Photo: US Army veteran Michael Durham stands in the kitchen of his newly furnished home. (Courtesy of Darryl Fuhrman.)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
United States Army veteran and Gadsden resident Michael Durham was homeless and suffering from numerous health problems when he came into the care of the Lettermen of the USA.
Durham served in the US Army for eight years.
Durham enrolled in the Interiors for Heroes program, in which the Lettermen furnished his Gadsden apartment completely. After several weeks of work, Durham’s home was finished on the Fourth of July weekend.
The project comprised “everything from the flat screen television to the washer and dryer to the bed, the mattress, the linens, tiles, dish detergent [and] a full refrigerator of food,” said Lettermen president Darryl Fuhrman, who is a 1983 Southside High graduate and a former University of Alabama football player.
“All they do is bring the clothes on their back and come through the door,” Fuhrman said. “And that’s Interiors for Heroes. That’s the program that helped Michael Durham on the Fourth of July.”
The transformation of his home impacted Durham in more ways than one.
“Thank you all for everything you’ve done,” Durham said. “The Lettermen of the USA have done everything for me. They’ve changed my life.”
When Durham first came to the attention of the Lettermen, he was “one of the worst cases” Fuhrman had ever seen.
According to Fuhrman, Durham’s health and finances were suffering. He was evicted during a hospital stay and left homeless. Having lost his wife to COVID-19, Durham had almost no one and nothing. At that time, the Lettermen of the USA helped provide Durham with transitional housing.
“He really received a lot of attention from us,” Fuhrman said.
According to Fuhrman, former Auburn football player and Gadsden native Ernest Wallace was instrumental in the process of making Durham’s apartment a home.
Wallace is a 1989 graduate of Litchfield High School.
“[Durham] stays in one of the local housing units here in Gadsden,” Wallace said. “I helped the young lady move his stuff out, move a bed, living room stuff in, you know, a TV. It was really nice.”
Wallace said he enlisted the help of two young men living in the same complex.
“I said, ‘You know what? Y’all want to earn some free money?’” Wallace said. “They were like, ‘Yes sir, what do we need to do?’ I said, ‘Tell you what, help me move this furniture in here.’ And two kids I randomly just picked up helped me and the other lady move all the stuff in.”
Durham also told Wallace that he was grateful for his help.
“You know, he had a prosthetic limb,” Wallace said. “He told me he served; he was a military guy. He was a straight up dude. He kept saying that he appreciated it.”
Lettermen president Fuhrman is an old friend of Wallace’s, who said he has supported both his friend and the Lettermen of the USA “since it started.”
“Outside of him being from that other school, [Fuhrman] does a lot of great stuff,” Wallace said. “A lot of former Alabama and Auburn football players are heavily involved in it.”
Lettermen of the USA was founded and is supported by Alabama and Auburn University football alums. The program got its start in 2011, when former Alabama and Auburn players came back together from across the country to raise tornado relief funds by hosting a flag-football Iron Bowl game.
“We kind of had a saying when we started this out,” Fuhrman said. “We’re friends for 364 days out of the year, and on the 365th day we fight like hell.”
Wallace agreed and commended the collaboration that Lettermen fosters. He noted that there is more camaraderie between former players than rivalry.
“After football and stuff, you remain friends,” he said. “You remain supportive. We talk a little trash, but other than that, if somebody needs something done, a lot of Alabama and Auburn players put their skill set(s) together and they make it happen.”
Wallace said that Durham’s project was the one of the few times he had been able to assist with a project in Gadsden, expressing hopes for more local work in the future.
“That’s the first time when the guy was local and I didn’t have a problem with [work],” he said. “I wish they’d have more outreach programs like that.”
According to Fuhrman, however, Lettermen will be expanding a few of its programs soon.
Interiors for Heroes is one of its main programs, which also include Homes for Heroes, Utilities for Heroes, Wheels for Heroes, Autographs for Heroes and Laptops for Heroes.
Homes for Heroes, which aims to combat veteran homelessness, will be taking on that challenge with new approaches, Fuhrman said.
Lettermen joined forces with the Fisher House, which Fuhrman called “the Ronald McDonald house for veterans and their families,” to bring Alabama’s first Fisher House to the Birmingham area.
While that facility will not be in Etowah County, Fuhrman mentioned several local partnerships through Central Alabama Veterans Collaborative.
Anyone who wants to donate to the Lettermen of the USA or join as a volunteer can visit lotusa.org.
Pictured below are before and after photos of Michael Durham’s home. (Courtesy of Darryl Fuhrman)