From the pedestal to the street

•September 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Already Birmingham’s best known symbol, Vulcan has been reimagined as a new public art project focused on celebrating the city and raising awareness for what it has to offer.

“Today, we take the symbol of our great city and use that as a way of creating a public identity for our great city, to let visitors know that Vulcan represents the best that this city has to offer,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell during the unveiling at Railroad Park of two replica statues of the cast iron man. “We want to show everybody the pride that we have, with the big guy standing over our city, to make sure we’re a progressive city, to make sure we welcome all individuals here and that we’re walking together,” Bell said.

After months of planning and creation, each eight-foot tall, 100-pound statue, covered with a weather-resistant clear seal, is on display to the public. One of the replicas is temporarily located near the rain curtain at Railroad Park, and the other is permanently residing at the entrance to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

The idea for building a project around Vulcan grew out of Project Corporate Leadership, a group of young professionals working toward becoming more involved in the community and developing leadership skills.


“Last February, the Project Corporate Leadership group approached Vulcan Park and Museum about a project they were tasked with for bettering the city,” said Morgan Berney, director of marketing and public relations at Vulcan. “Their group came up with the idea of bringing more awareness to our attractions and our cultural institutions, for visitors, for locals, for everyone. And they said, ‘How can we do that?’ We were thrilled when they brought the idea to us to create these ‘mini-Vulcans.’”

The group wanted an image that “basically, represents us all, and brings the community together,” Berney said. “So, they chose Vulcan. They did their research, and they found a company that builds these kinds of things. They made a fiberglass mold first, and then made the statue around it. The company sought out local artists to paint them.”

Two local artists, Paul Cordes Wilm and Carrie McGrann, were commissioned to provide the artwork for the first two statues. “They were solicited through the Birmingham Museum of Art, and have done projects there,” said Berney. “[McGrann] is a teacher at Simmons Middle School in Hoover, and [Cordes Wilm] is a freelance artist,” she said.


McGrann’s statue, located at Railroad Park, is called “Magic City Lights.” Her artwork depicts the night sky above Birmingham, including the Orion constellation on the front and the Big Dipper on the back, the city’s skyline below, and a kaleidoscope of colors under the anvil to represent the rainbow tunnel in the 18th Street underpass.

“It’s all just about the light — the stars, the sunset, the lights of the buildings,” McGrann said. “And then at the bottom, those are traffic lights. So, that’s really what I see when I come into Birmingham. When I painted the sky, I didn’t want it to look too realistic. I wanted it to be magical, which is why it’s more of a marbled look,” she said.

Cordes Wilm’s statue, at the BJCC, is called “Forging Ahead,” and it features a historical tribute to the city. His goal was to cover his statue with Birmingham pride and make it exciting by using various colors and words as well as depictions of the state of Alabama in both painted and map forms.

“I was thinking about kids looking at it,” Cordes Wilm said. “If I were a little kid, I would want to find something different every time I looked at it — especially with the maps. You could get down and say, ‘I’m from this part of Birmingham,’ or just see actual Birmingham on a statue.”

He wants those who see his statue to realize the transformation and innovation that is happening downtown. “I want Birmingham pride,” he said. “We’re no longer associated with negativity, but positivity. We’re going somewhere, instead of being stagnant.”

The title “Vulcans on Parade” represents the idea of Vulcan marching through town, having a presence beyond the confines of his perch high atop Red Mountain. The hope is that, over the course of the next year, at least 20 businesses or other establishments would want to continue Vulcan’s march by showcasing their own, uniquely designed replicas.


Those that are interested in a statue of their own can choose an artist and have it painted however they like. The art might depict a certain aspect of the city that they feel is worth highlighting, or it could illustrate the nature of a particular business.

“I think it would be really cool if the different communities of Birmingham picked up on it, as well as corporate organizations and other nonprofits,” Berney said.  “They’re symbols for the city and unify the city. They’re attractions in and of themselves. They’re just something to bring us all together.”

Berney even foresees an opportunity for these statues with events like the 2022 World Games. “All these sports venues are going to be involved. Wouldn’t it be cool if a place like CrossPlex had one, and they had some runners painted on it, or swimmers, or something like that? There’s just so much potential,” she said.

Representatives of some of the project’s corporate sponsors, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Brasfield & Gorrie, Protective Life Insurance Company and Vulcan Materials Company, attended the unveiling. Other companies are onboard with this endeavor, too.

“Being at Wells Fargo, we’re going to purchase one of these and have it put in our tower building downtown, for the local people to enjoy,” said Larry J. Uptain, vice president of business development at the bank. “I sit on the board at Vulcan Foundation, and the discussion came up about doing these particular statues. With Morgan speaking about it, I thought this is a great idea. I fully expect to have a great response from the other community businesses when they find out about this particular project. I feel they’ll step up and buy them.”

Uptain has a unique perspective of this project, since in his hometown of Jasper, Alabama, there are statues of mules decorated with artwork, inspired by the city’s coal-mining history. During mining’s heyday, mules had been used in Jasper and other parts of Walker County to transport the coal out of the old, underground mines. Likewise, using Vulcan as a template for the statues in Birmingham serves as a reminder of the city’s iron and steel industries.

The Vulcan project has earned accolades. “Research shows us that Railroad Park’s work is key in retaining the creative class in Birmingham,” said Camille Spratling, executive director of the Railroad Park Foundation. “We’re eager to be a part of an interactive, public art project that celebrates our city and one of its central symbols.” Spratling believes that the vivid colors of McGrann’s statue will go well with the colors that are already visible off of the rain curtain at night.


