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Extraordinary Organizations

8 in the Magic City to Know

When people talk about life in Birmingham, inevitably someone mentions how close-knit and caring we are as a city. Our Southern hospitality is not just for show; we do our best to ensure that family, friends and neighbors are well cared for and thriving. For the annual giving back issue, we’ve rounded up several organizations, covering everything from natural disasters to food insecurity to vocational enrichment, which are all counted on daily to enhance Birmingham’s quality of life. We’re thankful for all of them, and for the community individuals who keep them going. 

Magic Moments

Magic Moments was dreamed up in 1984 by a 10-year-old named Angela Weathers. While watching TV one day, Weathers saw firefighters visiting a child’s hospital room and, noting the child’s obvious delight at the visit, asked her mother if something similar was a possibility for Birmingham. Her mother, Shelley Clark, gathered a group of community members, and together, they approached what is now Children’s of Alabama with the idea. According to Sandy Naramore, executive director, Clark and Buffie Marks, both Junior League of Birmingham members, approached the League at the time and were given a $500 grant as a seed fund.

For children ages 4 to 18 who have a chronic illness, childhood is often a series of doctor’s appointments, hospital stays and treatments. Magic Moments’ mission is to “bring magic and happiness to those children, even if only a moment, by fulfilling their dreams,” Naramore explains. Those dreams include everything from traveling to Disney World to meeting celebrities to adopting a cuddly puppy. Since its inception, the organization has improved the lives of more than 5,000 children. 

Events throughout the year connect families and staff and volunteers, says Naramore. One popular local event is Family Camp at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin on Memorial Day weekend — but plenty of sporting events and holiday gatherings are hosted as well. For more information, visit the website and click on “Get Involved.”

Grace Klein Community

Grace Klein Community began when Founders Jenny and Jason Waltman realized they were not answering the call to give to the less fortunate as much as they could — especially after attending two very different birthday celebrations for families in different economic situations. “The stark difference exposed a James 4:17 moment: ‘If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them,’” Jenny Waltman says. 

Through their food rescue initiative known as FEEDBHM, Grace Klein Community volunteers have obtained food from more than 200 donors as of August 2022. The FEEDBHM initiative provides nutritional support to 277,125 unique individuals in 39 Alabama counties through drive-thrus, home deliveries and distribution partners. Grace Klein Community also provides bible studies, networking events, a “vibrant” internship program and other relational opportunities. 

 If you’d like to become a food donor, a “food rescue hero” or a volunteer at any of the FEEDBHM locations, simply visit, and you will be welcomed with open arms. 

“One in four people in Alabama is food insecure, while our country is wasting 40% of the food we produce,” Waltman notes. “A national problem can be the solution. We have a place for everyone at our table, whether a young child, a seasoned senior or anyone in between. Stopping food waste and feeding the hungry takes all of us.”

United Ability

Turning an impressive 75 years old next year, United Ability was started by a group of Birmingham residents who wanted to give back to individuals with cerebral palsy. Originally called Spastic Aid of Alabama, United Ability has grown by leaps and bounds since the earliest days thanks to the devotion of its founders – including Dorothy Levy and Rabbi Milton Grafman, along with other citizens. In 1972, the organization joined the United Cerebral Palsy Network, becoming United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Birmingham. “We rebranded five years ago to United Ability to reflect the fact that we serve individuals with all types of disabilities; not only cerebral palsy,” says David Barry, director of communications. “We’ve seen a lot of growth since then.”

Today, United Ability serves over 5,500 individuals annually through its 10 programs serving people from birth until end of life, says Barry, who points out that some people have been served by the organization for decades. From the Hand In Hand Early Learning Program — an inclusive preschool for young children with and without disabilities — to the Ability Clinic, offering comprehensive medical care, rehabilitative medicine and outpatient therapy, to the LINCPoint Adult Program, providing individualized services connecting adults with disabilities to their community in a variety of ways, the organization is there every step of the way with practical and emotional encouragement. 

