On April 27, 2011, Teresa Terrell was a school administrator stuck at Sparkman Middle School with 88 preteens. The high school and elementary schools had already let out for bad weather, so most—but not all—of the parents came to get their middle schoolers as well. And when the tornados came through, Teresa jumped into action, helping the remaining students take cover in windowless rooms. Her best friend, Glenda Reitzell, didn’t have a reason to be at the school, but she headed over just in case Teresa needed help wrangling the kids.
That day would prove to be a devastating one for the state of Alabama as tornadoes tore through the state. An EF 5 tornado ran from Mississippi to Huntsville, leaving a 90-mile path of destruction. Sixty-nine students at Sparkman Middle School lost their homes.
Sixty-nine kids with no house to go home to. Teresa started thinking about what those kids really needed to feel better.
“During this process, we saw that big churches and large agencies like the Red Cross … were providing shelter and food and those kinds of things, but the little things were not being provided by anyone. And our kids were kind of being forgotten,” Teresa said.
One by one, Teresa called the students into her office and asked them to tell her the one thing they had lost in the tornados that they miss the most. The answers were varied—a purple bike, a Green Bay Packers football, sparkly TOMS shoes, a red teddy bear with a white stomach.
Teresa and Glenda gathered donations and gift cards and set out to give all 69 children who lost their homes the one thing they wanted back. The best friends even got an autographed Green Bay Packers football to replace the non-autographed one lost in the storm.
“It was a very, very good thing to do because we were meeting some emotional needs that weren’t being met and because these were things that these children absolutely treasured. And a lot of them didn’t have a whole lot to begin with,” Teresa said.
A few months later, after Teresa retired from the school, she found herself thinking about her life—what was she doing with her retirement? What was her purpose? She remembered when she and Glenda helped Sparkman Middle School kids, how fulfilled she felt granting those wishes. That’s when she reached out to her best friend, and they formed Grace Space, a nonprofit that improves the lives of people who are struggling by providing the smaller things that often go unnoticed.
Teresa and Glenda’s friendship is one that withstands the test of time. They are both military wives who decided to retire in Huntsville even though neither of them hails from this area. And they’ve been through the ups and downs of life together—both are cancer survivors.
“We are both Christians,” Teresa said. “We are devout in our faith. We understand all too well what God’s grace is all about … He’s placed a number of challenges in our life, and one of the gifts is our friendship that we’ve had for over 35 years. That doesn’t come by easily between Army couples.”
The name Teresa and Glenda chose for their nonprofit honors a dear friend whose death made national news. Grace McRee contracted E. coli—most likely from the lettuce on her chalupa—at a local Mexican restaurant and lost her life after a fierce struggle.
“Grace understood unconditional love because she demonstrated it to everyone she encountered,” the women posted on their Facebook page. “She was a sweet spirit, with an easy smile and a warm hug, never meeting a stranger.”
Teresa and Glenda wanted to emulate that giving spirit for people who are struggling—maybe it’s an illness, maybe a rough patch of life; it doesn’t matter.
“Basically what we do is we listen to God,” Glenda said. “We set up a format for people to nominate other people who need uplifting.”
Say you know someone who works hard in a relatively thankless job—we’re looking at you caregivers. You can nominate them to get a gift basket, a spa package, a new recliner or have a part of their home redecorated. Nominees might not need financial help, but maybe they just need someone to do something nice for them.
Ladybugs and Roses
It’s the question we ask all ourselves whenever tragedy strikes: What can I do?
Grace Space exists to answer that question and to fill that need. Their first client was a family who recently lost a baby. The child had spent four months in the hospital at Vanderbilt University while doctors tried to fix a heart defect, but eventually their efforts weren’t enough. The parents were exhausted and heartbroken. The mother, a Mexican native, had only left her child’s side once during the hospitalization, and that was to drive to Atlanta to take her citizenship test.
Grace McRee’s mother asked if Teresa and Glenda would sneak into the couple’s yard and plant a rose bush as a memorial for the child.
“We always leave a little ladybug behind because Grace just had a thing for ladybugs,” Glenda explained. “(And) we … leave a sign that says, ‘You’ve been Grace Spaced.’ That’s all they know about it. They don’t know where it came from.”
It doesn’t have to be something for the home, either. Grace Space has provided everything from plane tickets to refrigerators, dinners out on the town and even a car. At first they tried to remain anonymous, even using their dogs’ names for marketing instead of their own. That didn’t work for long—people tend to be hesitant about giving money to nonprofits run by canines—so they’ve had to reveal their true identities.
They’ve even been able to help one of their friends, a mother of six biological children and several adopted children from China. One of the grown sons was struggling to make ends meet—he lived in the Lincoln Village neighborhood, and after his car died, he woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to walk almost five miles to his job at the City Cafe Diner on Drake Avenue. He couldn’t get the car fixed because all of his money was going to food and housing for his family. That’s how he was raised. You take care of your family no matter what.
Teresa and Glenda asked him what he needed to get a car, and he told them about an organization that gives cars to worthy people for $150. That’s all it took—less than most people pay for utilities in Huntsville—to save him from having to walk 10 miles a day.
Another project came after they visited Crestwood Hospital and realized the surgery waiting rooms were freezing. Grace Space collected 100 blankets for people who were waiting on loved ones.
Grace Space also took 100 Christmas throw pillows to a retirement home for the residents to decorate their rooms since you can’t exactly bring full-sized evergreens into the small living quarters.
And the list goes on and on.
“Glenda and I have both been the recipient of some great kindnesses,” Teresa said. “Our motto with Grace Space is: ‘Requiring nothing in advance, asking nothing in return.’ That’s the definition of grace. That was Grace McRee and the grace that God gives us.”
Grace Space has recently set up a booth in the Twisted Tree, a vintage market specializing in homemade goods. They make most of the things that go into the booth, and all proceeds go back to Grace Space.
If you would like more information on Grace Space, or if you have a person you’d like to nominate, contact Glenda and Teresa at [email protected] or call 256-772-9293.
You can also find them on Facebook or at the Twisted Tree on Old Madison Pike.
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