Asked whether the temporary status of the replica could turn into a permanent fixture of the park, Spratling said, “We would love to have the statue be a permanent fixture. That may be in the works for the future. Permanent fixtures inside the park go through a formal city Design Review process, so that would be the next step to take.”

John Oros, the new president of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, is also excited about the project. “‘Vulcans on Parade’ will truly inspire many of those visitors [coming to Vulcan Park and Museum], and so many other visitors visiting Birmingham, about Vulcan and the core principles that he inspires, that motivates all of us to keep moving forward,” he said.

“I think art is a reflection of the community,” McGrann said. “Seeing more art within the community, I think, shows how people value this city a little bit more. When you are in an environment, no matter what it is, it affects you one way or another. So, the more art you’re around, I really feel like the more connected you feel to those places. I’m happy to know that they’re putting these all over, so that there’s going to be a connectedness all across Birmingham.”

To learn more about this project or to get involved, either visit or email   

Healing and Hope

•December 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

. Photo by Jason Qualls, courtesy of ACED.

At around age 14, English McBride started noticing that she had a problem which would come, by her college years, to affect her entire life: an eating disorder.

“A few years ago, my eating disorder blew up,” McBride said. “I had some things happen and I was pretty depressed. I had gone through a pretty bad breakup, and I had quit my job, and so I needed a project. And it turns out I’m good at losing weight. So [weight loss] was a good goal that I thought I could reach. And I started to feel good about that. Then you start noticing the attention that people are giving you. So I dropped a bunch of weight in 2013.”

She felt like she was in a competition with herself.

“You can’t be deep and heavy into an eating disorder, as an adult, and have friends that are going to cosign with my behavior,” McBride said. “So, I slowly started losing friends. I lived alone, with my two dogs, so it was just like me and my dogs and my eating disorder for months and months and months. Last winter was cold, dark and miserable. It was a really dark time. I had all these notes where I would scribble down what I had eaten. And, occasionally, when I would have a meal, I would throw it up,” she said.

“The last two months, before I went to treatment, I had these Hershey white chocolate drops,” she said. “I would constantly be eating those candies. But that’s all I would eat. I knew I had completely lost control. I had no friends left. It was nothing but me.”

She went to an inpatient treatment center, and her first day there was on Valentine’s Day. “I always say that that was the day that I started to love myself,” she said. “I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s my truth, because that’s where the journey begins. I never had any self-love or self-respect as a 14-year-old girl; otherwise, I would have respected my body.”

After a few months at the inpatient center, McBride was looking for an outpatient center, and that’s when she decided to go to ACED — A Center for Eating Disorders.

“I had heard about ACED before,” she said. “They were like chirps in my ear. And now I believe that was like God putting words in my ear. I had just heard it [ACED] mentioned two or three times, and we were like, ‘Let’s try it.’”

By focusing on an integrative approach for treatment, ACED, located on Birmingham’s Southside, tries to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders.

How prevalent are eating disorders in this area? The nonprofit National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) says that, according to 2007 National Comorbidity Survey Replication figures, more than 113,000 women or girls and more than 49,000 men or boys in Alabama suffer from eating disorders.

By definition

“Eating disorders are a group of serious conditions in which you’re so preoccupied with food and weight that you can often focus on little else,” according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. “The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

“Eating disorders can cause serious physical problems and, at their most severe, can even be life-threatening. Most people with eating disorders are females, but males can also have eating disorders. An exception is binge-eating disorder, which appears to affect almost as many males as females.

“Treatments for eating disorders usually involve psychotherapy, nutrition education, family counseling, medications and hospitalization.”

By the numbers

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, with the mortality rate for females 15 to 24 years old being 12 times higher than all other causes of mortality, according to data presented on the website of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

According to facts NEDA compiled from several sources, the rate of development of new eating disorders cases has been increasing since 1950, with increases in the number of anorexia cases in young women 15-19 each decade since 1930. Bulimia cases in girls and women aged 10 t0 39 tripled between 1988 and 1993.

Eating disorders, according to NEDA, are accompanied by elevated incidences of substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a wide range of significant health consequences.

“Eating disorders are real, complex, and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships. They are not a fad, phase or lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. People struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help. The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery,” reads the NEDA website.

There are a number of clinics or centers in Alabama providing treatment for eating disorders. The website of Eating Disorder Hope contains a list, which includes ACED.

“Eating disorders are the manifestation of serious underlying emotional issues and a way to cope with psychological stress,” reads ACED’s website. “We focus on uncovering these issues, addressing them and teaching healthier coping skills. We work to free the human spirit from an eating disorder through healthy relationships, self-empowerment, self-realization and connectivity.”

“I think of [eating disorders] as the cancer of the mental health world,” said ACED founder Renée Miller, a Birmingham native. “Not everybody is going to recover. We don’t know why. But everybody has the option to recover. I think we’re still learning what really works.”

While ACED operates within a standard-care model, its staff members focus on showing clients they believe in them and trust them, Miller said, meaning that each person has the freedom to either recover or fail. But the hope is that with the proper support, clients will be able to deal with failure in such a way that the likelihood of its recurrence will be reduced.

“I want each client’s motto to be ‘living with fierce grace,’” Miller said, “to honor your fear but not be motivated or driven by it.” She hopes the programs at the center will give clients more autonomy, to increase their quality of life so they will have something to move toward. “We’re not helping them find themselves, but remember who they already are,” she said.

ACED founder Renee Miller. Photo by Jason Qualls, courtesy of ACED.

Origin story

When she was younger, Miller herself dealt with an eating disorder. She suffered from chronic anorexia, to varying degrees, for over a decade, being in and out of hospitals and in-patient treatment centers. Experts in the field told her that she would not recover.

