Beauregard strong: Christmas celebration in Lee County filmed for Hallmark special on December 10th.

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A sign declares “Beauregard Strong” at Providence Baptist Church, and crosses honor the 23 killed in the March 3 tornadoes in Lee County. (Photo by Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Christmas was in the air in Lee County Saturday night, eight months and six days after a severe storm threatened to destroy the community.

Nearly two dozen people died; dozens more were injured. But, the community is stronger than ever.

The community came together Saturday night at Providence Baptist Church to celebrate the county’s rebuilding with a holiday-themed celebration, filmed for a special on the Hallmark Channel.

The season won’t be the same for many families, following a disaster earlier this year. A deadly EF-4 tornado ravaged the Lee County town of Beauregard on March 3, leaving 23 people dead, dozens injured, and many homeless. After months of rebuilding and help from agencies local and national, the Hallmark Channel decided to help. They, along with Providence Baptist Church, Mend Lee County, and other groups, paid for a total of 18 new homes for many families who lost theirs in the March storm.

In addition to paying for three of the homes, Hallmark offered to provide a Christmas bash for area residents, storm victims and their families, and first responders. The houses’ reveal, along with footage from Saturday’s celebration, will air during a one-hour television special during the network’s Christmas extravaganza, Hallmark will air the reveal of 15 of those homes in Beauregard and Smiths Station and will show scenes from the Saturday gathering.

Photos and video were not allowed at the Saturday night celebration.

The celebration

During the festivities Saturday night, Hallmark assembled a large Christmas tree in front of the church and lit it while parishioners sang Christmas songs. Hallmark served a 400-person meal for the victims, first responders, and people from the church community who helped with the tornado recovery efforts, and Santa Claus made an appearance to hand out toys.

American Girl dolls, Build-A-Bear stuffed animals, books, Lego sets, and backpacks were some of the favored gifts.

“I always wanted one,” Katelyn Britton said about her new American Girl doll. “I never thought I would get one. This is a good day to get one though, because my neighbor got one too and we’re going to play together.”

Katelyn also received a backpack, Legos, and a bear. “Santa knew everything I wanted,” she said.

The child and her family lost their home in the March storm, said Katelyn’s mom Karen Britton. Half of their roof caved in, and a neighbor’s fence impaled the wall of Katelyn’s bedroom. The Britton family is currently living in a rental home, and called agencies that assisted in tornado recovery “guardian angels.”

Their former neighbors Taylor Grantham, and her children Chloe and Chandler Williams, helped the Brittons out of their destroyed home after the tornado ravaged their neighborhood. They too were at Saturday’s celebration and both Chloe and Chandler received gifts from Santa. Chloe’s favorite was her American Girl doll; Chandler’s favorites were two large sets of Legos.

The Hallmark network also brought hundreds of coats to give those in attendance.

“We are so, so grateful,” Grantham said. “We have received more than we could imagine.”

David Dismukes, director of public affairs for Providence Baptist Church, coordinated the holiday event. He said in addition to the meal, there were 71 Christmas trees for the affected families to take home, along with a box of holiday decorations for each family.

Other companies who heard about the celebration wanted to be involved, too. Birmingham’s Kenda Scott jewelry store donated 18 gifts to young girls, wrapped gifts in the brand’s yellow boxes with a white bow.

The store also donated 20 gifts to female Providence Baptist Church volunteers, who Dismukes said have worked countless hours since March to assist in relief efforts. The store provided the community with 15% off coupons to help with holiday shopping, too.

Birmingham’s Kendra Scott location is additionally partnering with Mend Lee County at its Auburn Hotel Pop-Up Shop on Nov. 16th and is donating 20% of proceeds from the event to Mend.

The church also hosted a program and performance by the church choir for the TV special’s filming, which was not open to the public.

The celebration was healing for first responders in the county, too. Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Holden remembered the first victim of March’s storm that he put in his truck and took to paramedics; then described the feeling he had seeing her on Saturday night. “It just makes you feel good that you were able to rescue some of them,” he said.

Spectrum was also on site, handing out 168 ‘Safe and Healthy Homes’ boxes for free. The kits contained weather radios, smoke detectors, weather stripping, a nightlight, and other necessities.

