Group of Florida evacuees making Camp Liberty home

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BATTLEGROUND – Camp Liberty, the self-described “patriot retreat” off Alabama Highway 157 in the community of Battleground, got a lot bigger over the weekend. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, a caravan of Florida evacuees arrived. Almost 100 of them, to be exact. The group, who called ahead on Thursday and reserved its spot, is from Jacksonville’s Resources for Human Development and includes more than 70 special needs individuals, ranging in age from 16-60.

The Tribune visited with group leader Rob Thomas Sunday evening at the camp, after a message from Camp Liberty’s Col. Joseph Land and Thomas was posted on social media, and again on Monday.  Thomas said that after watching the weather forecasts and models for several days last week, he knew he needed to do something.  With a staff and clientele of approximately 100 people, finding a place to go was no easy feat.

“My staff searched the internet,” said Thomas, “and found Camp Liberty through Airbnb, and contacted Col. Land.  After we got in touch, we decided we were going to come here.

“We left Jacksonville Friday morning, and got here late Saturday morning.  We made a 15-hour drive that should have been an 8-hour drive.  I-75 was a parking lot, so we had to improvise.”

Thomas came ahead of the rest of his people, up I-75 to Atlanta, then across I-20 into Alabama.  Finding travel conditions through those corridors unacceptable, he had the remainder of his caravan of nine 12-passenger vans and four personal vehicles follow smaller, less traveled routes.

With special needs clients, finding and maintaining a routine can be a key to success.  Routine, however, was nowhere to be found.

“We turned their world upside down,” said Thomas, “but they handled it as well as could be expected; and in some cases, extremely well.  That was mainly because of the staff I brought with me.  They did a great job of making everything work.”

With such a large contingent of people, and time being of the essence, the group traveled light, arriving in Cullman County short on too many things.

According to Thomas, “We found resources here to take care of everyone.  We only brought the essentials; all the other things were provided to us by Camp Liberty or the Cullman Community.  Col. Land and his staff went out of their way to make sure we had what we needed.”

As Thomas and his people were settling in and unpacking what little they brought, volunteers began arriving; bringing food, water, toiletries, clothing, even fun items for the clients.  Thomas described the line of donors’ vehicles coming into the camp as being like “the cars coming through the corn field in ‘Field of Dreams.’”

When the initial message went out on social media Sunday stating that donations of bottled water, snacks and cleaning supplies would be greatly appreciated, the Cullman community responded immediately. While The Tribune was at the camp Sunday evening, a mere hour after the message, we saw no less than 25 vehicles arrive. Some were individuals, some were from churches and others were a part of the community contingent that has been manning the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest Area on I-65 in Cullman County, feeding and placing evacuees since Saturday.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed and I couldn’t be any more proud of the American giving spirit that’s exhibited by Cullman County than I am right now,” Land said Sunday night. “It’s absolutely amazing the outpouring of support, the absolute love for mankind and fellow Americans that just need some help. Truthfully, it’s more that we will certainly need.”

Land shared that he was in Texas with a veterans group helping with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts last week, when the call from Thomas’ group came in. Land left Texas and came home to Camp Liberty to quickly prepare for the group’s arrival.

As to what the group is paying to stay at the camp, Land said, “I run a business, and I have to pay the bills, but I’m not charging much. I brought everybody I have to make this happen. We put in 18 hours that first day. We had to kind of get ourselves into a rhythm, while getting this all pulled together in about 24 hours.”

Land told us Camp Liberty will most likely not break even after everything is said and done, but that is not important. “I told him (Thomas), we’re going to go arm-in-arm, and we’re just going to make it happen. We became buddies in a very short amount of time. We’ve done all we know how to make sure that life is as easy for his clients as possible.”

One of the most poignant moments of the arrival, for Thomas, came when he was unpacking a box of donated goods. “I came across a half loaf of bread.  Someone donated a half loaf of bread from their cupboard, because they thought we needed it more.”

The Jacksonville group will remain at Camp Liberty until the storm is gone and power has been restored to Jacksonville.

On Sunday, Col. Land sent out a request via social media for donors to stop bringing items to the camp.  He has met with Rhonda Hagemore, who is overseeing response operations at the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest Area on I-65, and the two will arrange for excess supplies from both locations to be sent to Florida or Texas.

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