Community aids in healing efforts after tragic wreck involving Vinemont students

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Amy Hasenbein Leonard

CULLMAN – In times of peril, one’s true character is evident. Following Whitney Cotton’s untimely death in a traffic incident on Saturday night, the Cullman community showed its true colors when local churches, restaurants and agencies from throughout the state stepped up to lend a helping hand after the devastating tragedy.

Vinemont Middle School teacher Mandy Redding shared, “I taught Whitney in 8th grade. Whitney’s smile would light up a room. She had a bubbly personality and she loved everybody. She would reach out to kids who didn’t have a friend and draw them into her circle. She was one of those kids that you would want your own daughter to be like. She was an excellent student, but, more importantly, a beautiful person on the inside.”

Evident immediately is Cotton’s reputation as a natural leader with a compassionate heart as messages left on a memorial sign speak to her encouragement of her softball teammates with her inspiring pep talks.

Redding described Cotton’s classmates as “brokenhearted. They’ve been devastated. They have resilience, strength and courage like I’ve never seen. We’re doing this together. We’re going to work through this and get through this together. It’s been a community thing and we’ve really come together.”

Jim Butts, Vinemont School Resource Officer, echoed Redding’s assessment, “It’s brought the 2017 graduating class even closer together.”

Anna Hughes, the driver of the vehicle, is still fighting for her life in critical condition at Huntsville Hospital. “Anna is a fighter and she will fight her way through this. We’re looking for a miracle,” said Redding. The community asks for as many well wishes and prayers for Hughes as possible.

As for the business, church and civic leaders throughout north Alabama, the response has been staggering according to Redding who names Cline Tours, Faith Baptist and Cullman Church of Christ as entities who donated their buses and drivers to transport Cotton’s friends and family to her visitation and funeral in Winfield. Jack’s Family Restaurant and Chick-Fil-A of Cullman both contributed to the cause as well. The convoy from Vinemont to Winfield, both yesterday for the visitation and this afternoon for the funeral service, was escorted by deputies from the Cullman County Sheriff's Office.

Chick-Fil-A of Cullman Community Relations and Marketing Director and Life that Counts Founder John Williams shared, “I am in awe of our community and how everyone pulled together.

In a statement of gratitude to the community, Williams shared the following:

“A Community that Bleeds Together   

Like many of you, I woke up early Sunday morning to the news of Anna and Whitney’s auto accident.  The first thought I had was that it was only a few days ago when the Vinemont varsity cheerleaders stopped by Chick­fil­A for lunch, as a break to their cheer camp. Next, my mind went to Whitney, who came up to me after a talk I gave at her school back in the spring and said, “You know, that was pretty good.  I hope we learned something from it.”   

Then, I went into full dad mode with the thoughts of family and close friends who did life with her on a day­to­day basis.  I could only imagine the pain, sense of shock, and unbelief that had to be racing through the minds of those who had most likely been up all night, while I slept, as the news of the accident came flooding into their phones and social media feeds.  My wife, Alexis, and I have two boys, 13 and 10.  As parents, ourselves, our hearts break for her parents. Her family is in our prayers, now and in the coming months and years, as time moves us away from these devastating days.    

On Monday, we reached out to members of the Vinemont community to ask what help could be given or if there were needs that needed met.  Then, late Monday evening, via text, Mrs. Sharon Ellis informed me that students at VHS were looking for a ride because parents were not big on the idea of having their kids drive or carpool for the trip over to Winfield.    

As it happens, Mr. Shane Barnette, Sheriff Matt Gentry, and I were already on the books to meet Tuesday morning to implement plans for a middle and high school mentoring program that our organization, Life that Counts, provides.  I shared with Mrs. Sharon that this would be the first thing we would cover.  After she and I ended our call, I sent out messages to people in the community who came to mind and might be willing to help.    

Just after 7am, Tuesday morning, Mr. Barry McGriff passed Mr. Dwight Conway’s information to me to check on options that his company, Just For You Charters, might have.  Next, Coach Brent Patterson of Cullman High was on board to help, as he messaged others who he felt would pitch in.  Shortly after that, Travis from Desperation was on the other end of the line asking how they could help.    

As we left West Point from picking up our oldest son from football workouts, Alexis and I began to think that there needed to be a central point to help keep things in order. That’s when we created the GoFundMe campaign and began to coordinate efforts with Mrs. Mandy Preiss of Vinemont.  Mandy shared that they were already at work setting up a scholarship fund in Whitney’s honor.    

True to form, as time came to meet with Sheriff and Mr. Barnette, they immediately made themselves and their resources available to serve, however they could.  County buses were ready to go, if needed, and a Sheriff’s Department escort would accompany those traveling with the students from Vinemont High to Winfield. 

As the day went on, we watched members from the community step up and make contributions through the GoFundMe website.  Calls, messages, and emails continued coming in from students at VHS, community servants, industry leaders, like Maic VonTulec of REHAU and Les Jenkins of ZeroRPM, all wanting to make sure that everything was covered so that students could mourn the loss of their classmate and be present in supporting the family.    

Just before 2pm, Mr. Conway, from Just For You, let me know that he had not yet secured a bus and driver to make the trip.  When I asked him how much it would cost so that we would know for our planning purposes, he told me that they would be waiving their normal fees, if they were able to come through.    

Shortly after 4pm, I received a call from Wes at Cline Tours. They had a bus and driver available and scheduled to help both days.  When I asked Wes for the cost, like Mr. Conway, he informed me that they made the decision to offer their services to Vinemont High at no charge, as well.    

All funds collected through the GoFundMe campaign will benefit Vinemont High students. We will leave the GoFundMe campaign open through Friday of this week for those of you who want to make a contribution to further support the students of this community. If you have made a contribution, no further action is necessary on your part.  Thank you for your generosity.     

So many of you gave, today.  So many of you pulled together to make arrangements and contribute resources.  Not one of you hesitated to stand up and be counted for when tragedy and sorrow knocked on your neighbor’s door.  I saw God today through you, Cullman, and I’m honored to be alongside you all.   

John Williams”

To donate to the scholarship fund set up to benefit Vinemont High School students, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/2bp2rj5w or any local Peoples Bank of Alabama.