United Ability’s biggest event, Journey of HOPE, is what Barry calls an “un-gala” because it’s relaxed and fun while raising money for organization programs. Volunteers are also the key to everything running smoothly, with many local companies such as Protective Life and Alabama Power serving throughout the year. Students from local colleges, too, are always welcome to participate and make a difference. “We’re part of the fabric of this city,” Barry says with a smile, “and we have been for decades.”

Community on the Rise

Community on the Rise Founder Avery Rhodes had been volunteering with the homeless community for more than a decade when she realized that escaping poverty was more complex than people thought — and stereotypes “are false and harmful,” she says. After doing what she calls a “deep academic dive” on poverty in the region, Rhodes made a decision to help more homeless people regain their confidence and find a way. With the help of Pastor Adam Burns and Pastor Sarah Smoot from Church of the Reconciler — the church also offers the space — and Board President Mollie Erickson, Community on the Rise is making a difference to both individuals and to the environment. 

It all started when Rhodes and her team thought about how number five plastics — a common material for butter tubs, sour cream containers and other “disposable” items — aren’t easily recycled. “We thought, what if we could build a program to help people work and recycle number five plastics into other things,” says Rhodes. With grant-supplied equipment and an abundance of plastics (which are shredded and sorted), workers melt and mold and create new items, including jewelry, pottery, coasters and more. (To buy products, visit Community on the Rise online). 

Then there’s the “WHOLE” program, developed in 2021: Wellness and Housing Opportunity Linked to Employment. “We bought a safe house in 2021, and three women can live there at a time,” says Rhodes. “Those women are our employees. They have two years to earn a check from us, live without rent, build their finances and reimagine their lives.”

Rhodes is looking forward to the future – especially seeing how passionate the workers are about their craft. Her hope is to “build a whole ecosystem” of the organization, responsibility reusing plastics and giving people hope. 

WE Made with WE Inc.

Workshop Empowerment Inc., also known as WE Inc., was founded in 1900, when people who were blind and deaf couldn’t attend regular school, and a family member was inspired to provide more for their child. WE Inc. was developed so these individuals could learn skills such as sewing, making brooms by hand and other crafts — and, although the world has changed, the mission to enrich lives with work is still at the forefront. “We help employers find people with different abilities and help employees find work,” explains Madeline Oliff, social enterprise program manager. “We’ve expanded to assist people with other barriers, such as homelessness or justice involvement.”

The latest venture is WE Made, a social enterprise program conceived to address the need for in-house workforce development, explains Oliff. At the time, one of the organization’s partners offered an abundance of sawdust, which workers combined with wax and placed inside silicone molds. The result was the aptly-named Fire Starter, one of WE Made’s most popular products. Soon, WE Made expanded to include more products such as insect repellent, room and linen fragrance, the beloved “Stinky Dog” spray and baking mixes for cornbread, biscuits and cakes. “We now have an industrial kitchen and are selling products in 20 states and over 70 retail stores,” Oliff beams. “Our baking mix sales started in June 2021 and are already spanning the country! And we’re helping people reach their highest vocational potential by making something, start to finish. It’s a point of pride for them; all participants get to sign their name on the products they put together.”

Oliff said she hopes to create more opportunities for volunteers to “see the people served by the organization and witness their passion for the work.” In March 2023, WE Inc. will host a Bake-Off as an exciting fundraiser for the organization, inviting Magic City locals to form teams and create delicious recipes with WE Made mixes. “Last year, we had a team do mocha pound cake, for example,” she says. “It’s really fun to see everyone get creative with our products.” 

