Two women hugging in front of a car parked on the side of a street.

Anderson County High School science teacher Sharon Sutherland (right) drove four hours to donate her a car to, Rebecca Marsala (left), a survivor of the December 2021 tornadoes in western Kentucky. Photo by Graves County Sherriff’s Department.

Around 3:00 in the morning, a few days before Christmas, Sharon Sutherland woke up with a crystal-clear thought – she needed to take her car to Mayfield.

Sutherland, a science teacher at Anderson County High School (ACHS), had been struggling with what to do with her old 2004 Dodge Stratus for a while when this idea popped into her mind. Like many other Kentuckians, Sutherland had watched the damage caused by tornadoes across western Kentucky Dec. 10 and 11 unfold on social media and news coverage.

“I went back to sleep and woke up the next morning and mentioned my idea to my husband. I told him he was going to think I was crazy. But once I told him the idea, he said, ‘I think that’s pretty awesome’,” said Sutherland.

Her school district helped to put her in contact with Graves County Sheriff Jon Hayden. She called him on his personal cell phone and told him her idea. The next day Hayden called her back saying he knew the perfect person, Rebecca Marsala.

“She worked at the candle factory and was trapped under a concrete wall for five hours. She had lost everything. She had come into the sheriff’s office looking for her purse,” said Sutherland. “I told him that if he thought that was the best thing to do, then that’s what we were going to do.”

As she headed to Louisiana on Dec 26 for a girls’ trip with her daughter, Sutherland made a pit stop in Mayfield to drop off the car. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing as she drove into town.

“When my daughter and I got off the interstate, I drove in with my chin in my lap,” she said. “I’ve seen tornado damage before, and I’ve seen hurricane damage; I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I told my husband, it’s like somebody went through with a giant weedwhacker and cut everything down.”

Sutherland and her daughter met Hayden and Marsala at the CVS near what used to be the sheriff’s office to give them the car and the title.

She said she didn’t donate the car to be a role model or to get recognition, but because it felt like the right thing to do.

“The story is not about me. The story is about Mayfield and Dawson Springs and Bowling Green,” said Sutherland. “The story is the resiliency and what these people are dealing with.”

Anderson County Schools were significantly involved in the tornado relief efforts. Jerilyn Hanks, a guidance counselor at ACHS, immediately started to organize collecting donations of essential supplies for students and their families in the Graves County Schools and Mayfield Independent Schools.

As Christmas neared, Hanks and Anderson County Schools shifted their efforts to bringing joy to the children affected and collected over 1,000 toys with their “Toys for Joy” donation drive.

Anderson County Schools Superintendent Sheila Mitchell believes school communities led the way in tornado recovery efforts because of a genuine desire to support and care about public education across the Commonwealth.

“It’s a combination of things. First, it’s a genuine heart for students and families. That’s at the heart of all,” said Mitchell. “Second, when you are in the profession and you understand how hard it is for public education right now, and then something this devasting happens, your heart truly does break for others that are struggling. When kids and their families are in need, we are going to help.”