Alabama Adventures: Caving with the Birmingham Grotto

By Sydney Cromwell

When life is feeling stale and you need a break in your routine, the Magic City delivers. From 14,000 feet in the air to hundreds of feet under ground, we found the best adventures in the Birmingham area. This is part two in a six-part series.

Bradley Jones in Bryant Cave

Grotto member Bradley Jones explores Bryant Cave.

Birmingham Grotto
Meets second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.
Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, 1214 81st St. S.
Dues: $15 per person or $20 per family annually

There’s no need to be scared of the dark; bring a headlamp and discover an exotic world deep under the Alabama soil. Many people will never see these caves, but the cavers of the Birmingham Grotto are dedicated both to exploring them and preserving them for the future.

Fennigan Spencer, the Grotto president, said the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia region is rich with thousands of caves that people flock to from across the world. These caves contain their own fragile ecosystems of shimmering stalactites, bats, salamanders and fish that will never see daylight.

The Grotto is part of the National Speleological Society – from which we get the word “spelunking” – and was created in 1958. There are now around 100 members who attend meetings and take part in group trips. The Grotto organizes one large caving trip per month, with members planning smaller trips all the time.

“A grotto is more about the fellowship than anything,” Spencer said. “In a sense it’s a family that works together.”

There are different caves to suit different tastes: vertical caves that require rappelling, tight spaces to squeeze through, easy walking or crawling caves and underwater pools large enough to swim or float a raft. Spencer emphasized that personal fears should not get in the way; he’s a lifelong caver despite being both claustrophobic and scared of heights.

There is an element of danger to caving, which is why Spencer recommends joining the Grotto. Members have access to proper equipment and training, as well as experienced friends to help them find the safest – and most beautiful – paths through a cave.

“The thing about a cave – especially the extreme ones but all of them, really – from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave, you think of nothing else but caving,” Spencer said. “Because if you don’t think about that next step and only that next step, you’re going to get hurt.”

Since the Grotto keeps most of its locations secret as part of its conservation efforts, cavers who go it alone will also never see many of the caverns right under their feet. It’s a mental and physical challenge, but venturing into a hole in the ground can be a rewarding experience for those who give it a try.

Ruffner Mountain: a close escape for Birmingham


When the hustle and bustle of city life becomes too much, there’s always Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.

Just ten minutes from downtown Birmingham, Ruffner Mountain, Alabama’s oldest nature center, is one of the largest urban nature centers in the United States. But despite its convenient proximity, Ruffner Mountain offers all the seclusion one could demand from a park.

In addition to seclusion, the certified wildlife preserve also affords visitors 12 miles of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty. The trails also give hikers a peek into Birmingham’s history, as they bypass the sites of the iron mines used to craft Sloss Furnaces.

Ken Sransky, a native of Trussville, Ala., first came to Ruffner Mountain with his son Jamie to birdwatch. Today, he’s visiting because the park is hosting a special event – a birthday party for his 10-year-old grandson Sam and his Boy Scout troop.

“My son Jamie is an artist and an architect,” Sransky says. “He likes to get the kids outside so they don’t watch television all the time.”

Sam, his troop and most of his classmates are unavailable for comment. They’re on a scavenger hunt with one of the park’s rangers – one of the many events Ruffner Mountain provides.

One of Sransky’s favorite aspects of Ruffner Mountain is its proximity to downtown.

“I’m from Trussville, so it’s really nice having something so close,” he says. “It’s very peaceful.”

His wife, Patty, seconds his opinion.

“I love it here,” she says.

Taylor Hicks: a Southern sound

Taylor Hicks

Taylor Hicks started singing before he could walk.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Hicks bought himself a harmonica at a local flea market when he was 16 years old and taught himself to play. He then taught himself guitar, then the organ and eventually began writing songs.

“Music is the common thread for me being an entertainer,” Hicks said.

His love for music and entertaining took him to Las Vegas in October of 2005 to audition for “American Idol.” With his enormous talent and the support of his hometown, as well as the entire nation, he went on to win the fifth season of “American Idol.”

