Find Your Passion: Tweets That Touched Lives

Ashley GetwanGetwan stands in front of donated food supplies at Tuscaloosa's Temporary Emergency Services. The biochemistry major coordinated communication efforts for UA's Greek Relief in response to the April 27 tornado.  (Samantha Hernandez)

By Chris Bryant

In 1989, actor Kevin Costner learned that “if you build it, he will come.” In the days following the late April tornado, University of Alabama student Ashley Getwan experienced her own epiphany: “if we tweet it, they will bring it.” Getwan, a UA senior biochemistry major, says while the immediate aftermath of the all-too-real April 27 storm had the eerie sensation of a nightmare, the impact made by the scores of volunteers who came to help triggered some Hollywood-type moments.

“What was really remarkable,” says Getwan, who headed communication efforts for UA’s Greek Relief response to the devastation, “was how quickly people would respond to Twitter. If I tweeted, ‘hey, we need bread for sandwiches,’ within an hour we probably had 200 loaves. It was so quick and so immediate. It was kind of like ‘Field of Dreams’:  You build it. They will come. We tweet it.  They would bring it.” A tweeted request for baby diapers resulted in four carloads, she says. 

Greek Relief – whose genesis sprung from a late night dinner conversation in the Delta Kappa Epsilon house some 48 hours after the twister skirted campus, hammering large sections of the city and causing 47 deaths county-wide – would eventually deliver some 52,000 meals to storm victims, first-responders, including National Guard members, and other volunteers, and raise more than $150,000 in donations. 

Greek ReliefVolunteers prepare boxed lunches in the Beta Theta Pi dining room. (Zach Riggins)

Getwan, the UA Panhellenic president who is eyeing medical school following her scheduled May 2012 graduation, says she and some of her friends rode out the tornado in the basement of the Chi Omega sorority house, while giving more thought to their looming finals than the potential fall-out from the approaching storm.

“I didn’t think too much of it,” Getwan recalls of her reaction upon first hearing the tornado siren wailing from atop UA’s Gorgas Library. “Growing up in Alabama, tornado sirens are sort of the norm during the spring.”

She soon heard from her dad who was in Birmingham and who tried to convince her that this time could be different.

“I went to the sorority house (Chi Omega),” Getwan recalls. “There were a ton of us in the basement to wait out the storm. We weren’t taking it too seriously. People were studying for finals because it was dead week. Then, the power went out.”

As the tension grew, Getwan says students began receiving texts indicating the storm was headed for campus and then, minutes later, that it was nearing the stadium – directly across the street from where the young women were huddled.  About 15 minutes after the storm passed, some of the students ventured out.

“We went outside on our front porch, and it was sort of eerie,” Getwan recalls. “Nobody really knew what happened. We kept getting conflicting messages. Our president’s older sister lived across 15th Street along 19th Avenue.”

The student went to check on her sister – whose house was among those hit -- and then reported back to her sorority sisters.

“That was when we knew it was really bad,” Getwan says.

After volunteering much of that evening at the Student Recreation Center, a temporary shelter for UA students whose off-campus residences were damaged or destroyed, Getwan says she remembers feeling helpless the following day.

Greek ReliefGraduate student Jeff Hamilton, a former Pi Kappa Alpha, grills burgers on the DKE front porch during relief efforts. (Jeff Hanson)

By Thursday night, the fraternities were organizing an effort to cook and donate food the following day. That first day began with fits and starts, Getwan recalls.

“It was pretty unorganized. They were in the kitchen, and we were cooking six-pound cans of baked beans and corn, whatever we could find – scrambled eggs, corn dogs -- and we were making tons of sandwiches.” Take-out boxes and brown-bag lunches were distributed.

“I think we probably sent out 2,500 meals,” she says. “The DKE kitchen staff worked all that morning, and then it was really just student-run. James Fowler (2010-11 SGA president) and Patrick Morris (a DKE officer) were directing things. We shut down about 4:30 Friday and started cleaning up, and everything started to get organized.”

After a take-out dinner run and return to the DKE House, Getwan said the planning became more intense among the students.

“That was where the idea for UA Greek Relief was born.”

Someone suggested naming the effort, and seeking out more volunteers and food. Emails started flying, Twitter and Facebook accounts were launched.  Thousands of Greek students, and also their parents and alumni, were on the receiving end of those messages requesting help. 

The DKE House, the students decided, would serve as the headquarters and the pantry and would accept the donated supplies while the kitchen of the Beta Theta Pi house would be used to prepare the food and assemble the meals, Getwan recalls.    

