C.J.’s Bus brings toys and joy to tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa
By Glenn Swain
On Saturday, a 40-foot customized black and yellow bus traveling south from Evansville, Ind. crossed over the Alabama line headed for Tuscaloosa, a town ravaged by the April 27th tornado that left more than 230 people dead and thousands homeless in Alabama alone. Suddenly, a large piece of wood flipped up from the road, cracking the radiator and bringing the bus to a quick, steamy stop. Kathryn Martin stepped out and inspected the damage to “C.J.’s Bus.” Although stranded momentarily, she counted her blessings. At least she still had a home and family back in Indiana.
Martin and a caravan of nearly a dozen volunteers were on their way to Tuscaloosa with C.J.’s Bus, a rapid-response self-contained mobile bus that goes to disaster sites in order to keep children entertained in the aftermath of natural disasters. Working with local and national emergency agencies, C.J.’s Bus provides a loving service that benefits families and children in communities hit by tornadoes and floods. Inside the vehicle are state-of-the-art games, toys, hula hoops, jump ropes and books for all ages. Children can also participate in activities such as painting, drawing, jewelry making and other crafts. Also inside is a healthy supply of clothing, blankets and pillows.
Sometimes the desire to give back is spawned from personal tragedy. On Nov. 6, 2005, Martin’s 2-year-old son, C.J., was killed when a deadly F3 tornado demolished Evansville’s Eastbrook mobile home park where she lived. Martin’s mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law were also killed.
A few months later when a tornado ripped through the neighboring town of Otwell, Ind., Martin instinctively gathered coloring books, crayons and juice boxes and drove her car to Otwell to find families with children and to help them. While doing so, Martin came up with the idea of a bus that could be driven to natural disasters to aid those affected.
A local business man donated a 1989 school bus. Grassroots fundraising paid for the customizing. The original bus was cut off at the front cab and stripped down. The floors, walls and mechanical workings of the bus were rebuilt with custom aerospace-type materials, light-weight aluminum and other materials. While the finished vehicle looks boxy, two sides fold out to provide about 260 square feet of usable play space.
Since its completion, C.J.’s Bus has delivered its cargo of games, toys, clothing and love to tornado and flooded areas in Arkansas, Kentucky and other states.
And now it’s Alabama.
On Sunday, after being towed into the city park, Martin and her volunteers expanded the sides of the bus and got word out they were open for visitors. A bus repairman would be called to fix the damaged radiator.
During a quiet moment Sunday afternoon, Martin walked to a hill and peered out on a destroyed landscape.
“It’s unreal,” Martin said. “There was nothing for miles but strewn cars and wood; just destruction. I wonder how the residents have hope it will be fixed.”
Within six hours nearly 70 children found C.J.’s Bus and enjoyed time at play, a welcome distraction from their bare-bones shelters and shattered homes. Some left with toys and books, along with blankets handmade by women in a retirement home back in Evansville.
Martin has no idea when C.J.’s Bus will pull out of Tuscaloosa; it all depends when area schools reopen. Until then, waves of children and their parents flow toward the yellow and black bus in the city’s park for comfort and a needed distraction from their surroundings.