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Oquendo Bernard thanks Elba for many gifts

It’s been 70 days and I can still remember the exact moment when I first arrived in Elba, Alabama. I felt mixed emotions and for a split second I questioned myself about whether I had made the right decision. Throughout my time here, I am often asked why Elba. But now that my summer of Living Democracy is over, my response is why not Elba. It was an experience of a lifetime.

This small city in Coffee County in southeast Alabama has a bittersweet history. The town experienced several destructive floods in the past, yet the people persevered and continue to make Elba able again. The leaders and citizens work assiduously for the betterment of the community, and it demonstrates what a community can achieve when everyone works together and plays their part.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to interact with some of these amazing people and experience life the Elba way. I was welcomed by the community with open arms, which made it very easy to start my work as a Living Democracy student. All 70 days were different though I followed a schedule that kept me busy.

My mornings were spent delivering hot meals to the community with the Elba Church of Christ on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and this experience allowed me to see Elba in its entirety. Tuesday and Thursday mornings at sunrise one could find me at the Elba Giving Garden weeding, gardening, or harvesting produce to take to the Elba Food Bank.

After delivering hot meals, I usually headed to the boat shop across the bridge where Pea River Outdoors is located, helping people get in the river with kayaks or canoes to navigate a 9.4-mile journey of the often-formidable Pea River. Other times I found myself assisting the Elba Public Library with their summer reading program.

This experience has helped me to understand what a true community is. It is not simply a shared space where people live. Instead, it is the art and practice of being our most loving, open, and authentic selves while we honor others doing the same.

It is also a place that has values and promotes open and participative development across different generations to continue that unique legacy. Elba is a true community. It amazes me how connected citizens are in this location, and one can sense the genuineness in their encounters. Everyone knows everyone and, no matter where they go, Elba is always home.

There are also communities within the community that work to create a difference. The Elba Rotary Club is one such community, and I am honored to have been a part of the club throughout my time here.

When I ask young adults like myself who are native Elbians why they decided to remain in Elba having been exposed to the wider world through other life experiences, their response is that this is home. This stems from a sincere love for the place they grew up that has also changed for better because they decided to stay and build the community.

Our program requires us to commit to a project that will create community engagement and learning opportunities for the town and ourselves. Working with Pea River Outdoors and having my first experience kayaking down the river sparked an idea of a kayak and canoe competition. I realized that there were a few in Elba who have never experienced a Pea River Outdoors adventure.

Though the river has caused pain and trauma to the city in the past, it is also an icon and asset for the community in my opinion. The event I organized, a July competition on the river, was a success. There were people from within and outside of Elba who participated.

The support I received was tremendous. My community partners, Justin Maddox, Laurie Chapman, Philip Box and Gavin Mauldin, as well as citizens who I met who volunteered that day saw the vision and helped me bring it to fruition. I am extremely thankful to them for their help.

Auburn University’s Living Democracy program is worthwhile. This is a great program for students who are looking to gain a living learning experience outside the norm. If you like challenges, then give it a try. Your experience depends on your efforts to step outside your comfort zone and create adventures.

The program has ended, but this certainly will not be the last step I take in Elba. I have made lifelong friendships and established relationships here.  My heart is saddened because I am leaving. Words cannot explain how humble and grateful I am for this experience. I hope that the city of Elba knows just how much they have added to my life. I knew I had to pack up one day, but I never thought it would have been this quick.

I will miss dinner time with the Maddox family. I will miss driving in the Pea River Outdoors vans “Betsy and Gloria” in the summer heat to Subway or Dairy Queen for lunch. I will miss having lunch with the Elba Rotarians. I will miss the happy faces of the citizens when I stop by their doors to deliver hot meals. I will miss going down the river on Jim Chapman’s boat. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to list all my wonderful experiences but just know that they have all helped create a special place in my heart for Elba.

To the best roommate ever, my host Justin, I am very much appreciative of your guidance, efforts, and hospitality. I learned so much from you that has left me inspired.

From the moment I stepped foot into Elba, I was welcomed with open arms. A part of me felt like I was destined to be here especially when I walked into businesses and heard some reggae music that left people jamming. So, to all that I have met through the many different experiences a big thank you.

This community is truly special, and I am leaving as a proud ambassador. Wherever life takes me next, I will be repping Elba 36323.  From Jamaica to Elba, I hope you will always remember me as I will you.