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Watts appreciates Elba's gifts of kindness, wisdom

I remember my first drive through Elba.  I drove around on a quick tour for 15 minutes. I was shocked because it seemed that I had seen the whole town on that short drive. This first impression set in as I realized I would be spending my summer in a small Alabama town.

As my summer of Living Democracy went by, I was able to tell my story and share how my background of growing up in one of Alabama’s largest cities gave me a limited understanding of what small-town life was really all about. In return, the people of Elba shared their stories, telling me about floods, faith, and everything in between.

Ten short weeks later, I am back at my home considering the impact this summer has made on my life.

The number one trait that I thank Elba for showing me is kindness. I don’t just mean being kind to everyone, but waving at everyone you see whether you know them or not and giving a smile when you greet someone.

It’s a stark contrast to how Auburn can be, especially with my generation. Students on campus often are too engaged in technology to acknowledge the world around them. Whenever we would rather ignore someone than speak, we can retreat to our phones.

Elba showed me how far that kindness and genuine interest in the world around you can go. It allows you to turn strangers in friends, such as the encounter Jack West and I when we met a man named Milo at the Elba Dam during our first week.  Our initial concern of meeting someone way out in the woods quickly turned into one of our most memorable experiences as he shared a fully history of Elba’s dam and levees with us.

I also learned the importance of building an active group of friends and family who will support you throughout your journey, no matter how challenging the road might be. Restoration 154, the organization that I worked closely with this summer, is an active group of five to six people. However, each of those five to six people know many other people who support anything this nonprofit does for the community.

During our final event of the summer, the Pirates of the Pea River movie and river day, I saw most of the same familiar faces I had seen all summer, a testament to their dedication and support.

It’s challenging to put all the small lessons and experiences I had this summer into words. I had incredible opportunities of being able to speak to civic clubs, learning about the grant-writing process, and eating dinner with friendly folks around town.

I wish all the best to Elba, and especially to those who follow in my footsteps as Living Democracy students. It’s essential to appreciate Elba for what it is. The mindset of appreciation allows you to truly learn why the others in the community feel the way they do, and in turn, you begin to feel the same.

So, I thank Elba for teaching me to see my home state in a different light. I learned that south Alabama is not the same as north Alabama, with each region having unique issues and assets that set them apart. I saw the world at a slower pace, the world at a kinder pace, and the world still trying to figure out its role in the modern age.