COMMUNITY MATTERS: Cullman Tribune Citizen of the Year: Ashley Wilson

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Ashley Wilson stands in front of a photo of her son, Curt Wilson. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

The following was printed in The Cullman Tribune’s special yearly edition, “Community Matters.”

CULLMAN, Ala. – It takes a special person to turn unthinkable tragedy into something beautiful. Ashley Wilson did it, and for that reason she is The Cullman Tribune Citizen of the Year.

The unthinkable

On May 7, 2017, Wilson’s world changed forever, and for all the wrong reasons. Driving home from a shopping trip, with her son Curtis “Curt” Wilson in the passenger seat of the truck she had borrowed from her father, she approached Van’s Sporting Goods on County Road 222 as Brad Meeks was approaching from the opposite direction. Evidence would later indicate that Meeks was driving drunk with a blood alcohol concentration approximately three times the legal limit. Meeks drifted across the center line on the two-lane road, narrowly missing a car in front of Wilson. When that vehicle swerved out of the way, Wilson got her first sight of Meeks’ Ford Ranger coming straight at her. She also attempted to veer to her left, but it was too late. The head-on collision sent Wilson to Cullman Regional; her son was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. Despite heroic efforts by emergency responders, the medical air crew and the trauma team at Children’s, Curt Wilson was pronounced dead a little over two hours after the crash.

Meeks was indicted for reckless murder and other crimes. Earlier this year, he was found guilty on a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide, along with DUI with a blood alcohol concentration greater than .08, unsafe lane change and third-degree assault for the injuries to Ashley Wilson. He received the maximum possible sentences for the crimes of which he was convicted, 12 years. He has appealed the convictions.

Curt

A month after the crash, Wilson talked to The Tribune about her son, saying, “Curt was absolutely amazing! He was the most loving, caring, happy child, and I’m not just saying it because he’s my child. He was. He was special. He would never leave a room until you were laughing or smiling; it was just his character. He could walk into the room to ask me what was for dinner, and he would stand at the doorway until I would smile back at him.

“You could be having the worst day ever, and Curt would make it the brightest.  In his own little way, he would turn any day into an amazing day.  He just wanted everybody to be happy.  He loved life.”

The concluding statement of Curt Wilson’s Cullman Funeral Home obituary would prove nothing short of prophetic: “Everyone that loved Curt needs to know that he will not die in vain. Something good, something great will carry on in his name. That is how Curtis will be remembered. He will continue to bring light and joy, just as he did in his brief but beautiful life.”

Something beautiful – the founding of Curt’s Closet

Two months after the crash, Wilson did something to make sure that her son’s name would be remembered, founding a charitable ministry to provide clothing and accessories to children and youth of families in need, and to give it to them in a way that maintained their dignity and affirmed their worth. She created a boutique where kids and their families can “shop” free of charge.

As she was setting up the ministry, Wilson told The Tribune, “It’s called Curt’s Closet, and it’s something that God laid on my heart many years ago.  Like most of us do, I put it off due to fear of stepping out of my comfort zone, but if I’ve learned anything in the past two months, it’s that we’re not promised tomorrow.  We need to do the works of Christ, because that’s why we’re here: to love and to give.

“I would love to collect new and gently used clothing, shoes, backpacks and lunchboxes, and have it where families in need could come and let their children pick out items new to them, so they can go back to school feeling good about themselves and knowing that others love them. As a single parent, I know the burden of the expense of getting your kids back in school. It adds up so quickly. There’s a lot of parents out there that are just not financially able to do that, so their kids do without.”

Wilson later explained why she wanted this type of ministry to preserve her son’s memory, telling The Tribune, “Curt was the most giving, loving child I’ve ever known. He would have given you the shirt off of his back, if he had known you needed it, and this is just my goal: to keep spreading the love and compassion he had for everybody he met. This is my way of continuing that in God’s name, and making sure my baby’s name is never forgotten, and blessing this beautiful, awesome community that we live in.”

In July 2017, Wilson said she hoped to be able to distribute clothing and accessories in time for the 2018-19 school year, over a year away. But some things are just meant to be: by mid-January 2018, she and friends were sorting clothes in a former church building at 1515 St. Joseph St. NW. On Thursday, March 1, 2018, Curt’s Closet opened its doors.

At an open house shortly before the official opening, Wilson said, “This is all God. It is all God. Everything you see here- He has blessed this from day one. I just have to give Him the glory.”

Just before Christmas, Wilson and a team of volunteers delivered more than 200 gifts, along with turkeys and groceries, to families in need. After stopping to eat following one delivery, volunteer Misti McCombs Easter wrote that she and Wilson “got into our cars and headed to our respective homes. I’m not even sure if she knew I was still behind her when she got to the entrance of the cemetery, but I saw her turn and I knew what she was doing. She had to go tell her precious Curt about the blessings that took place today in his memory. Of course, he already knew because his presence follows her everywhere she goes, and his spirit lives on through every act of generosity and kindness extended by her.  He’s never ‘gone.’ He’s always here. And he’s up there…smiling down on her and holding her place. I hope she feels his love especially BIG tonight!”

