Gadsden City High student develops drive for family in Louisiana after hurricane Ida

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Nickels for New Orleans Coin Drive volunteers collect donations for a Louisiana family. Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Rickles. 

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

One local sixteen-year-old is proving that age bears no burden on transforming her community for the better.

Gadsden City High School junior Mary Ann Rickles extended compassionate efforts beyond the borders of Alabama in October, establishing a fundraiser that illustrates the importance of unification when needed most.

As late August signified the 16th  anniversary of the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina that battered Louisiana, the state suffered another devastating storm: Hurricane Ida. Widespread harsh winds and destructive rising floodwaters impacted countless residents scrambling to evacuate and survive. Ida’s wrath left nearly one million people without power, with damage to their homes and disruption to their lives. While Louisiana endured Ida’s impact, the state’s heart did not ache unnoticed – catching the compassionate eye of Rickles, over 400 miles away.

Home to a rich melting pot of French, French-Canadian, African and American influences, The Bayou State’s diverse and unique Creole and Cajun cultures abound throughout its vibrant cities, one of its most notable destinations manifesting in New Orleans. From its quaint French Quarter bustling with jazz, to its boisterous annual Mardi Gras celebration, to the mouth-watering flavors simmering from some of the South’s favorite foods, New Orleans entices thousands of visitors each year. Since childhood, Rickles harbored an immense fascination for the city and Louisiana, visiting distant relatives and treasuring the other-worldly essence New Orleans captures.

“New Orleans is very much like going to a different country to me,” said Rickles. “I’ve always loved the music and the culture…it allows people to express themselves in many ways. Around the country, you can’t really do that because it’s not embraced and accepted. I’ve always loved going down there and seeing everyone be themselves, try new things and eat new foods.”

Rickles followed Ida’s effect on New Orleans and Louisiana overall, watching as families statewide collected broken pieces and rebuilt their livelihoods. Inspired to assist however possible, Rickles phoned her relatives in The Pelican State, asking if they knew anyone in immediate need.

A certain family came straight to mind.

Nestled in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans resides LaPlace, the home of Brooke and Chase Bazile and their two-year-old daughter. Brooke serves as a social worker alongside one of Rickles’ relatives, while Chase works as an auto-mechanic body technician. When Ida traveled inland, the Baziles’ home bore the consequences, leaving the family with flood damage and a roof requiring repair. Their daughter’s bed and their clothing were lost in the storm.

Rickles contacted her Key Club Sponsor Krista Ashley and discussed methods of help for the Baziles. After brainstorming potential fundraising options, the club determined to host “Nickels for New Orleans,” a coin drive dedicated to aiding the Baziles with hurricane relief. Rickles and her peers stood outside during morning and afternoon carlines at Gadsden City, with those who drove by offering available change and additional donations. In just four days, the drive generated close to $1,000 – concluding its fundraiser at $1,047.60.

“We as people in our community, it’s our responsibility to help,” said Rickles, sharing how the fundraiser represents an opportunity to answer the call when it resounds. “When we’re down, we expect [others] to help us. I think having a community that’s together and loves one another is very important.”

Rickles emphasized that while the Baziles live hours from Gadsden, the situation mirrors those unforeseen circumstances of life that can affect anyone, anywhere. She hoped that the coin drive could emerge as a catalyst for the community to serve one another, influencing others to help when they recognize a need, regardless of the location. She witnessed firsthand the unity the fundraiser produced, with the school system, parents, administrators and students all willing to contribute, proving instrumental in its success.

“I’ve always felt kind of in a bubble in Gadsden,” said Rickles, discussing what she learned throughout this process. “I love my hometown and I’ll always love it here. However, I’ve always felt different…like no one else is going to care about this issue or there aren’t people in the community that really care. I’ve learned that people do care. I’ve learned how much other people want to help as well. If you have conversations with people and build relationships with people and just talk to them, they’re going [to relate]. Experiences you’ve gone through…there are so many people who have done the same thing.”

As an outgoing, passionate and determined person, the fundraiser serves as one example of Rickles’ dedicated efforts to better her community and those around her. While people might comment on her age in regard to her philanthropic nature, she believes that age is truly but a number; no one is too young to make a difference.

“If there is something I want to see happen, I’m going to go for it and I’m going to work as hard as I can for it,” said Rickles. “I’m confident in what I’m doing with this, with life, with my conversations with people and my relationships with people. If you work hard at something and you really believe in it, age doesn’t matter. If you feel something on your heart when you’re young, do it. Go for it.”

While Rickles’ older sister worked in Washington with U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt and attends Auburn University (the same alma mater as her parents), Rickles maintains an open mind when envisioning her post-high school career. Although she enjoys the thought of furthering tradition by attending AU, Rickles understands the importance of broadening her perspective, investigating other collegiate options such as the University of Colorado at Boulder. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue a degree in law and maybe even travel a little further south to New Orleans – practicing a profession where her empathetic and committed character can flourish, in a city so dear to her heart.

But for now, Rickles establishes herself in Gadsden, understanding the value abounding in her hometown and appreciating the people responsible for fostering compassion community-wide – following in their footsteps while trailblazing a path of her own.

“I’m very grateful for Gadsden City as a whole,” said Rickles. “Not only with the fundraiser, but with the support they’ve given us through counselors and teachers. It isn’t just me [who made this happen]. I can’t stress that enough. I have people surrounding me who work really hard as well and I’ve been really grateful. To the parents of the community, I want to say thank you for your donations and your help. To my peers, we would love your help and your support. Even if you’re not donating – come out and help us and get involved. Together, we are the Titans.”

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