Mary Goodnite works to give survivors good nights, days

BY P.J. HELLER | BIRMINGHAM, AL | May 12, 1998


Mary Goodnite knows what it's like to lose everything in a disaster and then become "lost in the

system" when seeking help. So when tornadoes ripped through the Birmingham, Ala., area in April, Goodnite wanted to make sure the same

thing didn't happen to people left homeless and displaced by the storms.

Working on the fringes of the response organizations that are trying to help survivors of the storms -- that killed 34 people and damaged or

destroyed more than 1,000 homes in western Jefferson County -- the 37-year-old Goodnite is less concerned about what she sees as the

bureaucracy and politics involved in the assistance efforts than with simply helping victims find food and shelter and having someone with

whom they can talk.

"I'm a hands-on person. I just had the time and the need in my heart to do it," she said of her volunteer efforts with the Salvation Army. "I

guess God called on me to do it."

Most recently, Goodnite was hired as an outreach/case worker with Lutheran Ministries of Alabama. Although initially reluctant about taking a

paid position -- "I don't know how I would feel about doing something that has to be done," she explained -- she eventually opted to take the

job, saying it would allow her to continue helping the more than 150 families she checks on every few days.

"Every two to three days I'm at their door, making sure everybody's eating, everybody's got food and blankets and finding out what their other

needs are," Goodnite said.

Those needs might include obtaining permits to rebuild their homes or putting them in touch with churches or relief agencies "or whatever

organization that fits their needs," she said.

Since becoming involved in relief efforts, Goodnite has put her own life on hold. She was laid off from her job at a Birmingham gift shop in

January and has been supporting herself and her 16-year-old daughter on savings and money paid to her from an insurance policy after fire

destroyed their apartment last year.

"We lost everything in the fire," she said. "We got no help from anyone. We were lost in the system. We literally did without furniture for six

or seven months. My family and I basically went through that alone, and...that has played a role in me jumping out there and helping these

people.

"I know what it's like to lose everything," she said. "I just don't want these people going through it alone or having to eat on paper plates for

four months because they don't have money for dishes or having to drink instant coffee because they don't have a coffee pot, or just not having

the basic necessities."

Goodnite also isn't one to stand idly by when people in need get caught up in the bureaucracy or the politics of an organization.

When one agency turned away a family of four seeking food, Goodnite and two other workers she met bristled. "We all just sat there and

looked at each other and they had the same idea that I did: We have to get this family food," she said.

They arranged to distribute donated food to 53 other families who for one reason or another had been turned away when seeking assistance and

began delivering food to them.

"It got so stressful that I would come home and just literally cry at night," she recalled. "There was no way I could feed families like this,

because I started to feel like I was stealing food. I wasn't stealing the food, but that's what it felt like to us."

Goodnite and her colleagues still deliver truckloads of food and water to people who have been forced to live in tents since their homes were

destroyed by the twisters. They also do whatever else they can to help.

That includes rounding up four cows that escaped from an elderly woman's field after her fence blew down. "Nobody's ever going to believe

what we had to do out there with the cows," Goodnite said. "It was a good stress-breaker, because we laughed about it later.

The owner of the cows was an 80-year-old woman who had lost her cane in the tornado and was forced to walk using a stick. "She could

hardly walk to start with, but she was out there with the stick trying to get the cows," Goodnite recalled. "It would take her three minutes to take

four steps. We stopped what we were doing and handled the cow situation. It took us an hour to do it, but we got the cows back in there [the

field] and the fence taken care of. The next day we bought her a cane."

Goodnite says she doesn't see anything unusual about what she and her two newfound friends, Gene Maxwell and Debbie Greer, are doing.

"Knowing that these people are out there. They're living in tents. They're depending on us. The majority of them had jobs, the majority of them

were not on welfare. They had their homes. They had their cars. They had their lives set up. Of course, they had problems like everyone else.

But they had a place to live. They had electricity and water. And all of a sudden they don't have a home. They don't have electricity. They don't

have water. They don't have a car to get them to and from work.

"We just keep doing what's in our hearts to do," Goodnite added of her efforts. "It keeps us going. If I was to stop right now and not go back

out there, I don't think I could sleep. I really don't.

"What it really boils down to is that God plays a role in all our lives," she said. "He puts it in our hearts to do these things. It's always been in

my heart to help other people."


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