The homes

Hallmark’s showcasing of the brand-new homes comes after months of hard work, according to Dismukes. “Within minutes of the storm, our community was up taking care of our people,” he said.

Dismukes said the rebuilding started days after the destruction.

East Alabama Medical Center, a hospital in Lee County, lost three employees in the March tornado. A foundation that provides support for the hospital’s staff put up the funds for three new homes for the victims’ families. The church, Mend, and a combination of funds from multiple resources helped to make another 12 homes happen.

When Hallmark got word of what was happening in Lee County, they wanted to help. They paid for the final three homes and offered to host a celebration of Christmas festivities.

The Fuller Center for Housing’s Chattahoochee Project built all 18 homes that were sponsored– including 11 home builds in five days during their annual Legacy Build event in early October.

Two Beauregard firefighters were the recipients of a new home.

“God had everything in place,” Susanne Polk said. Susanne has been with the fire department eight years; her husband John Polk has been there for 20 years.

The couple lost everything in the March 3 storm, but were not home when the winds hit. John was hospitalized for unrelated reasons, and Susanne was visiting. While she was at the hospital, the Polks heard the storm hit. “I just said, ‘I have to go,’” Susanne recalled.

She left and went straight to work, calling the fire chief and arriving at the command center. It was two hours before the Polks learned their home, and all their possessions, were gone. “I just kept going back to work,” Susanne said. “The people were my concern. Things can be replaced, people can’t.”

After John was released from the hospital, the couple lived with their children for months. Over the summer, they spoke with a pastor from another church. Then, that pastor invited them for a meeting and told the Polks they would be receiving a new home.

“(The pastor told me) ‘I called to uplift you, but you uplifted me.’”

Now the couple lives in a brand new, three-bedroom home painted in Susanne’s favorite color blue. When they moved in, the house was furnished. “What the devil meant for harm, God turned to good,” she said.

John described the couples’ year simply: “It’s been kind of hard, but I’ve got her.”

During the Legacy Build, Executive Director of the Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project Kim Roberts said there were 320 volunteers from 29 different states and four countries. Rebuilding Lee County is new territory for the center, which normally provides housing to low-income families instead of disaster relief.

“It’s been quite a journey,” she said. “You just look back and say, ‘Did we really do all of this?’”

The storm

Stories of survival, of faith, and of family surfaced in the days after the March 3 tornado.

Four of the victims were children — ages 6, 8, 9, and 10. A family of seven was among the dead. A young couple, both 22-years-old, also lost their lives. Another couple, both 59, were reconnected after years apart by Hurricane Michael, only to die together.

Here are the names and ages of the victims: Armondo “AJ” Hernandez, 6; Charlotte Ann Miller, 59; David Dean, 53; Emmanuiel Jones, 53; Eric Jamal Stenson, 38; Felicia Woodall, 22; Florel Tate Stenson, 63; Henry Lewis Stenson, 65; Irma Gomez-Moran, 41; James Henry Tate, 86; Jimmy Lee Jones, 89; Jonathan Marquez Bowen, 9; Maggie Delight Robinson, 57; Mamie Roberts Koon, 68; Marshall Lynn Grimes, 59; Mary Louise Jones, 83; Mykala Waldon, 8; Raymond Robinson Jr., 63; Ryan Pence, 22; Sheila Creech, 59; Taylor Thornton, 10; Tresia Robinson, 62; Vicki Braswell, 69.

“It happened so fast,” Jerone Washington, who survived the storm, said. “I been to Six Flags, I been on the Jurassic Park ride… [but] I ain’t never been on a ride like that.” Washington said his family gathered in the living room in the darkness and, within seconds, the house lifted off its foundation and came back down again. Then, the wind tore off the roof and blew it across the street. Washington said he was “praying and hollering” while the storm tore his house apart.

Continued recovery

“This is going to be a long haul, not a sprint,” Dismukes said Saturday. “We are in it for the long haul.”

He said the church and community will continue to help those affected by the March 3 tornado, and there is a long-term vision of rebuilding.

“We don’t want anyone to give up hope,” he said.

The community is strong—Beauregard strong.

The one-hour special “Christmas Project Joy” will air December 10 on Hallmark Drama.