“A lot of people love watching their hometown folks do well,” Hicks said. “When you get that opportunity you try to make the most of it and I’m very lucky to have that kind of support from my hometown.”

His childhood in Birmingham played an important role in the development of Hicks’ musical abilities. “I think growing up in Birmingham and being in the heart of Dixie, you pick up a lot of musical styles,” he said. With the influence of delta blues, gospel and country, Hicks had the opportunity to explore and learn about several genres. He also had the support of his family and friends. “Growing up in Birmingham, there were so many people who were supportive of me and my music,” Hicks said.

Even while making huge jumps in his entertainment career, Hicks still finds time to stay involved with the community of Birmingham. “I try to see my hometown people as much as I can,” he said.

Hicks is also the owner of Saw’s Juke Joint, an establishment that brings together great music and tasty BBQ. Saw’s Juke Joint is located in Mountain Brook and often features live music.

“I’m very thrilled to be a part of Saw’s Juke Joint,” Hicks said. “It’s a really neat thing to be a part of, because I think I’m hungry all the time.” Hicks enjoys throwing around culinary ideas for Saw’s and strives to stay involved with the musical end.

Hicks’s recommends that every newcomer to Birmingham catch a Baron’s game at the new field, get a beer and eat a hotdog. “Eat and watch baseball: the American pastime,” he said.

He also encourages visitors and natives alike to take advantage of the amazing food and atmosphere Birmingham has to offer. “We’ve come so far, as far as industry, the culinary arts and entertainment,” Hicks said.

Hicks’ personal favorite food spot: Sexton’s Seafood. “My family loves to go over to Sexton’s and get fresh fish so we can grill it,” he said. “Their crab dip is really good, too.”

In the end, it all comes down to faith for Hicks. “You have to have your ducks in a row upstairs as much as you have to have them in a row downstairs for you to gain a big break,” Hicks said. “I think God has carved out a path for me to be an entertainer.”

Hicks never hesitates to share where he came from. “I’m very blessed to be an Alabamian and even more blessed to be from Birmingham.”

By Abby Colella

Kara Young: a singer who doesn’t want to be famous


Kara Young poses for her new CD cover.

She has been singing for years and recently debuted her new CD, yet Kara Young has no desire to become famous.

Growing up in a family that sings together as a hobby, Young has always considered music to be part of her life. “I always tell people I started singing in the womb, but I really don’t remember the exact time I started singing,” Young said.

She began taking guitar lessons in eighth grade and was soon asked to lead worship for an event in her hometown of Tupelo, Miss. “I definitely loved the Lord and I loved music, so it made sense, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at first,” Young said.

However, that changed the summer before her tenth grade year of high school when she was asked to lead worship regularly for her church youth group. “I felt very inadequate,” she said. Recognizing that it was much more than simply singing, she thought other people had more talents than she did and would be better equipped.

“Knowing how to follow the Spirit and lead a congregation is so much more than performing a concert,” Young said. Even with all of these doubts, she felt called to lead and told her youth pastor, “I don’t want to, but I will.” Since then, multiple doors have opened and Young has been given the opportunity to sing for thousands of people.

During her senior year of high school she debuted an EP called “Take A Stand” with five original songs and one hymn. In the fall of 2013 she released her first full-length album titled “Familiarity”, which she describes as chapter two of her story. The songs on her new album follow her journey as she leaves home, begins life as a student at Samford University, struggles with picking a major and each new season that comes along the way.

Although she now has two CDs out and leads worship regularly, her goal has remained the same through the entire process.

“Ultimately, my goal is not to be a famous Christian singer,” Young said. “My goal is not to be well-known.” Instead, her “main goal is to open my heart and use the light of Jesus and allow myself to be a vessel for Him to reach others and lead others to a state of worship through the gifts He has given me.”

As she continues to take opportunities to sing, her mind-set remains that her talent is a gift. “It’s not about performing and it’s not about the songs and the vocals. He gave me a heart and a passion for leading the Body of Christ in a state of worship through the gift of music.”