By the end of 2018, Curt’s Closet had served 418 families and 662 children. 

The Curtis Wilson-Stephanie Harmon Interlock Act

A new Alabama law passed during the 2018 Legislative Session increased penalties for people charged with DUI, requiring the installation of ignition interlock devices in their vehicles, even if they enter a diversion program, closing a loophole in the existing interlock law. By a joint legislative resolution spearheaded by former Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, the law was named the Curtis Wilson-Stephanie Harmon Interlock Act, for Wilson’s son and a Montgomery college student killed by a drunk driver.

When Bussman surprised Wilson with a presentation of the resolution at Daystar Church, he told the audience that efforts had been underway for years to pass such a measure, and that it was Curt’s story that led to success in the 2018 session.

Leaving the church that evening, Wilson told The Tribune that she was “blown away,” sharing, “I had no idea. And extremely honored, yes. I am actually speechless. I don’t know what to say, because I am just blown away by this. And to think that Curt’s death is going to help prevent any family from going through this . . . I’m thankful that something good’s coming out of it.”

Two years and counting

In the last two years, Curt’s Closet has benefited from a community-wide outpouring of generosity: churches, schools, groups, organizations and individuals have undertaken drives to gather clothing and accessories and raise money. People have gotten creative:

  • A woman challenged her relatives to bring shoes to the family Thanksgiving dinner, and the family donated 114 pairs.
  • The Miss Cullman Area Pageant challenged contestants to bring donations and gave 1,663 articles of clothing.
  • The Cullman Middle School Special Education class raised $515 selling and delivering coffee to faculty at the school through the school year.
  • Choice Rentals hosted a classic and custom car cruise-in, raising more than $1,600.
  • Numerous businesses have held item-specific donation drives for items like underwear or coats.
  • Sacred Heart School held an underwear drive and donated almost 2,000 pairs, awarding a “Captain Underpants” trophy to its largest donor, the sixth-grade class.
  • Cullman EMS donated more than $2,000 from its 2020 Chili Cookoff.
  • Crossfit256 and Cullman County Wranglers donated proceeds from a cornhole tournament.
  • When COVID-19 hit, Hygenix CSR came and cleaned the boutique before reopening.
  • Monograms Plus matched clothing donations during tax-free weekend.

 

The list could go on extensively.

In May 2019, on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of Curt Wilson’s death, the charity hosted “Clothed in Cullman,” a fundraising luncheon and fashion show with 42 sponsors and donors-some even from other states-that raised more than $18,000 in one day.

A slideshow running during the event included testimonials from clients.  

One read: “I don’t think words adequately express how grateful I am to have found Curt’s Closet in a time when I really needed it the most.  I have several children and getting them all clothed for school is quite a challenge. Not only did I receive clothes from Curt’s Closet for my children, but they were very NICE clothes, something we could never have been able to afford otherwise.

“It gives my children a sense of confidence to be able to go to school and not feel like the ‘hand me down’ kid. I grew up not having this opportunity and it makes me feel good to be able to provide them with that.

“I really want people to know that this is a great service and greatly appreciated by those in this community who have benefited from it.”

When Curt’s Closet was hit by a rush prior to the 2019-20 school year, photos of empty shelves hit social media, and the community jumped to respond. Numerous businesses and groups held drives and made material and financial donations, and in one week’s time around 30 anonymous donors stopped by the boutique to drop off bags of new clothing.

By the end of 2019 Curt’s Closet had served approximately 1,650 children who came through the organization’s regular qualification process, plus a number of other children who were referred by the Cullman County Department of Human Resources and Victim Services of Cullman, or who faced loss from emergency circumstances like house fires.

Wilson pointed out, “1,650 children is almost three times greater than the number we served in 2018. You can see the growth of Curt’s Closet since we opened in March of 2018. We could not do it without the continued support of this amazing community. There are so many to thank, such as Apel Steel, Traditions Bank, Bentley Masonry. There’s no way to thank everyone, from the small churches that support us monthly, to the countless others who drop off donations daily to our drop-off locations. I always leave out so many when asked about our supporters. We appreciate all of them, no matter how small or how large.”

Looking back

On the second anniversary of the late February open house that preceded the official 2018 opening, Wilson told The Tribune, “It’s extremely humbling, because my vision for Curt’s Closet was never what it is today. You know, I had a very small vision; I actually just wanted to do like one week a year, right before school. That was my vision, kind of like Kids’ Mart does.

“God actually gave me this vision way before Curt was taken. It was just something that was always heavy on my heart. I always had a heart for children, because they’re such innocent victims in life’s circumstances. And, you know, they can’t help the circumstances that they live in. I guess that’s where my heart for children has always been, because I see so many children hurting.

“But God actually gave me this vision many years before Curt was taken, and just- I thought it was just out of fear and out of stepping out of my comfort zone I’d never done it. But today I see that God was prepping me for a journey that He knew I was going to have to take. And thank God it was His vision and not mine, because His vision and His plan is so much better and so much bigger than what I would have done.

