her children, Jay’Mon, Jay’Quan and Jay’Mikia Bates, who visited CJ’s Bus every day.
There’s nothing left of the place they used to call home.
“Baby, it’s gone, it’s all gone, there is nothing, it’s all gone. The apartment we stayed in is gone,” said Sonjanice James, Chandler’s roommate, who brought the children to the bus daily. “We were in there when the tornado happened and we couldn’t do nothing but get in the tub. It took off the roof, it took the whole front of the building.”
That’s a memory Martin aims to replace for children with new ones created by CJ’s Bus.
“It’s great … when there’s all these problems going on, that we can drop the kids off and not take them back to see what happened,” James said. “Most people don’t think that kids think about stuff like that, but they do. They wouldn’t come outside for two days.”
James said the bus inspired the children to come out of the shelter.
In a short time, the bus became part of the community.
“When we leave, it’s going to be a sad day,” Martin said while on the bus Tuesday afternoon while the Bates children played with volunteers. “We have kids that their aunt said they cried all morning wanting to come and she couldn’t get here. I can imagine on the day that we leave it’s going to be like any other deployment where the kids are really upset when we go. I think we are a part of the community just like the community is a part of us.”
The volunteers from CJ’s Bus returned to Evansville briefly last week to regroup and resupply When they returned to Alabama on Friday evening, they moved the bus to the Crescent Ridge Housing Project near Alberta City, whey they plan to stay as long as they’re needed.
“I went out there and saw where these children are living, and par ents have told us there are still families that are out there and they refuse to leave because of the loot ing,” Martin said. “We need to go to them.”
The new location means the Bates children will miss the big yellow and black bus full of toys that kept them safe and entertained everyday.
“They woke up this morning crying,” Chandler said Thursday. “I had to explain to them the bus had to go visit other children.”