Young currently works at a church in Birmingham by leading retreats and worship services on the weekend. She founded Let It Shine Ministries and continues to write and sing music while working through her ministry.

Kara Young’s music is available on iTunes and CDBaby. To keep up with her, visit her Facebook page.

By Kaitlyn Bouchillon

Photography by Elizabeth Bacon

Samford student spends semester as missionary

Photos courtesy of Alex Wolf

Samford senior graphic design major Alex Wolf said, “For people considering a semester studying abroad or doing missions abroad, there should be no considering. Just doing.”

Wolf spent January to June of 2013 as a missionary in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the International Mission Board. Her official title of storyteller meant she used her gifts and knowledge of video editing, design and publishing to “tell the stories of the Lord’s work among the people of South Africa.”

While her 9-to-5 office job kept her plenty busy, Wolf devoted all of her free time to the many ministry needs in urban Johannesburg. She met with prostitutes, worked in orphanages, led a bible study for teenage girls and played basketball with South African boys.

“I knew what my job would be like, but the ministry I did in the afternoons and on the weekends is what became so important to me. I just never thought I would love it as much as I did. I could have chosen to do the minimum, but I chose to do every single thing I could get my hands on. I couldn’t be happier that I chose that,” Wolf said.


Wolf said that getting to Africa wasn’t easy, but now she can’t imagine her life had she not gone.

“Just weeks before I remember thinking, ‘Why in the world did I sign up to move to Africa with no one I know?’ I was so nervous, but when I got over there, I loved it. It’s hard, but once you fall into the pace of things, it’s hard to come home.”

Wolf said her transition back into life post-Africa has not always been easy. After living with people generationally effected by HIV, girls forced into prostitution and toddlers without parents, Wolf said it is hard knowing that those people are still there while she is here.

“[Being away from Johannesburg] is sometimes really hard to bear, but I’m learning that while I can’t be there right now, my prayers are absolutely more powerful than my presence.”


For more on Wolf’s experience, visit her blog at

Annual Halloween festival unites artists of Montevallo, Ala.

Artists, musicians and dancers gathered last Saturday afternoon in Montevallo, Ala. for the third annual ArtStalk.

The Halloween-themed event, hosted by the City and University of Montevallo and the Montevallo Arts Council, dominated Main Street in the small suburb just 30 miles from downtown Birmingham. Its festivities included a performance by the Birmingham Ballet, fire dancers and a costume contest, according to its official website.

Brandon Mans, a junior graphic design student at the University of Montevallo and self-proclaimed Jedi killer, came not only to participate in the contest but also to enjoy his town’s unique culture.

“It’s great for families or for people who just want to derp [sic] around by themselves,” Mans said.

Artist and participant Andrew Cost agreed, saying he loved ArtStalk because it brought culture to the community and gave him a chance to participate with his fellow artists. ArtStalk also lets him celebrate his heritage. Cost grew up watching his father, an artist, and sought to follow in his footsteps.

“I’ve always been in the business,” he said. “It’s part of who I am.”

Sitting at an adjacent booth, Nathan Harper, a sophomore art student at the University of Montevallo and native of Florence, Ala., shared a similar childhood love for art.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always loved to draw with crayons,” he said. “I figured, ‘Why not make a career from it?’”

Seventeen-year-old Ivey Vinson, dressed in a bloodied warrior costume, also fell in love with art as a child. ArtStalk gives her an inexpensive way to share her art, she said, showing off earrings in the shapes of eyeballs, pizza slices and bacon.

“Things on Etsy are so expensive,” she said. “I like making cute and cuddly jewelry that’s inexpensive.”

Some artists, however, were slightly more serious. One of those was Jason Jeffcoat, a recent graduate and freelancer showing off his supernova collection. Jeffcoat’s pieces began in simplistic black-and-white and slowly transitioned into vibrancy. These were representative of real-life supernovas, Jeffcoat said.