“I never imagined that I would be doing something weekly for Curt’s Closet. The Chili Cookoff was yesterday, and then we have Buffalo Wild Wings tomorrow night; I’m speaking for the Pilot Club in a few weeks. I never, in a million years, though I’d be doing stuff like this. It’s so much bigger and  better than I ever imagined, and it’s because God is at the center of it, and it’s His plan, and this amazing community that has just rallied behind me from day one, and has really made Curt’s Closet what it is, because without the support of this community, you know I couldn’t do it. So I’m very thankful that God opened these doors for me, because it has definitely been a lifesaver for me.”

Curt’s Closet had to close temporarily with the onset of COVID-19 shutdowns but was back up and running soon. Along the way, Wilson raised funds for other local charities and used her growing social media presence to promote local businesses. In early October, Curt’s Closet even sent clothing to victims of Hurricane Sally on the Gulf Coast.

Making a difference on the road, too

In the midst of coronavirus concerns in April, Wilson’s mother Diane Harrington Lee quietly published “Chocolate Covered Strawberries: Remembering Curt,” a book telling the stories of Curt’s life and death, and of the aftermath for the Wilsons and related families.

Lee explained to The Tribune that she wanted to help preserve Curt’s memory, but had another purpose in mind, as well:

“I want to do something to stop drunk driving. I feel like, if a drunk driver read this book, he would have to have some emotions about it; he would have to, and maybe he would think twice before he drove drunk again. So, my goal is to get it into the hands of the offender in these programs that they have for them. Why wouldn’t they let them read that book?

“The other thing is: I want it to be in driver’s ed classes in high school, because kids can relate to Curt through reading this book, and I want it to impress upon them to not drive drunk when they grow up or when they’re in high school.”

Seeing the signs

In June, as country star Alan Jackson prepared to visit Cullman for an experimental drive-in concert at the Rock the South venue, a dream coming out of Wilson’s nightmare came true. She had wanted to do something to promote safe driving and prevent drunk driving around the RTS event site, and friends Camilla and Willy Hendrix- along with some anonymous supporters- stepped up and placed four permanent signs on the approaches to the site, signs saying “Don’t drink and drive” and “In memory of Curt Wilson.”

Camilla Hendrix told The Tribune, “If it stops just one person, just makes one person stop and say, ‘You know what? I don’t need to drive home; I need to find somebody to drive me home’ or ‘I need to call somebody,’ or stay put or find a different way, if it just makes them stop and not attempt to drive home, then it’s worth it. One person at a time- if it can stop one person at a time, we can make a difference.”

The Tribune and RTS founder and head of Premier Productions Shane Quick visited one of the signs ahead of the Jackson concert and recorded a public service announcement encouraging concertgoers to enjoy themselves wisely.

Looking ahead

Asked what is next for Curt’s Closet, Wilson said, “The board members and I have discussed over the last few months: we do have some future plans of- we have definitely outgrown where we’re at. We’re all in agreement that we love the location. I love that it used to be a church. It’s in a great location, but we’ve outgrown it, because it’s so amazing.

“So we do have some plans in the works, hopefully, for a bigger building. We hope to announce our vision in that by the end of the year; there’s a lot of planning that goes into that step. I personally, you know, I would love to see it grow maybe in different locations, different counties. Now, that’s a five- or 10-year plan. We’ve got to work out all the kinks here in Cullman first, but, so far, God has seen everything fall into place.

“I would love to start, if we do get a bigger place, I would love to be able to do sporting equipment, because that was a passion of Curt’s, and I know the expense of putting your child into a sport, and the expense of the equipment and even the clothing, the treats. So I would love to be able to extend from just the clothing and shoes into sporting equipment.”

Citizen of the Year

When The Tribune staff met to plan its Community Matters edition, the floor was opened to nominations for Citizen of the Year. Wilson was the first suggested, and there would be no other nominations. The choice was unanimous.

After a little time for the shock to wear off, Wilson reacted, “I’m extremely honored and humbled by this, that I can think of so many others that’s so more deserving. I was in total shock when I heard this. I’m actually speechless when it comes to this; I don’t know how to- I’m the type of person, I do not know how to accept those kinds of things, because I don’t see it. I’m just doing what I love and what brings me joy, and I actually feel selfish because I get so much joy out of what I do. I tell people all the time that I feel guilty because I feel like Curt’s Closet’s more of a blessing to me than (to) the people that come in. 

“But I’m very honored that my name was even mentioned and brought up for this.”

Curt’s Closet board member Helen Lewis told The Tribune, “I think that, in the face of something as tragic as what happened, I think that you really see the true nature of a person. I think that Ashley has just really shown this community what she is. She is that good, she is that selfless and has always been, but now it shows even more.”

Get involved!

As Curt’s Closet continues to grow, so does its need for help. Volunteers are gladly accepted and will undergo orientation and training for the things they will be asked to do.

The boutique is in constant need of tennis shoes, blue jeans and new underwear, as these are the items that leave the shelves most quickly.

To make a donation or to find out more about volunteering, visit www.facebook.com/cw20curtscloset/.

Copyright 2020 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com