Few in Kentucky were sleeping during the early morning hours of Saturday, Dec. 11, after powerful tornadoes raked the western half of state, leveling communities and killing dozens, with the potential for more carnage overnight.
Just outside Louisville, a few hours northeast of most of the devastation, one of those watching in horror was Brandy Hay.
“We stayed up late because it was all over the news,” she said. “The warnings turned to watches around 1 a.m., but by then, all the stories and pictures were coming in from Mayfield and Bowling Green. And I couldn’t turn it off.”
The next day, Hay delicately fielded questions from her boys, 7-year-old Jack and 6-year-old Mason. What had happened to all those people’s houses? Could a tornado hit here?
Inside, she was wrestling with a bigger question – a familiar one in her busy life, and growing louder by the minute: How was she going to help? This was quite literally her territory. As Horizon’s specialty account manager for ophthalmology for most of Kentucky and part of southern Indiana, Hay had been driving every four to six weeks to some of these towns – including Mayfield, where 22 people were killed – to grow relationships with health care providers.
“I was trying to Google photos of the street of the office I visit in Mayfield, to see if it was still there,” she said. “I messaged one of my doctors in Murray, and I said, ‘Are you guys safe?’ And he said, ‘We are, but we don’t have any power, and I don’t know about anybody else – we haven’t heard.’ And that hit me really hard: There were people who had lost everything.”
Hay’s eventual answer for that – thousands of dollars collected and matched for Mayfield-area tornado victims – led to her being recognized as Horizon’s Ember Meadows Award winner in mid-February. The award was created in 2017 in memory of Ember Meadows, a Horizon sales manager from Ohio who died the previous year, and is given annually to an employee who exemplifies Meadows’ spirit of community support and volunteering. Hay received three separate nominations from co-workers, all referencing her tornado relief efforts.
However, this wasn’t her first disaster response. Back in 2017, when Category 4 Hurricane Harvey left portions of the greater Houston area underwater, Hay – a loyal Texas native – teamed with an old friend to send three semi-trailers full of purchased emergency supplies from Louisville. It was an admittedly massive undertakin
“We asked the trucking company, ‘If we get the supplies, can you take trucks there?’ And they said yes,” recalled Hay, who blew out her back during the project. “I coordinated with a bunch of different businesses, asking, ‘Would you donate $500?’ Then I’d take it to Costco and buy $500 worth of baby formula. I was able to do that over and over and over again with different businesses and the community outpouring. We also had spots set up for people to drop stuff off – diapers, canned goods.”
Would the same approach work for tornado-ravaged western Kentucky?
Two days after the storms, that’s how it began. Hay contacted a friend with a landscaping business who was already planning to take supplies to the Mayfield and Murray areas, then began asking friends for Venmo donations with the intent of again buying in bulk. But this time, the strategy felt off-target. Tornado victims who had lost their homes didn’t need her sending in pallets of toilet paper or formula; plenty of other Good Samaritans seemed to have that covered. What was needed more than anything was money to start piecing lives back together.
And then it hit her: Horizon matches employee donations to eligible nonprofits and charities, up to $1,000 per employee per calendar year. She could gather money from people she knew, donate it to a local organization, request Horizon matches and effectively double her impact. The trick would be finding that local organization in a largely rural area, with assurance that whatever was donated would go directly to tornado victims.
“This one organization kept coming up on Google and in YourCause: the Annie Gardner Foundation in Mayfield,” Hay said. “I called and got a busy signal, and at first I thought the place wasn’t legit. I called another place in Mayfield – same thing. Well, of course, all the phone lines are down. They all got wiped away. That’s why I was getting a busy signal. I realized even more then that I couldn’t stop.”
Once I set my mind to something, I do it 150%. I can’t help it. I can’t turn it off.—BRANDY HAY
Searching Facebook, Hay came across a post from a woman in Oklahoma asking for relief donations to Annie Gardner on behalf of her mother, a foundation employee. Within minutes, she was speaking with the mother, who handed her cellphone to the foundation’s executive director.
“As we spoke, I could hear her handing out relief boxes to people in the background,” Hay said. “I explained everything to her, and she started crying. I said I hadn’t been sure if they were legit. She said, ‘Honey, we’ve been around for over 80 years, and we are grassroots. The money goes directly to the victims.’ It was exactly where I wanted to donate.”
Forwarding money to the foundation as it poured in from family and friends, Hay, with help of colleagues and Horizon’s donation matching program, raised more than $5,000. Every bit will help as Annie Gardner, an organization committed to assisting lower-income families and the homeless, addresses a sudden increase in both.
“This tornado wiped everything out,” Hay said. “So, during the rebuilding process, a lot of the money we donated has gone toward rents and mortgage payments to help people get back on their feet. Even though they don’t have a house, they still have a mortgage. It’s not like that just goes away.”
Just like that voice in the back of Hay’s mind – that instinct to jump in and help. To see suffering and do something.
She already has pledged her Ember Meadows prize – a meaningful donation from Horizon to a charity of her choice – to Refuge for Women Kentucky, which provides safehouses and resources for victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
A few weeks ago, she was driving through a Walmart parking lot looking for a charity dropoff box when she noticed a man in his 20s or 30s who was obviously living out of his car. Their eyes met. The expression on his face haunted her. That Sunday, her sons happened to pack kits for the homeless as a youth activity at church. Was it some kind of sign? A message? It sure felt like it.
Figuring the man might work nearby, Hay found herself returning to the parking lot day after day hoping to see him again. Maybe she could get him a hotel room for a month, or arrange help from the Louisville community, or even from Horizon.
“Last night,” she said, “on our way home from getting ice cream, my husband asked, ‘Do you want to drive by there again?’ So we did, but he wasn’t there.”
She’ll keep trying. And if not this man, then someone else. Probably many someones.
“That’s just kind of how I am,” she said. “Once I set my mind to something, I do it 150%. I can’t help it. I can’t turn it off. I know it’ll never go away. And I don’t want it to go away, you know?”