By State Rep. Tracy Estes
Even as the words for this column begin to flow from my computer’s keyboard, I struggle to remember what day it is. Life in America has been turned upside down in recent weeks. What was once considered the normal routine now seems such a distant memory.
There was a time when we moved about freely. Family dinners at a local restaurant were common. Heading off to work each morning was normal and buying groceries at the nearest store was just what we did at least once a week. Almost everything we had known now seems distant and afar. But in time, there will be a return to normalcy, or at least some sense thereof.
For me, and others like me, another loss at this time has been to offer an embrace or a friendly handshake. By nature, I am an affectionate person. I gain strength from a warm embrace. I take great pleasure in seeing a warm smile slowly spread across the face of another . . . and smiles seem to come at a premium today.
Recent weeks have been difficult for each of us, but I understand the turn of events has proven more trying for some than others. People who have known nothing but hard work since their youth now find it hard to earn a living to provide for their families. Unemployment rolls are expanding exponentially and food lines are longer today than they have been since the Great Depression almost a century ago.
Mortgage payments are not being made and many car payments are still lying on the kitchen table at home, as so many struggle to prioritize which bills can be paid while still buying a little food for those who live under their roof. My heart breaks as I hear of these stories. From the bottom of my heart, I wish I had the power and authority to remedy each case individually. But what I can do and have attempted my best to do is work for my constituents harder than ever during these times.
My wife will testify that work has continued almost around the clock. Evenings at home have regularly included phone calls as late as 11 p.m. with members of Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff, as well as officials from Congressman Robert Aderholt and Sen. Richard Shelby’s offices.
Allow me to commend an official from each office who has been so gracious with their time, especially now when each moment is valuable and their offices are being overwhelmed with requests. William Fillmore serves as legislative director for the governor; Paul Housel serves as field director for Aderholt in his Jasper office and Dayne Cutrell serves as Shelby's chief of staff. These three men have been there for me when I have needed it most. Have they always provided the answers I wanted to hear? No, but this has not watered down their willingness to serve my constituents.
As for me, the last three weeks have been unique. For those who follow us on Facebook (Representative Tracy Estes), the number of posts I have provided has not always been daily as before. Time has been more precious than ever and the number of stops I have made each day across the district has been less numerous. Trying to honor social distancing guidelines as much as possible has played a small role in this change, but the primary culprit has been my need to focus on assisting the three hospitals in the district.
Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville, Northwest Medical Center in Winfield and North Mississippi Medical Center in Hamilton are each in need of financial assistance at this time. While the three situations are not identical, each has been impacted by the loss of revenue brought on by the coronavirus epidemic. Causing the most financial pain has been the fact outpatient procedures and elective surgeries have been suspended during this crisis.
Countless meetings have been held with hospital officials seeking answers. Telephone calls and texts have flown back and forth almost non-stop with an unknown number of conference calls held with officials from Montgomery and Washington in an effort to plot a path forward.
To say the process has been frustrating would be an understatement. Each time we believe we have solved the matrix, another support beam shifts and the plan comes crashing down. Frustration has built around the conference table, not at one another, but at the process. And I promise I have not been immune to the disappointment and sometimes anger.
Federal stimulus monies have been designed to come to our aid in the healthcare arena, but the process has been slothfully slow. Even the most well-intended plans by Congress take time and time is not a commodity our hospitals enjoy at this moment. Millions of dollars have been lost as a result of the COVID-19 world pandemic, and our community hospitals have not been spared.
Our hospital administrators and administrative staffs have been a pleasure to work with during these times. They understand the critical role their facilities play in our communities. Not only do our local hospitals provide critical healthcare and emergency medicine; they also improve our chances of recruiting new industry. Each is an economic engine pumping money into our local economy. They provide hundreds of jobs with those paychecks providing a substantial infusion of cash into the district as a whole. Our efforts to make our hospitals whole and stronger than ever coming out of this crisis still continue and will not waver.
In recent weeks, I have been blessed to partner with a local businessman, who has asked to remain anonymous. With his assistance, as well as help from others, I have managed to personally deliver more than 62,000 facemasks and gloves across the district. These have been handed out among our volunteer fire departments, nursing homes, hospitals, police departments and more. I have secured almost 200 coronavirus test kits and divided them among our hospitals. Last week, I was made aware of a need at Lakeland Community Hospital. Within minutes, I was in my car and headed to Montgomery to collect and deliver a few more tests to Lakeland. Additional efforts have been made to secure other test kits, which were delivered without my personal assistance.
In addition to the gloves and masks provided by the businessman, I had a few women in Double Springs contact me about making cloth masks from their home. Time passed and I was invited to a wonderful lunch at a private catering facility where I enjoyed a wonderful meal and fellowship. Leaving the facility more than an hour later, I was presented with 250 cloth masks made by hand. And with this, the delivery process began.
Over the next few hours, I handed out each and every mask across the district. Some went to emergency personnel, but on this day, the most rewarding deliveries were made on the streets of Vernon. Following stops at the local police department and the Lamar County Jail to share the masks, I began stopping random citizens on the street. Masks were distributed one or two at a time to complete strangers. Two were standing in front of a local tax office while others were at the laundromat or a gas station. I found a few others coming out of Subway or Dollar General.
These were some of the most rewarding stops during this entire process. Let’s be honest. The vast majority of people have no idea who Rep. Tracy Estes is. When I walk the streets, it is not as if Gov. Kay Ivey or President Donald Trump is making the rounds. Those are faces people know and recognize. Many in Lamar, Winston and Marion counties have had the opportunity to visit with me over time, but not nearly everyone, for sure.
So here was this stranger in Vernon walking the streets or parking his car time and time again, only to step out in a coat and tie to deliver a mask and maybe a little bit of hope. Not once did I introduce myself. Neither my name nor this office was important on this day. All that mattered was that a stranger was handing out a mask, delivering it with a smile and ending the brief conversation with the simple words of, “God bless you. We will get through this.’’
And believe me. We will get through this. While the world has been turned upside down in terms of what we have known and consider normal in 2020 America, the most important fact remains: Almighty God was on the throne before the virus began its assault on our planet, and He remains on the throne today. More importantly, He will still be on the throne when our historic journey ends and we come out on the other side of this unexpected trek of uncertainty.
Providing leadership during the good times is simple, but true leaders rise to the challenge in times of crisis. This has been and will continue to be my goal as we move forward. I took an oath to serve this district. There may be those who question this unique approach, but my single motivation has been to serve.
Tracy Estes is Alabama State House District 17’s freshman state representative from Winfield.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.