However, in her late 20s, she found a treatment center in California that was able to give her the ability to overcome her condition and improve. “I was lucky enough to find a place that, at the time, was sort of pioneering advances in treatment, and doing things very, very differently,” Miller said.

“It was the last time I ever had treatment. They didn’t treat me like a patient. They treated me like a human being with a coping skill issue, as opposed to someone with a number. It was the first time that anyone told me that I could get better,” she said. “In fact, they expected me to get better. Everywhere else I had been, they had just expected me to be sick.”

Miller wanted to take the lessons she learned while in her own treatment and start a place that could help others in similar situations. She earned bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. After stints helping people with eating disorders in various parts of the country, Miller went on to found ACED in 2009 at its current location.

The treatment programs at ACED are varied and aim at being more holistic in nature, addressing not just the symptoms of an eating disorder, but also the root causes that can become the foundation for the condition to persist. “The worst part of living with an eating disorder is living with this constant conflict in your own soul,” Miller said. “You’re engaging something that goes against our innate nature to nurture and feed ourselves to live. That creates this ongoing anxiety that propels a sense that something is wrong at a very core level that you have to address. In order to heal yourself, you have to re-integrate those two things and live congruently.”

ACED’s offerings include the Intensive Partial Hospital Program, or I-PHP. It is a daytime treatment that lasts anywhere from eight to 12 hours per day. “[The I-PHP] mirrors a residential schedule while allowing a certain amount of autonomy [for clients] to explore the triggers necessary for recovery,” Miller said.

The Standard Partial Hospital Program (Standard PHP), which lasts from five to eight hours a day, “allows people to stay close to home or be less restricted than 24-hour care at half or less of the cost of residential programs, when appropriate,” Miller said. “Oftentimes insurance wants to try PHP levels of care to avoid the more restricted and costly programs unless absolutely necessary.” She said that Standard PHP allows clients to stay in treatment for a longer period as well as to integrate issues along the way.

ACED also provides the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), which lasts three to four hours a day, as many as six days a week. “[IOP] is adjunctive to ongoing outpatient therapy when [a] client requires intervention to avoid higher levels of care that may then require removal from daily life functions for a period of time,” Miller said. “[This program] works well for people in school or working who can’t take a leave of absence, etc.”

The center’s Outpatient Program (OP) is composed of weekly, one-hour sessions that take place at different times each week. Some forms of OP will have the client working in a group session, with a therapist or with a dietitian.

ACED also offers free consultations, assessments and referral services, in addition to community support groups. Depending on the type of insurance the client has, some programs and services will be covered, while others will require private payment. “All care is individualized based on each individual client and their need,” Miller said.

Outreach is also important at ACED. At the beginning of next year, the center will be offering a program called “The Living Room,” as well as a monthly outreach brunch with art. “We will be adding adjunctive support for therapists in the community who think their client may not need an actual full program, but perhaps meal support or a few groups a week or time with a dietitian, etc. [We want to] collaborate with what’s already happening out there,” Miller said.

There are individual program components designed to make treatment at ACED more integrative of the patient’s psychological, nutritional, spiritual and medical needs. As a part of that, ACED has a partnership with The Yoga Circle. “We try to get clients out of the gym mentality,” Miller said. “They can go to any of the classes at The Yoga Circle, just to give them an opportunity to cope differently.”

Art is another part of the treatment. Dr. Christianne Strang, who is a behavioral neuroscientist at UAB, works as an art therapist at ACED. She has also worked for Florida’s Renfrew Center, which is the oldest and largest eating disorder center in the nation. “I’m a registered, board-certified art therapist and work part-time at ACED,” Strang said via email. “I work with the clients in art therapy groups and in some cases in individual art therapy sessions.

“The idea behind the use of art therapy, and other experiential approaches, is to use non-verbal methods to support the work that occurs in verbal sessions, to provide alternate methods for expression of emotions, to identify heathy and unhealthy behavioral patterns, and/or to promote the development of alternative coping skills,” Strang said.

“Art therapy is not about making pretty pictures or learning to draw and paint, but about accessing creativity, reinforcing strengths and finding a voice when there are no words,” Strang said. “The art is not always pretty, especially the most powerful art.  If what we create and what we do reflects who we are and how we feel, the art provides an alternative voice for experiences and feelings. Sometimes words just aren’t enough.”

At ACED, there are work spaces for clients to create, including a room where there are not only drawings but also footprints on the ceiling. “We use a lot of experiential and art therapy,” Miller said. “We’ve had many clients who have been through treatment so much they could probably run a group. They just know the language, the lingo and how to do it. So, we try to incorporate a lot more experiential and expressive therapies, improv, writing, photography and other things that are much more tactile and internally engaging, rather than just trying to dialogue.”

The art and experimental therapies are important for therapists and clients, she said, “because it highlights how they engage, how they process, where they distort, and what they’re thinking. And while it gives us an opportunity to help them work with one another, it also gets them engaged in things where they’re not overthinking, because they tend to overthink.”

In Miller’s office, several pieces of artwork adorn the walls, made by different clients, past and present. One painting has a molding of a hand on top, appearing to be coming through the portrait. There are dark colors on one side of the hand and lighter tones on the other. The hand appears to be reaching from the dark towards the light, symbolizing the journey that the client had endured. The artist however said that turning the painting upside down, more aptly portrayed what it was like to reach from the light into the dark, Miller pointed out.

Client artwork. Photo by Eric.

Hope and realism

The ACED approach is helping some clients move forward in their struggle against eating disorders.