The group nearly doubled their daily meal output, sending out more than 4,000 meals on April 30. Getwan, using her smartphone and laptop, sat in the DKE foyer, tweeting and reading tweets.

Greek Relief Volunteers remove storm debris. (Zach Riggins)

“We were following The Tuscaloosa News and Wesleyan Church and other places that had set up Twitters. We were tweeting what we needed, and we would see the needs from other places.”

Batteries, flashlights, diapers, toiletries and baby formula were among the items they obtained and delivered in large quantities. Others involved in the effort took chainsaws into the devastated areas in an attempt to clear debris, or worked with homeowners to tarp roofs. Greek Relief used cash to purchase gloves and other work supplies.

That evening, while Getwan and others were in a closed-door meeting in the DKE parlor discussing the day’s events, the supplies continued arriving.

“We came out and the entire foyer of the DKE House was covered in supplies,” she recalls. “The outpouring of support was unbelievable. That Sunday we had two truckloads come at night and an RV from Nashville.”

The RV driver told the students they placed a sign in their window, while en route, that read “Tuscaloosa Tornado Relief.”

“They said they would stop at gas stations, and people they didn’t even know would just hand them money.”

Greek ReliefA volunteer unloads relief supplies from trailer. (Jeff Hanson)

The amount of donated clothing that poured in was almost overwhelming, and the group began sending items to Greene and Hale counties – areas that also needed assistance but weren’t receiving as much as Tuscaloosa.

Fowler and Meg McCrummen, former chief of staff of the UA Student Government Association, and others began giving TV, radio and newspaper interviews, and Getwan was a live guest on a talk-radio program. More donations rolled in.  Morris played a critical role, throughout, Getwan says.

“Patrick’s phone really never stopped ringing,” Getwan says. 

“Sitting in the foyer of the DKE house, people were just walking in and saying, here’s forty dollars. We bought Wal-Mart and Lowe’s gift cards that we could give to families. We would refill propane tanks for grills.

“I was on the phone and the computer and the walkie-talkie all at the same time. I was a little frazzled.”    

Through the help of John Murdock, president of Greek Resource Services Inc., an organization that manages billing and accounting needs for various UA Greek chapters, an account was set-up whereby the public could make monetary donations to UA Greek Relief by mailing checks to a P.O. Box. An online donation option was also established.

“Every day we were able to increase the number of meals we were sending out,” Getwan says. “Everybody was just happy to help.”

Many non-Greek students, as well as parents and alumni came to help, she says.

“We never expected it to be as huge or as successful as it was for something that was born out of just hanging out one night. The outpouring of support was just unbelievable.”

Greek ReliefGreek Relief has some 4,000 followers on Twitter. (Samantha Hernandez)

Prior to the tornado, Getwan said she considered herself an average Twitter user. She estimated she had about 150 followers on her personal account.  Within 24 hours of launching the new Greek Relief Twitter account, the group had 1,000 followers, a number that would soon jump to 4,000, Getwan says.

Members of the traditional media who were big users of Twitter, including ABC 33/40’s James Spann; Jim Dunaway, host of a WJOX sportstalk show and sports anchor for CBS 42, and The Tuscaloosa News’ Jason Morton helped spread the word of Greek Relief via their tweets, Getwan says.

UA student Matt Calderone, who is interning within Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox’s office, was invaluable, Getwan says, in keeping information flowing between Greek Relief and the city. 

“He was a huge asset to us,” she says. He also, Getwan says, shared one of the more inspiring moments.

The city held nightly meetings at 10. The reports, as one might imagine, were frequently grim. Near the end of one meeting, it was announced that UA Greek Relief had distributed 10,500 meals that day – one-third of all the meals distributed in the city.

“It was the first bit of good news given,” Getwan says.  “He (Calderone) said Mayor (Walt) Maddox stood up and starting clapping, and then everybody stood up and started clapping.”

Every day between April 29 and May 6, at least 200 volunteers worked directly for UA Greek Relief, Getwan says, with the number rising to between 400 and 500 on the busiest days. Many of the volunteers were non-students, she says, including one volunteer who stayed and worked over a grill every day for the entire week. 

A Gardendale native, Getwan, who’s a UA Computer-Based Honors Program student within the Honors College, indicates she’ll never forget how people pulled together when the city and its residents needed them most. 

“No other time in college have I been able to be a part of something that had so much impact on people.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.