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Snow storm no match for these warm hearts

Snow storm no match for these warm hearts
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Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 9:50pm

(CNN) -- In the South, hospitality is the norm. Of course people were going to help each other when thousands of Atlanta-area residents got trapped in Tuesday's monster snow jam.

But volunteering to stay up all night connecting people who need help with those providing it via Facebook? Spending six hours transporting school children home two or three at a time -- on your birthday? Walking six miles to comfort a daughter stuck at school?

These stories, most of which first appeared on the Snowed Out Atlanta Facebook page, shouldn't surprise anyone, but they reinforce the reality that there are people in this world who will literally do anything for a stranger just because it feels right.

Do unto others

Derrick Cody is 25, a student and the youngest of 10 children. He knows a little bit about hard work. He and his co-worker were running the desk at the Fairfield Inn near Permiter Mall in suburban Atlanta when people began seeking shelter in the hotel lobby, having nowhere else to go.

Several people claimed other hotels had turned them away.

"In the hospitality industry, work ethics is important," Cody said. "But so is moral ethics."

His hotel was at capacity, but he knew people needed help.

After providing bedding, food and phone chargers to the 20 stranded people, Cody walked about three miles roundtrip at 4 a.m. to Saint Joseph's Hospital to get heart medication for a man who had recently undergone heart surgery. The man's wife had been unable to fill his prescription before the storm, nearby pharmacies were closed, the hospital was not able to deliver the medication and taxis were unable to reach the hotel.

Another woman wrote about Cody's act of generosity on the Success Stories of Snowed Out Atlanta Facebook page. Cody told CNN he just wants to follow in his dad's footsteps of giving back to the community. His father is a pastor.

When he spoke with CNN by phone Thursday afternoon, Cody still hadn't been home. He is currently studying to become a medical assistant with the goal of becoming a nurse.

"I was raised by two parents that worked hard," he said. "They gave us proper training. We're well disciplined."

Keeping promises

In northwest Georgia, plumber Joe Keller has no idea how many trips he made from Dugan Elementary to various parts of Paulding County west of downtown Atlanta. What he does know is that he was going to keep his promise to do what he said he would do -- to get everyone home -- even if it was his birthday.

In his Chevrolet pickup truck, Keller and his two sons, ages 13 and 3, spent at least six hours transporting more than 100 students and staff.

Once Keller reached the homes, his 13-year-old son would walk the children to the front door to make sure someone was there waiting.

In addition to the students and staff, Keller also picked up stragglers on the roadside, especially those walking with children.

After finishing at midnight Keller finally got a birthday present of sorts when he and his son went to "play in the snow."

"We did what country boys do when it snows," he said with a laugh.

The Kellers finally made it home around 2 a.m.

On Wednesday he made the rounds again, checking to be sure everyone was okay.

In a Facebook post teacher Lindsay Elkins said Coach Joe Keller is #notyouraverageJoe. He brushed off the praise.

"The principal and teachers are the ones that need all the attention," Keller said when reached by phone at work on Thursday. "They kept the kids organized and calm. Made sure they were fed and had water."

Importance of connection

Marietta mom Michelle Sollicito created the now-infamous "Snowed Out Atlanta" Facebook pages that connected people in need with those who could help in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

The working mother of two is the administrator of a Facebook page for more than 200 Marietta moms. They had been chatting with each other trying to organize transportation for their children and locating family members. She says she realized the situation had gone from bad to a crisis when school buses full of children couldn't be located.

"The children weren't where they were supposed to be," she said. "That scared me. That's terrifying."

The main Snowed Out Atlanta page was born in the early afternoon hours Tuesday, before Atlanta's emergency operations center opened, she said. By 5 p.m. the page had exceeded 5,000 members and had been providing assistance for hours, she said.

She especially remembers an awkward but desperate post from a husband looking for his 8-month-pregnant wife and their 3-year-old son. A volunteer named Craig eventually located the pair and was able to get them home -- at 5 a.m. Wednesday.

"I just walked in the door after 16 hours," the woman later posted. "Me and my boy and the baby are safe and sound. I can't even begin to express my gratitude for this large group of people, most of whom I've never met. Not once during our journey did I feel alone."

Sollicito says the success is partly due to people having chargers in their cars and the organic way news of the pages spread through social media.

"People needed to feel connected," she said. "It helped psychologically more than anything else."

At first her husband Vincent did not understand why Michelle had such passion for her project. The next morning he found her "looking like a panda," she said. She'd stayed up all night crying.

"Every minute someone was reaching out," she said, at one point handling 300 posts and requests in a 15-minute time frame. By Wednesday morning the group had grown to roughly 40,000 members.

A representative from Facebook contacted her, telling her they'd never seen a group grow so fast. They advised her to branch out into smaller groups because they couldn't guarantee her site wouldn't go down.

The pages are now closed. The emergency is over. When asked what she plans to do next, Sollicito says in addition to preparing for the next storm, she's been approached by the Red Cross and Facebook's Disaster Relief group.

A lesson learned

Zach Haedt and Sam Traquina, both in their 20s, were enjoying a quiet afternoon in the clubhouse of their apartment complex. A hilltop view provided the perfect vantage point of the traffic mess forming at the intersection of interstates 285 and 75 outside downtown Atlanta.

They had the idea to walk among the stopped cars and give away free hot chocolate, Haedt said. And then, Haedt said, "We became kind of addicted to helping people."

He says everywhere the pair looked they saw groups pushing vehicles to safety, numerous acts of people helping each other.

They talked and comforted drivers, listened to stories and gave directions. Eventually they wound up providing seven people with shelter overnight, Haedt said. He and Traquina feel as if the experience changed them.

Haedt's wife, Mary Beth, was unable to get home that night but could hear the excitement in his voice when they spoke by phone.

They realize their actions were not much different than ones that played out across the region that night.

Lots of people just wanted to talk, Haedt said. "And we just wanted everyone to get home safe."

Thanks, Dad

Kindergartener Elizabeth Nilson was among thousands of students who had to spend the night at school on Tuesday. Only her dad, Mark Nilson, decided to walk six miles with a blanket from home, to spend the night with her.

The pair was interviewed by CNN affiliate CBS Atlanta.

Although we don't know how many other parents performed similar feats, we do know if a person is going to be hero, it's probably best to start at home.

Bonus: A Birmingham, Alabama, doctor walked roughly six miles in the snow when he was called for emergency brain surgery at another hospital but had no other way of getting there. The doctor was interviewed Thursday on AC360.
 

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