“I was in a place where I just needed someone to baby me,” said English McBride. “I was very much like a child, even though it’s just a few short months ago. I was just in a place where I was so broken, and I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have any concept of what recovery looked like. But Renée always liked me. She always laughed at my jokes and laughed at my honesty.

“I am who I am, and she respected that,” McBride said. “Renée just helps me see the truth in myself. She’s not making stuff up. What’s she good at doing is using her knowledge and seeing the beauty in another individual, and pulling it out.”

The changes that McBride saw in herself echoed Miller’s desire for clients to remember who they already are, instead of trying to become someone different. “I’m not a new person now that I’m in recovery. I’m the same person. But I’m just allowing my spirit to shine and not covering it up with all these distortive behaviors,” McBride said.  “I’m not starving myself anymore, so that allows my brain to function properly.”

The staff members at ACED not only have provided McBride with therapy for her eating disorder, but they also have helped her with other important aspects of her life. “I learned how to budget,” she said. “I’m learning how to pay bills. They’re teaching me how to do that. I moved into my own apartment, and they’re teaching me how to deal with that. It’s amazing. They taught me how to do everything. They taught me how to eat. They taught me how to be an adult,” she said.

“But I made a decision,” she said. “I turned it over. My way was not working. I sort of gave it up and I started following rules in a treatment center, immediately. I was out of ideas. I gave up trying to fight the system. ACED is my family now. I got to feel loved and be part of a nuclear family.”

“I feel like I’ve been catapulted into a new dimension of what life can really be like,” McBride said.

“Life isn’t always about a ladder from one thing to the next,” Miller said. “On the playground of recovery, it’s not a ladder, it’s a jungle gym. This person may find their path here, and that person may find their path there; but at the end of the day, they both find their way to the other side of the playground. But every single one of them got there differently.”

Power from Simplicity – Live Review: Rodrigo y Gabriela at Iron City

•October 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Rodrigo y Gabriela’s new album, 9 Dead Alive

The first time I heard music by Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, a.k.a. Rodrigo y Gabriela, I was mesmerized. I remember I was doing homework, trying not to zone out completely, and a song started to play on my computer. It was from a new music sampler from ATO Records, which is Rodrigo y Gabriela’s US label. And the song was “Hanuman” from the duo’s 2011 album, 11:11. “Who is this band?” I asked myself. There was so much going on in the song, I figured that there must be several people playing instruments. But after repeated listens and a little online searching, I found out it was just two people.

At the time, the only analogous artist I could think of to Rodrigo y Gabriela was Tim Reynolds – the longtime guitar virtuoso (among other instruments he plays), who is well-known for his work with both Dave Matthews Band as well as stripped-down acoustic shows with just Matthews. In his solo performances, Reynolds focuses on instrumental pieces and creates a wide array of sounds from his guitar. When he plays with Matthews, the duo have an energy and balance that leap off the stage, despite there generally only being two acoustic guitars.

The same goes for Sanchez and Quintero, who together create a much larger, dynamic soundscape from a seemingly simple setup – again, two acoustic guitars. While their music touches on many different genres, their love for metal musical, which has dated back to their days growing up in Mexico, is evident in the power that they bring to their playing.

With all this in mind, I was excited to see them live for the first time at Birmingham’s Iron City, which I had never been to, previously.

Øystein Greni, a musician from Oslo, Norwary, was the opener. He talked about this being his first tour in the US as a solo artist. Besides having a place in Los Angeles, Greni has been to the States with his bandmates in Bigbang, an accomplished Norwegian rock band, as they were trying to work on making inroads in the American music scene. He told a funny story about how Bigbang had the misfortune of discovering that a Korean band had taken the same band name and had gone on to be very successful.

One could tell Greni’s affinity for southern music with a song such as, “To The Mountains,” which featured impressive slide guitar work. I also enjoyed Greni’s falsetto, and how it added a special touch to his songs. On another song, “Like Americans Do,” Greni gave a figurative tip-of-the-cap to Bill Monroe, the legendary bluegrass musician, with some nifty mandolin playing.

Seeing Greni reminded me, yet again, that if you come to a show, you should make time not only for the headliner but also for the opener. You never know, you might find a gem in that early slot.

A side note: as I was doing some searching on Greni’s music, I found this clip from a much earlier time in his life when he was covering Jimi Hendrix….

Thank you Interwebs.

After a brief break accompanied by house music ranging from Blind Melon to Rage Against The Machine, Quintero and Sanchez took the stage as the clock hit 9pm. I assume this timing was an ode to their new album, 9 Dead Alive, which came out earlier this year.

The show was akin to being engulfed by water when taking a dive – but only this time, it was sound. So it was appropriate that one of the songs played was “The Soundmaker,” which is the excellent lead track to the new record. The duo also dipped into their catalog to play “Tamacún” and “Diablo Rojo,” two wonderful cuts from their 2006 self-titled album, along with the song that started it all for me, “Hanuman.” I was transported back to that day when I first heard the song, but this time around, I was in-person to witness Sanchez’s machine-like precision and feel Quintero using her percussive techniques on her guitar, thumping the energy of the song into each of our chests.

At this point, with our view being almost to the dead center of the stage, and the acoustics being very good, I appreciated having this concert at this venue instead of a lesser quality one. You could see a great musical artist at a sub-standard location, but the experience might be ruined by the surroundings. However, Iron City’s main stage area had the feel of an intimate theater that facilitated the energy coming from the performers (as well the vibe coming from the audience) well , and the rest of the facility appeared top-notch, too.