Down Syndrome Alabama 

In 1987, a group of parents decided they wanted to advocate for their children with Down syndrome, so they formed a group called Parent Advocates Down Syndrome, or PADS. This organization would grow and gain traction in the community until 2012, when the Board of Directors motioned to rename the group Down Syndrome Alabama. In April 2013, an amendment was filed and the name was officially changed. Today, Down Syndrome Alabama, or DSA, has new board members, a new strategic plan and a vision for the future. “[We share] hopes of moving our organization forward to become a leading champion in our state for those living with Down syndrome,” says Katherine Gorham, board vice president.

The mission of the organization is straightforward: to provide individuals with Down syndrome and their families with unwavering support and connectivity with others, as well as advocate for them in education and the workforce. DSA has several satellites around the state of Alabama, including Auburn, Cullman, Gadsden, Jasper and others. “We are always happy to welcome new families to our organization and have them become more involved,” Gorham says. 

One way that DSA reaches a broader audience is through Down syndrome awareness month, which takes place each October. The organization hosts three walks, known as STEP UP for DOWN SYNDROME, on October 23 in Birmingham, Auburn and Tuscaloosa. Gorham encourages anyone who wants to learn more about these and other events – or learn more about Down syndrome — to visit the organization website. 

“We envision and strive for an Alabama where individuals with Down syndrome are accepted and included for who they are,” she says. “We provide hope and support with educational resources and networking opportunities … empowering individuals with Down syndrome to live meaningful lives as contributing members of their communities.”

Maranathan Academy

While volunteering at the Jefferson Youth Detention Center in Birmingham, Donna Dukes, a senior in college at the time, was inspired to begin Maranathan Academy. Many of the kids she worked with at the detention center were, in her words, “amazing kids who had done not-so-amazing things and had therefore been expelled from the Birmingham school system." Dukes knew in her heart she needed to provide these kids a second chance. So, she shelved her dreams of attending law school, and, with the partnership and support of her late mother, Jacquelyn Bates Dukes, and her father, Reverend Frank Dukes, she founded Maranathan Academy on September 3, 1991.

For the last 31 years, Maranathan Academy has been “saving the lives of critically at-risk youth and adults in Birmingham and surrounding municipalities,” says Dukes. The nonprofit, private and alternative school remains the only one to work exclusively with critically at-risk students and the only one willing to accept students expelled for weapon-related and other violent offenses. Maranathan Academy offers middle, high and even adult education and is a safe space for victims of bullying as well. 

“Maranathan Academy provides the opportunity for critically at-risk students to become productive, contributing members  of society — assets to the economies of Birmingham and other municipalities,” Dukes says. To illustrate her point, she shares a few stats. Maranathan Academy has an 85% graduation rate, and, of those graduates, 53% enter college and 47% enter the military or become certified in a trade to secure gainful employment. 

The school welcomes community involvement in a variety of areas, such as tutoring, and anyone who feels called to serve can explore the opportunities on the Maranathan Academy website. 

Hatching Hope

After Keli Lynch-Wright and her son Ashton Wright lost their home to a fire in 2016, they turned their loss into a community gain when they founded Hatching Hope. The organization serves multiple families who have suffered disasters with “immediate recovery essentials” and also serves the community as a whole after larger-scale disasters. Wright continues to serve as the organization’s executive director, “pouring her heart and soul into serving those in need,” according to Jessica Siniard Trahan, Wright's executive assistant. 

Though the headquarters of Hatching Hope is in the Magic City, the organization includes other volunteer-based chapters in other parts of Alabama as well as Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Supplies offered to individuals and families who have faced disaster include personal hygiene products, cleaning supplies and other essentials. Immediate recovery kits contain an air mattress, sheets, toiletries, pillow, wash linens and a portable charger — and all products are brand-new, says Trahan. 

“Hatching Hope is proud to have served 125,000 people since launching in 2016,” she notes. “We hope to continue to grow and serve.”

She adds that without “amazing” volunteers, donors and customers at the organization’s thrift store in Pelham, Hatching Hope would not be a success. To donate or shop, visit the thrift store at 2758 Pelham Parkway in Pelham. Or, go online to find out other ways to help.