Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Logan Fenhouse reflects on the idea of home in her thought piece from Walker County.

The photo of Logan was taken by Ms. Nicole Smith for the four-piece series on the 2019 Walker County Interns featured in the Daily Mountain Eagle.

Before coming to Jasper, I felt certain about where my home was and where I wanted to go in life. Since I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Lombard, Illinois, it was a no-brainer to respond to the question of home with “Chicago.” I wanted to work in a densely populated area, inundated with excitement and opportunity. Coming to school in Alabama always felt temporary, a stepping stone to get me to where I really needed to be.

These thoughts even extended to how I viewed this internship; I had initially thought of Jasper as a valuable way to get more perspective on issues small towns face, but never intended to seriously pursue a career in this setting. Yet, many of my preconceptions about Alabama small towns have been transformed. Now, near the end of my time in Walker County, I am faced with the dilemma of deciding what exactly “home” is and where I want it to be. 

When I visit a new place, it helps me to get a better feel for the area by talking with a town’s residents and listening to their views on different issues. In Walker County, it’s difficult not to see how invested each individual is in their community.

Take, for example, Carol Alexander. She spent much of her life in Cordova, just southeast of Jasper, and is affected greatly by her surrounding community. Tears sprang to her eyes as she talked about the magnitude of the opioid crisis in Walker County, and I could hear the devastation in her voice as she told us about the tornado that brought tragedy to her hometown in 2011.

It’s understandable that such tragedies can tie a community together to develop a common interest in the betterment of Walker County. This attitude extends to my placement at Capstone Rural Health Center as well. There, those I work around and interact with truly just want to provide everyone with access to the healthcare and mental health resources they desperately need to succeed in life.

As part of this internship, many families in Jasper have graciously welcomed the interns into their homes or have treated us to dinner at local restaurants. During one of these meals, Carol shared her thoughts on the opportunities she saw in Walker County. When asked what she loved most about living here, she told us about the generosity and the family strength she found in this community. In her experience, everyone helps one another out and genuinely cares about each other’s wellbeing. It seems that the small-town stereotype of knowing every resident is true, but Walker County takes it one step further.

In this community, not only does everyone know each other, but they are there for one another. It was so surprising to me how eager those in Jasper are to chat with one another in passing. Even though I was a stranger when I arrived in Walker County, there was no fear from Jasper’s residents about introducing themselves and starting a conversation as if I were an old friend.

Carol exemplifies this sentiment of hospitality and compassion with her commitment to service. She finds the good in everyone and believes no place or person is a lost cause. Carol was not ashamed to tell us about how she grew up in a housing project, and because of this childhood, she truly just wants to make a difference.

Naturally, after sharing so much of her thoughts on Walker County with us, I told her about my struggles with the concept of “home” and how my mindset regarding the permanence of my stay in Alabama has been changing. When asked what home means to her, Carol referenced the common saying, “home is where the heart is.” She expanded on this, telling me, “You meet people, and those are your home.”

To me, this makes sense. Even in the three short years I’ve attended the University of Alabama, my friends have become my family. I know that I can turn to them for anything and they will support me through the good and the bad. If my heart is in two places, both in Lombard and in Tuscaloosa, where does that leave me? At this point, I’m beginning to consider home as more of a state of mind or a general feeling rather than a location.

On the other hand, it was interesting to learn about Carol’s perception of distant areas as well. She told us a story about how she went to Chicago for a friend’s wedding and was entirely lost on where everything was and what was happening. “I didn’t know the customs there,” she commented.

This brings up the topic of familiarity. Possibly home is more than just where the people we love are; perhaps home is that which we know. However, this raises the question of whether it’s better to be in an environment in which we are comfortable, or someplace we are forced to learn and grow.

If where we live and consider “home” never challenges us or forces us out of our comfort zone, will we stay stagnant, never changing our viewpoints or routines? Rather, maybe home is more of a defined place, a particular setting within a location. This way, we can push ourselves to new heights during the day and come back at night to a place and to people that make us feel safe and supported. For me, I’m coming to understand, this is the ideal home.

Suddenly, I’ve realized that at some point in my time at Alabama, home has become more than just Illinois. I’ve built friendships, developed programs, built a legacy of scholarship and leadership- a life, I’ve realized. I live in Alabama, somewhere I never thought I would end up. More than that, I’ve come to recognize that I’m happy here.

No one event has led to this change of heart, but I can feel the future home I had imagined in my head becoming more and more blurred. It may not be in an area where I’m surrounded by skyscrapers, but instead trees and neighbors. I can see myself happy in both settings, and frankly, the amount of possibilities about where I may end up scares me. 

Despite this fear, the more I think about “home,” the more at peace with this idea I become. Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to learn more about what Walker County really means to people like Carol Alexander and the dedicated staff at Capstone. Their sense of altruism and dedication to serving others have helped me to see that at their core, communities are simply people who care.

Because of these interactions, I have come to understand that home doesn’t have to be simply the place I’m living now, or even just one place. “Home” can be whatever and wherever I want it to be, provided that I care about it. Therefore, Lombard, Tuscaloosa, and even Jasper can all be my home.

Logan Fenhouse, University of Alabama New College

Jasper, Alabama