Sanchez solicited song requests from the crowd, which is always an interesting experience. Luckily – and, really, surprisingly – no one screamed, “Freebird!” So we were spared. However, someone did request “Hanuman,” even though it had already been played. Someone had been paying attention, though, and requested “Santo Domingo,” another lively track off 11:11.

Greni returned to the stage to perform Randy California’s “Nature’s Way,” which the three had recently recorded together.

We were even treated to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” I smiled when the song started because I thought back to an interview that both had done where they quipped that the reason they perform instrumentally is because they can’t sing. Yet, Sanchez did a fine job with the vocals, and it really turned out to be one of the highlights of the night.

And in honor not only of their love for Metallica, but also since the two had recently performed with Metallica members Kirk Hammond and Robert Trujillo, there was a Metallica medley during the show. I’m sure it was a highlight of Quintero and Sanchez’s life to be able to play with some of their musical heroes, so being able to share in an offshoot of that experience was pretty cool.

Another unique aspect of the show was Quintero trying to teach the current and aspiring guitarist in the audience some of her techniques. She talked about how she had watched a video online from a Polish girl who had been practicing to emulate her [Quintero’s] playing. I’ve never seen lessons given at a show, but it was a moment that made you realize that who you see on stage is not a group trying to wall themselves off from fans. Instead, Sanchez and Quintero are as much a fan of the fans as we are of them.

Their energy radiates from the stage, and you can tell they are having fun – and they want others to participate, whether it’s enjoying yourself at the concert or practicing the instrument that has afforded them a living and the ability to affect people around the world.

Gracias Rodrigo y Gabriela para un gran espectáculo.

Birmingham Basketball Academy

•October 1, 2014 • 4 Comments

The Birmingham Basketball Academy has what some might consider an audacious goal.

Walter Carvalho at D-League session

Walter Carvalho at D-League session

“What we are trying to do is to develop a basketball community in a football country,” said Walter Carvalho, who, along with his partners runs the academy. “And slowly we are reaching each individual player and each family, and we are slowly branding our program and developing a reputation on quality and access of teaching. Our goal is to provide these students the opportunity to learn through basketball participation.”

The organization was founded by Bill Ivey in the spring of 2013, and now includes Carvalho and Robert Burdette, all “dedicated to working with girls and boys—from rural to suburban to urban—first grade through college,” according to their website. The academy’s activities take place year-round and range from leagues to instructions to camps. “We are teachers first,” Ivey says about their mission. “It’s our belief that you truly can’t coach kids unless you are teaching them the fundamentals of the game.”

The academy aims for the space between sports for kids who participate in more than one. “When an athlete isn’t participating in another sport, we’d like for them to be working in one of our programs,” according to the website. “These programs include skills training, camps, clinics, leagues, tournaments – along with training for coaches of all levels.”

Birmingham Basketball Academy programs take place at several venues, in churches – Locust Fork Baptist, Mountain Chapel United Methodist and Valleydale Church — to schools. Spain Park High School hosts the FUNdamental Basketball League for 5th and 6th graders. In this league there is instruction on offensive and defensive fundamentals, individual and full-court skills training, and games to apply the learning. The price is $350 and includes two 90 minute instructional practices, eight games with certified officials, and a uniform.

This past summer the academy held team camp sessions at Indian Springs School in Shelby County, and expects to hold additional camps this winter. There is also a 4-on-4 league that teaches participants how to process information and react quicker by working on defensive intensity, movement without having the ball, and playing without running a play.

A developmental league (D-League) is another program offered for children in either the 7th-8th or 9th-10th grades. The academy website says the developmental league is “to provide a high-caliber, competitive experience for Central Alabama middle-school players… It is designed to increase the fundamental foundation of each player and to provide them with considerable playing experience.” For the fall/winter development league, the cost is $250, which includes a uniform, the requisite training, and eight games.

Small group skills training sessions are also offered. Each one-hour session, lasting four or eight weeks, is a repetitive skills instruction. Drills focus on areas such as shooting and passing, ball handling, dribbling, footwork, and perimeter skills. The price is $150.

Ivey is the founder and president of the Central Alabama Youth Foundation. In an association with this organization, the academy offers Underground Basketball every Monday night from 6-8:30pm at Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church in Vestavia. According to the site, this program helps players improve their basketball skills, and works with individual participants to formulate an improvement plan, offers academic and personal counseling, and gives assistance for players wanting to play college basketball.

For physical education instructors and other coaches, the academy plans to host coaching clinics this December focusing on drills and fundamentals, building and managing a team or program, planning and organizing games. There also will be an option for coaches to obtain a certification as a youth, middle school/high school, or international coach.

The international program, which consists of oversees camps, coaching clinics and team camps, and mobile clinics, directly arises from Carvalho’s experience. Originally from Brazil, he has more than 30 years of experience coaching in five different countries, including being head coach of the Bahrainian men’s team, and assistant coach for the Brazilian national team in the 1992 Olympics. Besides the international experience and expertise, he brings a network of contacts not only from his native country but also from other areas of the world where he has coached.

The Team

Bill Ivey and Walter Carvalho

Bill Ivey and Walter Carvalho

“My being here is providing Bill an opportunity because I am not immersed in the paradigm of basketball, locally,” Carvalho said. “I see basketball with a Brazilian and international worldview. So, it is a different approach in my teaching methodology and the way I handle situations. But not only do I believe that this difference is contributing to the success and the expansion of the academy, but also I’m opening the doors of Birmingham to the international community.”

The value of having Carvalho as a part of the academy cannot be overstated, Ivey said.