Each piece also employed a special line-drawing technique, which Jeffcoat said is also representative of a supernova.

“Supernovas take millions of years to form,” he said. “These paintings also take a long time, about 48 hours each.”

Kily Payne, another recent graduate of the University of Montevallo, was displaying his “Open Door” exhibition, which was created by piecing various photographs together in Adobe Photoshop. He drew inspiration from his optimistic view of the future.
“You don’t know what’s on the other side,” he said. “So by opening up, you get to see what the future holds.”

The future had some unexpected twists and turns for fellow participant Bryan Crowson. Crowson, whose 27-year journalism career was cut short by a layoff, took up art as a second career. So far, he’s had some financial success, but there’s still room to grow, he said.

“I’m still learning myself, but I’m doing what I enjoy,” he said. “And what I enjoy is doing work that makes other people happy.”

By Jonathan Adams

Falling into The Pepper Place Market


Crisp autumn air finally crossed the borders of Birmingham, which means everyone can officially start enjoying all things fall.

The Pepper Place Market on 2nd Avenue South offers seasonal goods for those who want to experience the farm but are stuck in the city.

Family farm vendors from just a few miles outside of the city set up every Saturday from mid-April to mid-December to offer produce, greenery, bread, jams, pastries and hand-crafted accessories.

The Saturday market started up in 2000 with the purpose of helping family farms connect with and sell to Birmingham residents. Since then, the market has developed into a large community of more than 100 tents in the downtown Birmingham lot with thousands of customers arriving each Saturday.

“Good people selling good food. Pepper Place gives a sense of community and quaintness to Birmingham’s industrial stereotype,” Samford student Christine Carrier said.

Saturday, Oct. 26, is the third annual Pumpkin Carving Contest featuring three St. Vincent’s surgeons and three local chefs.

So ‘tis the season for a cup of warm apple cider, a freshly-carved pumpkin on your doorstep and a few homemade jams for all of those seasonal recipes. You can find all of this and more at The Pepper Place Market, where the fall market is now in full swing.

For more information about The Pepper Place Market, go to

By Rebekah Robinson

New LightRails underpass adds life to downtown

Downtown Birmingham now features an LED-lighted tunnel.The tunnel can be found at the 18th Street underpass on the east side of Railroad Park.

But this tunnel isn’t just a bunch of lights and a few hundred tons of concrete. It is actually a light sculpture called LightRails by artist Bill FitzGibbons. The computerized LED lights morph from one color to the next in a seemingly supernatural way- creating a life-like color show that will capture any observer.

Junior JMC major Taylor Vassey was amazed by the new addition. “I was very impressed with the design and thought put into the light tunnel,” she said.

The tunnel, finished this past June, is just another addition in Birmingham’s effort to revitalize the downtown Birmingham area. “It definitely adds more value to the city and it shows the leaders of the city are working to improve it,” Vassey said.

Sophomore JMC major Corry Mulligan said, “I had seen a lot of pictures of the tunnel, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I was blown away when I saw it for myself. I really like the fact that you can either walk or drive through the tunnel, and the way the colors change is really cool.”

While pictures and wonder-filled words from Samford students may build a respectable case, the best way to appreciate the tunnel is to go and experience it for yourself. Grab some friends, head downtown and go explore!

By Katy Flinn

Annual Greek Festival offers color, flavor

Greek Festival

Birmingham is known for being a major contributor to the beauty of the Southeast. From fried food to Southern hospitality, visitors often leave Birmingham with an appreciation of the history and comfort of a “small” big city. However, what many people have grown to love most about Birmingham is a fall event that captures the hearts of natives and visitors alike with zest and color. From September 28 – 30, people all across the Southeast came down to the 41st annual Greek Festival, eager for a plate full of chocolate baklava and Greek chicken and a night of Greek dancing and music.

The lively festival began in 1972 by the Ladies Philoptochos Society and has since become one of the most popular cultural events in Birmingham. Now hosted by the Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral on 19th street, the three-day event offers food and culture that might not be common to the south but is certainly adored. The event has a community-centered spirit to it, offering large round tables and long lines that give visitors and church members opportunity to mingle, meet, and relax together.

