DAPHNE — Millions around the country and throughout the world are familiar with the story of Beth Holloway’s fight to get answers in the wake of the disappearance of her daughter Natalee in Aruba in 2005.
The story is one of supreme tragedy, but also one of hope that she shared at United Way of Baldwin County’s 2017 Campaign Kick Off Luncheon Thursday, Sept. 7 at the Daphne Civic Center.
“I am here because what happened to my daughter Natalee can happen to you,” she said. “It can happen to anyone, at any time, at any place and at any age. But through tragedy comes hope and when we live united in hope, good things can come of it.”
Following lunch, which was catered by Wolf Bay Lodge with cake provided by Publix, 2017 Board Chairman Christi Koehle of Wealth Solutions Group welcomed businesses and guests who came to help kickoff the 2017 campaign, later announcing that United Way had surpassed their 2016 goal of $850,000 and set a 2017 fundraising goal of $875,000.
Mike Cook of the Drug Education Council presented the invocation followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Daphne High School student Julian White of the Daphne Kappa League.
Koehle then presented awards including:
Large Company of the Year: Publix.
Small Company of the Year: Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
School of the Year: Foley High School.
School Spirit: Baldwin County High School.
United Spirit Award: County Employees.
Leading Companies: Baldwin EMC, Thompson Tractor, Riviera Utilities, Ascend Performance Materials, Regions Bank, (one missing).
“All of these have gone above and beyond in their support of United Way,” Koehle said, “and none of this would be possible without them.”
A special award was also presented for Volunteer of the Year to Wes Phillips of UTC Aerospace Systems.
“He has done so much behind the scenes without seeking acknowledgement,” said United Way Executive Director Marina Simpson, “and probably hates that we are acknowledging him today which is why we are doing just that.”
The events sponsors were also acknowledges including Gold Sponsors Ascend Performance Materials and Publix; Silver Sponsors Baldwin EMC, BancorpSouth, Bryant Bank, Centennial Bank, CenturyLink, City of Bay Minette; Haber Sod, Infirmary health, Kaiser By Wyndham; Meyer Realty, OWA, Regions Bank, Riviera Utilities, Rikard Charitable Trust, South Baldwin Regional Medical Center, South Shore Insurance Agency, The First, United Bank, UTC Aerospace Systems, Wolf Bay Lodge; Bronze Sponsors Alabama Power, Bussey Capital Management, Capstone Bank, Citizens Bank, City of Daphne, Coastal Alabama Community College, Community Senior Life, Daphne Utilities, Gruenloh & Associates P.C., Hartmann, Blackon & Kilgore CPAs, Huntingdon College Evening Bachelors Program, IBERIABANK, Law Office of Harry Still III, National Bank of Commerce, the Wharf, Tonsmeire Properties, Trustmark Bank and Windcreek Atmore.
Koehle also acknowledged the 2017 Board of Directors, Melissa Vaughn of Baldwin EMC, vice chair; Nick Wilmott of Community Health Systems, treasurer; Patrice Davis of the Baldwin County Board of Education, secretary; Patrick Bussey of Bussey Capital Management, past chair; and Board Members Vinson Bradley of Huntington College, Grant Brown, City of Gulf Shores, Tina Covington, City of Bay Minette; Chris Elliott, Baldwin County Commission; Daniel Galbraith, Tonsmeire Properties; Char Haber, Wolf Bay Lodge; Ed Hammele, Capstone Bank; Carl Jones, Baldwin Mutual Insurance; Will Murray, Publix Supermarkets; Keith Newton, South Baldwin Regional Medical Center; Wes Phillips, UTC Aerospace Systems; Harry Still III; Ben White, North Baldwin Utilities; and the 2017 Youth Board, DeAndre Atkinson, Baldwin County High; Michael Gifford, Daphne High; Bailey Jones, Fairhope High; Abigail Ketchem, Bayside Academy; Linley King, Gulf Shores High; Christy Nichols, Foley High; Lauren Terrell, Robertsdale High; Terrence Watts, Spanish Fort High.
Holloway then shared her story from the beginning of a worried parent, seeing her daughter leave on a trip following high school graduation, to hearing that her daughter was missing in Aruba, to the fight to obtain information from authorities in Aruba and different stories told by main suspect Joran van der Sloot, who was later convicted in the death of another young woman in Peru.
“We thought we had gone over all that information with (Natalee) of what not to do when visiting a foreign country,” Holloway said. “About how most people are tourists there to have a good time, but some are not. That you should never leave the group, never leave your drink unattended and never go off by yourself with a stranger. Natalie got comfortable and let her guard down. In that moment she was taken advantage of, she lost her life and it changed our lives forever.”
Through the battles for information with the government, van der Sloot, his friends and family, Holloway said she got up one morning with an overwhelming urge to pray.
In the early morning hours, she said, she went out, hailed a taxi and indicated that she needed to find a church or somewhere to pray.
“He took me down this road, stopped and motioned for me to get out,” she said. “There on the side of the road was a beautiful large white cross and I discovered that there were a row of crosses leading up to a church.”
She said she went to the cross, fell on her knees and asked God to bring her daughter back. After repeating this several times she felt an overwhelming sense of peace.
“I knew in that moment that she was with God and whatever happened to her, in that moment, she was wrapped up in the arms of God and she was with him,” Holloway said. “I am here today because in that moment, I decided that I was going to continue to get up, put one foot forward and hope that the other would follow.
“Natalee had hope. She was active in our church, in her youth group and in the community. She was an honors student. She received a scholarship to the University of Alabama and planned to go to medical school to be a doctor. I have no doubt, given the opportunity, that she would have accomplished all of those things.
“I can share her story and I thank you for hearing her story even though her story is not an easy one to hear because I can share in the knowledge that I carry her hope with me. I am so proud of groups like the United Way who do so much to help others. It is my purpose to share Natalee’s hope with others that when we live united in hope, we can accomplish anything.”