“Walter is the best basketball instructor I have ever seen, whether he’s working with one kid or ten kids,” Ivey said. “It’s quite an experience watching him coach. Walter’s story is so big because here we are trying to build a little basketball academy in a football town, and, to me, he takes us beyond that.”

Besides his work with the Central Alabama Youth Foundation, Ivey has served many other roles. He had been a high school basketball coach for over a decade, an assistant for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) men’s basketball team, and the head coach of the UAB women’s basketball team. He has also been a part of basketball camps at UAB and the University of Kansas.

Burdette has 27 years of high school basketball coaching experience, and his teams have amassed over 600 wins and four state championships. “He [Burdette] is one of the most successful high school coaches in Alabama history,” Ivey said. “He and I have been friends for about 20 years.”

The feedback has been positive from those who have been involved with the academy’s programs. “I think all the coaches are great,” said George Shunnarah, who was out to watch is son, Zach, participate in one of the developmental league sessions. “Not only do they teach the basketball skills, but they teach them right – with the right fundamentals and the right priorities in life. He plays for the junior high at Mountain Brook, and this is great to get his hand on the ball in the offseason. We’ve got some coaches here that know what they’re doing,” he said.

Joel Floyd, who has been the men’s varsity basketball coach at Pelham High School, agrees. “I think this academy is a great idea. It’s terrific to get more kids playing basketball during the football season, if they’re not playing football. And having coaches with the experience that these guys have teaching the kids has been tremendous.”

“The main goal of the Academy is to teach children how to play basketball,” Carvalho said. “But because of my story, I believe that it goes beyond that. It provides kids an opportunity to be somebody, as well as [provides] integration – social, emotional, and psychological. It makes you have a sense of belonging when you play basketball, that you are a member of team. It works on your self-esteem and your life outside of the basketball court,” he said.

“I believe in the value of sports as being an educational vehicle,” Carvalho added. “What differentiates us from similar entities is that we are teachers first. My background is in education, and we believe that you cannot coach young children if you do not teach them.”

In It For The Long Haul

•August 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Wheat Field with Crows” — Vincent van Gogh; courtesy of

“Wheat Field with Crows” — Vincent van Gogh; courtesy of

There’s been much written and discussed after Robin Williams’ tragic death, a few days ago, due to suicide. The usual remembrances have been given for a storied career in film, television, and in the comedy clubs. There regrettably also has been the excessive nature of our 24/7 media on full display — exemplified when helicopters were flying over Williams’ home trying to accomplish something, I’m sure. Maybe it was feeding that insatiable hunger for exploitation with just another hit in a vacuous attempt to quell the urge. And then there were pieces, like this one by Russell Brand, taking a broader perspective of the entire situation. In the article’s denouement, Brand writes how he may choose to respond to the tragedy:

What I might do is watch Mrs Doubtfire. Or Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting and I might be nice to people, mindful today how fragile we all are, how delicate we are, even when fizzing with divine madness that seems like it will never expire.

Many people have (rightly) discussed how important and utterly debilitating depression can be — especially if left untreated. One would hope that the spotlight on the issues of depression and suicide would carry on into the future, just as strongly as Robin Williams’ body of work has managed to resonate with so many people for years. But it might not, despite all the attention and earnest reminders from those who spur others not only to seek help but also to be of help. Nevertheless, we should work to resist that unfortunate pattern of apathy and detachment. So much in life is fleeting that the instances which do actually carry substance or a certain germane essence deserve to be held on to, supported, and cherished.

And that includes those who are struggling, for no one is immune.

According to the World Health Organization, depression, which is the leading cause of disability, affects an estimated 350 million people globally. But it doesn’t take stats to drive the point home. You, or someone else close to you, may have had a degree of depression that had you reeling for a period of time — from a temporary malaise to a more protracted battle. Even if you’re not suffering from a diagnosable condition, the daily internal and external stressors that we all face can grind down even the seemingly strongest amongst us to an unsound state. What is so crucial, though, is the amount of support a person has when responding to such stressors.

“Who will be there for the long haul?”

This question is something that is important to all people, but particularly those who are dealing with hardships. You may think you have many people who profess to care about you, but it’s hard to grasp the true depth of any relationship until the road starts to become bumpy. As one of my former professors used to tell our class, “I’m good at separating the wheat from the chaff.” Yet, it doesn’t take a doctorate degree to be able to do the same. In those moments of need, when all seems bleak and you’re not certain what your next move will be, those with genuine concern will rise to the forefront. It won’t taking pleading or a guilt trip. Those with sincere intent will stick around, even if there’s no remedy in sight. It may be a surprise who lingers or who fades away in disappointment. But what it means to have someone making even a modicum of space in her or his life for you and all your complexities, quirks, and struggles is profound.

Humans are dynamic creatures, along with the other animals on our planet. Every person has their own set of fears, dreams, turn-ons, turn-offs, convictions, struggles, etc. However, many of these aspects overlap in ostensibly disparate groups of people, even if the individuals in such groups have been conditioned to believe otherwise. One of these universal ideals is for love and affection. If one is surrounded by a healthy support system, that person not only will be able to share in the good times with those close but also will be able to better weather the inevitable low moments.

If you strive to be that “long-term” person in someone’s life, no matter how much you think you’re making a difference, you never know what kind of an impact it will have.

Toxic City

•June 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The pollution issues plaguing certain neighborhoods in North Birmingham will soon have another documentary detailing the story. Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret will continue to profile the residents who are on the front lines of this exposure. The film will premiere Thursday at the Carver Theatre.

Courtesy of Hunter Nichols

Courtesy of Hunter Nichols

Toxic City is the creation of Hunter Nichols, a local filmmaker, in partnership with the nonprofit health advocacy group known as GASP. According to their website, the mission at GASP is to “activate Alabama for clean air” by focusing “to reduce air pollution, educate the public about the health risks of poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy.”