“The Greek Festival is an exciting and engaging way to learn more about Birmingham and its intriguing culture and history. The Greek population is quite extensive and influential in Birmingham society, and the fact is dually noted at the annual festival,” Birmingham-area native and local college student Courtney Bell said.

“Amazing food, entertaining dancers, and a tour of the chapel were enough to have me saying ‘OPA!’ It was not my first time to attend nor will it be my last.”

By Rebekah Robinson

3 women

The Lovelady Center

Story and photos by Leah Jane Henderson

Starting over and getting back on your feet is anything but simple. The women residing in the Lovelady Center bear first-hand knowledge that the next chapter of their lives entails seeking relief from adversity.
3 women

Despite facing adversities, women at the Lovelady Center still find reasons to smile.

Sitting at the corner of 79th Street and Second Avenue South, the Lovelady Center serves the community by providing shelter and assistance to women and children.

The Foundation

The shelter offers a life-changing program with the goal of providing tools necessary to overcome obstacles and start over. Many of the residents were homeless at one point or have been released from prison and are unable to provide for themselves or their family.

The nine- to 12-month program is designed to rebuild lives and give hope to the 378 women and approximately 100 children currently residing at the shelter.

Basic care includes housing, clothing, medical care and hygienic products. The staff provides nearly 1,200 meals daily. In-house psychologists provide counseling for substance abuse and drug rehabilitation.

Available transportation is provided for work, school and doctor appointments, as well as the in-house KidZone daycare center open to the public.

The center partners with Jefferson State Community College and Tennessee Temple University for women to gain higher education and job skills.

The Workforce Development Program trains them to find sustainable jobs for a more hopeful future.

Jennifer White is one of many graduates that have advanced to working on staff.

“If it weren’t for this place I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I am now. I thank God every day for showing me this place. It really is amazing,” White said.

In the Beginning

Brenda Spahn possessed determination and a huge heart when she single-handedly began what is now one of the most thriving shelters in Birmingham. Five women inhabited Brenda’s home and quickly became 40 after local press coverage. The shelter opened in 2004 and currently holds a plethora of mothers and aunts, daughters and wives.

Because of a lack of state or federal funding, the center relies predominantly on donations. Bright pink donations bins are planted on the sidewalk. They accept clothing, linens, baby items, and small appliances. Food donations, volunteer work and tutors are also essential segments of the center’s success.

Road to Success

The Lovelady Center is no day camp when it comes to the requirements that serve as the foundation for advancing toward graduation.

Every occupant and visitor must sign in and out at the front desk, residents must complete drug tests upon return from any outing and curfews are stricly enforced.

b miller

Outreach coordinator, Bonnie Miller (middle), oversees rules and regulations that provide an environment for success.

Outreach coordinator Bonnie Miller administers the stern policies that are monitored by all staff members.

“It’s strict. There are mandatory church services and mandatory devotions. You have to take a certain number of classes, no rated R movies or secular music. It is strict, but there is a lot of structure,” Miller said.

The women have an option to participate in work contracts associated with the shelter. Businesses include Dunkin’ Donuts, Piggly Wiggly, the Blackwell House and the Lovelady Thrift Store.

Rent costs $150 per month and covers room and board, transportation, classes and meals. A total of 20 credits are required for graduation and departure. Twenty to 25 women are taken in each week including repeated returns.

“If someone transitions out and they feel they’re about to stumble, or even if they do mess up, they know they can come back. They always have a place to stay,” Miller said.

Numerous volunteer opportunities await any who are willing to help at the center. Opportunities involve group and individual work including prayer warriors groups, room makeovers, mentors, church services, devotionals, teachers and tutors.

For more information about volunteer work and donations contact the Development Department at (205) 833-1064 or The Lovelady Center is located at 7916 Second Ave. S in Birmingham.

2 girls

Nearly 400 women of various ages currently reside at the shelter in Birmingham.