Michael Hansen, GASP’s communication specialist, asked what he hoped the documentary would accomplish, said, “We produced the film to raise awareness about what’s going on in those communities among people who live in other parts of the city, state, and even the nation. The fact that this isn’t an active part of our civic dialogue needs to change,” he said.

Before being shown to the community at large, GASP had a screening at the North Birmingham Public Library for the residents directly affected by the toxins. Marva Ingram, who lives four blocks from the Walter Coke plant in the Fairmont area of North Birmingham, came out to see the documentary.

“I’m suffering from chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, chronic anemia and now I have asthma,” Ingram said. She has been dealing with weight loss issues, and her doctors initially thought she had cancer. “I’m on an inhaler for life,” she said. “My daily living is taken away.” Ingram said that the air on her property smelled like rotten eggs at times.

To help clean up certain locations around Jefferson County afflicted with possible toxins, the EPA has enacted the Superfund program. According to the EPA’s website, Superfund is a “program to identify, investigate and clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites throughout the United States.” In this case, the cleanup aspect generally includes removing the top layer of soil on polluted properties. Yet, when asked if her property was part of the Superfund effort, Ingram said, “Oh no, my street wasn’t even on the list.”

One of Ingram’s neighbors, Calvin Gilliam, talked about how he had been dealing not only with health issues, but also with an area in his backyard that would not dry — no matter the time of year. It would squish whenever he or anyone else would walk on top of it, similar to muddy ground after a rain. He believed that it is runoff from the plant nearby.

Another resident in attendance was Charles R. Barber Jr. from Collegeville. “I remember growing up as a child, sweeping the soot off the porch, and then you come back later, and you have to sweep it off again.” He described building a deck back in 2000 and not being able to keep it clean from the soot. “I’ve tried cleaning it off several times, pressure washing it, even putting Thompson’s WaterSeal on it. Still, the soot comes back.”

Photo courtesy of GASP.

Soot residue – photo courtesy of GASP

His properties also had not been part of the Superfund effort. Barber said EPA officials told him the materials on his land weren’t heavy enough to require a cleanup, primarily because they were below concrete. Barber said he wanted the polluting companies to spread the wealth. “I would like for Walter Coke not to be able to get their permit unless they share with us. In other words, share with us the prosperity to make sure that the community can reap some of the benefits.” He also wanted the companies to be better regulated.

The documentary not only touches on the Fairmont and Collegeville neighborhoods where Ingram, Williams and Barber live, respectively, but also expands out to cities such as Tarrant, which is the location of the ABC Coke facility. There, resident Dorothy Davis, who lives across the highway from the plant, speaks about losing four children to lung ailments, ranging from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to sarcoidosis.

“I sleep out there in the back bedroom, and a lot of nights, the dust off of the plant out there will smother you to death,” Davis says. She shows the black soot-like material coating her house. She is resigned to the fact that no matter how often she wipes it off, more is always on the way.

The ABC Coke plant at night.

ABC Coke Plant At Night – courtesy of Hunter Nichols

Other people in the film also mention the dark coverings on their own houses. Bobby Hogan, who lost both his parents to cancer, says, “It’s on our porches; it’s on the side of our houses; it’s on the vinyl siding. I rinse my bricks off once a week, and you can see it running off the bricks — off the mortar.” To further show how ubiquitous the air particulates are, Hogan describes how when he takes a bath, he can see the substances wash off his skin into the water.

Dr. Shaun Crawford, an environmental health scientist, is featured in the film. He was also a part of the Deadly Deception investigation that aired on CBS 42, where he tested soil samples at 43 Jefferson County schools and found elevated levels of arsenic at 14 out of the 43 schools. Arsenic, lead and chromium were higher in the North Birmingham communities compared to surrounding communities. He found the highest concentrations from Bessemer northeast to Tarrant, and from Fultondale south to Shades Mountain. In Toxic City, Crawford states, “We’re dealing with two types of contamination issues out in North Birmingham — the legacy soil contamination and contamination of homes…and then we have the current air toxics that appear to be present, based on the EPA studies.”

Similar to Ingram, many residents profiled in the documentary suffer with asthma and even cancer — sometimes, several generations in the same family. Some discuss the difficulties of not being able to move away from the area, mainly due to declining property values and lack of demand. There are interviews with EPA representatives, an ailing man who had installed multiple high voltage transmission lines at the Walter Coke facility, some of the panelists who will be at the Carver Theatre on Thursday, and others.

After the library screening, there was time available for questions and reactions led by Dr. Stacie Propst,  GASP’s executive director. The film elicited a positive reaction with the residents, even though there was a palpable level of frustration and exasperation in the room — generally because things were not improving.

Propst shared in the collective sentiment. “It is very frustrating to deal with regulatory agencies that are not doing what we pay them to do. This is their job, and if these plants don’t follow the law and the regulatory oversight, then we are forced into a position to push the city, state, county and federal officials to making sure compliance happens,” she said.

Propst urged the residents and those fighting to work through this ongoing situation to stay determined and keep their voices raised. She asked, “Have you ever heard of the saying ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’? Well, we’re going to squeak.”

Kirsten Bryant, community outreach director at GASP, described a letter drafted by their organization for the Jefferson County Department of Health. It was on the proposed reissuance of the operating permit for Walter Coke, Inc. It has to be renewed every five years. As is described in GASP’s executive summary on the permit, “The Health Officer should require that Walter Coke use differential absorption light detection and ranging technology [DIAL] to measure Walter Coke’s actual Benzene [and perhaps other hazardous air pollutant] emissions prior to issuance of the permit.”

DIAL is a test utilizing light rays that can be used to accurately figure the amount of toxic materials coming from a facility, without having solely to rely on industry self-reporting. Residents were encouraged to read and sign the letters, as well as add their own remarks. The public comment period ends June 16.

“GASP isn’t saying what the answer is or should be. What we are saying is that this problem affects all of us, and it’s time to start talking about how to fix it,” Hansen said.

The public screening of the 26-minute Toxic City is June 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the historic Carver Theatre. General admission is $15, with discounted student tickets costing $5. After the film, there will be a panel discussion moderated by WBHM 90.3 News Director Rachel Lindley. The panelists will include Sonya DiCarlo, the executive producer of the Deadly Deception investigative pieces; Dr. George Munchus, professor of management at UAB; Beverly Banister, the air division director at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Edward Bowser of; and Corey Masuca, an air pollution control engineer at the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Birmingham Art Crawl

•June 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Beginning June 5, a new “happening” will highlight the area’s vibrant array of bars, restaurants and other businesses, as well as give a sampling of local artists and performers.

Birmingham Art Crawl organizers Miranda McPherson, Derrick Strong and Richard Burton.

Birmingham Art Crawl organizers Miranda McPherson, Derrick Strong and Richard Burton.

Birmingham Art Crawl will aim to bring people to the central city area of downtown to check out different showcases of art in venues ranging from the Signature Salon to Rogue Tavern to the offices of Weld for Birmingham (Weld, which is running the Art Crawl map in this issue, is a sponsor of the event).

Art Crawl is the brainchild of Miranda McPherson and her husband Richard Burton, along with one of McPherson’s coworkers, Derrick Strong. “It is a happening on the first Thursday of every month, so that everyone can get to know the city a little more, get to know local artists more, and maybe even find their own inner artist,” McPherson said. She serves as the creative director at Birmingham-based Clear Marketing and Design.

Participants in Art Crawl can find local art on display between 5-9 p.m., rain or shine, each month, organizers said. “The footprint is 25th St. to 20th St. North, and Morris Avenue to 3rd Avenue North,” Burton, a local attorney, said. There will be more than 20 participating venues featuring more than 30 artists and groups. Visitors will be able to sample – and possibly decide to purchase in some venues – pottery, jewelry, photography, folk art and digital media work.

Burton said that the impetus for this new nonprofit initiative came from time he and McPherson spent in Florida. “We modeled our Art Crawl, as far as rules, regulations, and structure, off of the one in Jacksonville, which we had experienced while living there,” he said. “And that one actually had been modeled after another Crawl in Seattle, Washington, which had been modeled after one in Phoenix, Arizona.”

Strong, who works as a developer and co-owner (alongside McPherson) at Clear Marketing and Design, grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and experienced a similar art happening there. “Art is everywhere,” he remarked. “It’s up to your interpretation on what it is that makes it important.” He hopes that being immersed in art, even once a month, will help people support those who already are creating material as well as inspire others to find their own vehicles for expression.

Some spots to look out for on the inaugural night include Sara Cannon’s visual and mixed media artwork at Carrigan’s Public House, Beth Wilson’s pottery and clay ceramics at Levy’s Fine Jewelry, Chris Garrison’s caricatures-on-demand at Paramount, Jennifer Gamble’s jewelry at Harold & MOD, and Littia Thompson’s paintings at Weld headquarters.  Thompson is the Birmingham Art Association’s first selected artist.

In addition, there will be food, drink specials, fashion shows, musical acts, art scavenger hunts and other extras that will serve to complement the artistic exhibits at the businesses. After the festivities, Matthew’s Bar and Grill will host an after-party where there will be a performance from the Birmingham Vaudeville Company along with a musical act. “We have intentions to rotate the after party to different participating venues in the area each month,” Burton said.

For those venues, artists, or performers interested in participating, in addition to those who are curious about the happening, the best source is the official website. From there, everyone can find out more details about the event, including contact information and forms for rules, regulations and tips.

For venues looking to get involved, there are two choices, depending on the location. If the business is inside the central city area, an offer can be made to play host during a future Art Crawl. If outside of central city, a business (or nonprofit) either can choose to partner with a participating downtown venue or to become a sponsor. Sponsorships range from $100 to $3,500. Individuals and others can also financially support the event by making a donation.

As for the artists and performers, they can submit an application on the site. The fee for submission is $10. Twice a month, a review committee will look over the applicants, generally to make sure that the material looking to be showcased is in line with the family-friend nature of the event. If approved, the participant can either exhibit for $20 per month or annually for $180.

“We try to keep the fees low to support the artists, so they won’t have to price up their work to hit a certain margin,” Burton said. McPherson added, “The fees will go back out to marketing efforts in print and digital spaces for upcoming Crawls.” The deadline to apply is the first Friday of the month, one month prior to the Art Crawl for which someone interested would like to participate.

The reception to the idea of an Art Crawl in Birmingham has not only been met with enthusiasm by business and artistic interests, but it also has received the partnership of – among others – REV Birmingham, Birmingham Artwalk and Weld . Every month in Weld, there will be a map of what readers can expect to find at the next Art Crawl. And both REV’s Robert Emerick, along with Joy Myers, who is the executive director of Artwalk, have been key in coordinating and spreading the word for the Crawl.

Planning for these monthly events requires much work, so extra coordination and help is always welcome. “I joke with people that I work for Birmingham Art Crawl, and on the side, I’m an attorney,” Burton said.