Living Off the Land

For the majority of us, there’s not a lot of time spent pondering where our food comes from. It could be right down the road, or flown in from South America. That is, unless you’re the type of person who grows it right in their own back yard.

Co-Op Specialist Laura Dobbs has tapped her agrarian side to cultivate a backyard collection of southern vegetables. In the article below, written by Dobbs, she shares the story of this newly-awakened hobby.


Cultivating a Fresh Start: By Laura Dobbs

My family has had a garden plot behind the house for long time. It’s been fallow in recent years. No time, no energy, no interest.

This year, we’re back with a vengeance. It’s taking some additional work to get everything prepared. We’ve had to bring in garden soil, compost, and fertilizer. By the time we do this again next year, it will be much easier. We’re starting our own compost pile and will keep the soil conditioned.

The pictures don’t look like much, but there are four rows of bush beans and four different types of heirloom tomatoes. We’re germinating okra and will transplant seedlings soon. We’re also prepping containers to plant squash.

Towards the end of summer, when the beans have finished producing, we plan to plant collards. We’re not sure what else we’ll plant (Possibly cabbage? Butternut squash? Maybe turnips so that Mom can have turnip greens?) but we plan to keep it going.

My mother has spearheaded this effort. She’s so passionate about it. Much of what she knows, she learned from my grandfather (her father-in-law), who was an avid gardener and could grow just about anything. He fed his family, and his neighbors, all from whatever minuscule plot of land was attached to his parsonage.

What Mom doesn’t know, she fills in with homesteading blogs and YouTube channels. My sister and I provide labor.

Mom has even inspired our next-door neighbor to do the same! His approach is a bit different, but he takes his cues from her and comes to her for advice.

Pretty soon, we’ll be shelling peas on the couch while we watch a movie. We’ll can tomatoes. We’ll cut, pack, and freeze okra. She hasn’t said how she wants to preserve the squash, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.

It’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy. But, when the time comes, we’ll savor every bite.

Back to the Office

This month, SAM’s workforce has begun a gradual return to the office. While most of us remain at home, the employees in Group 1 have shared what it’s like being back after a nearly 8-week hiatus.

What Made You Choose to Go Back First?

Those in Group 1 elected to be among the first to return to the office. Mimi Hoffman, Rachel Witzel, and Ryan Nations describe why they decided to return.

A big theme was a desire for normal structure and routine.

“I was ready to get back to waking up, getting dressed, and going into the office,” Mimi said. “I feel more like myself.”

Ryan mentioned enjoying working from home, but knew at some point he would have to go back. And he figured there’s no time like the present.

What’s It Like Being Back in the Office?

“It’s very quiet, kind of like working on the weekends,” Rachel said. “Occasionally, someone will walk by, but mostly all you can hear is the A/C running and the keystrokes around you.” 

Rachel went on to say that the office has fewer distractions for her than working at home. The lack of barking dogs and delivery people helps her to stay focused. 

For Mimi, being back has brought back memories.

“It definitely makes you miss everyone else now that you’ve seen a few people,” Mimi said. “It’s a different vibe, but it’s good to have others here. Now I want to see everyone else, too!”

How Are the New Safety Measures?

To make for a healthy workplace, SAM has created a safety plan with rules and supplies for those in the office.

“I’m really glad we have the safety rules in place,” Rachel said. “The biggest adjustment is remembering to put on your mask when you leave your seat, but having the guidelines makes me feel safer.”

Ryan caught on to the changes quickly.

“It’s a pretty easy adjustment,” Ryan said. “I try not to touch too many things, and if I do, STRONG gave us our own sanitizers. What more can you do besides being put in a bubble?” 

The trio described the limits on copy room, kitchen, and bathroom capacities as easy to follow. With only a fraction of the workforce back, crowding isn’t an issue.

Advice for Those Returning Soon

Mimi, Rachel, and Ryan offered a few words of advice for team members who are planning to return in the coming weeks.

“My advice would be to come back,” Mimi said. “For me, it made life a lot easier. I have two monitors, a better computer, and more to work with. A week before I returned, I started getting up earlier to get myself back in the habit of a normal office routine.”

“Give yourself some grace if things feel a little weird for the first few days back,” Rachel said. “It can feel weird because you’re breaking what was the ‘new normal.’ The office is a lot different than the environment at your house.”

“The transition is easy, don’t stress out about it,” Ryan said reassuringly.

Right now, SAM is closely monitoring the return to the office to make sure it happens in a safe and responsible way. As more of us transition from remote to in-office workers, it helps to keep in mind the encouraging advice from those who did it first.

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A Wedding Gone Viral

There’s no shortage of events that the coronavirus crisis has affected. Everything from primary elections to the Olympics has been postponed. Though we’ve gotten used to rescheduling, there are some moments that only happen once.

Holly Brazeal Logan had spent months planning the perfect wedding for April 4, 2020. The day she returned from her bachelorette trip, she realized everything must change. Events had been limited to groups of 50 or less, so Holly and fiancé Jonathan decided to move the ceremony to Holly’s parents’ house.

“From the beginning, we felt very strongly that April 4 should be our wedding ceremony date,” Holly said. “We really didn’t want to postpone everything.”

With the help of family and friends, the Logans’ new wedding venue came to life. Twinkle lights were strung on trees, the dining room table became the head table, and shelves became silver displays. There were flowers, wedding cakes, food, and drinks. To stay under the groups-of-10 guidelines, the couple invited only immediate family members plus the Maid of Honor and Best Man.

“There were so many surprises throughout the evening, and that really made it so special,” Holly said.

The surprises included a rehearsal dinner via Zoom that nearly all of the wedding party was able to join. During the virtual dinner, Holly’s dad played a video he had made of the couple, and everyone gave their toast. On the wedding day, Jonathan’s dad surprised the couple with a retro Rolls Royce for the newlyweds to make their exit. There was also a drive-by parade lasting more than half an hour, wherein family and friends drove by the home to wave and wish the couple well. During the wedding day dinner, Holly’s dad played a video montage that had clips of more than 60 friends and family who had sent in videos to show their support and love. And at the end, Holly’s neighbors lined the streets holding sparklers as Mr. and Mrs. Logan drove away at the end of their celebration.

“Yes, it was sad to see our plans have to change,” Holly said. “But on this side of everything, I don’t feel like we lost anything. Jonathan and I gained so much and felt our friends’ and families’ love and support way more than we could have ever imagined.”

To share their day with those who couldn’t attend, the Logans live-streamed the ceremony and parts of the wedding via Instagram. There were over 500 devices that viewed the stream, and the comments and posts are something the couple will have forever.

Originally, the couple was to honeymoon in Mexico after the wedding. Instead, they spent two nights in the honeymoon suite at Pursell Farms and are rebooking their Mexico trip for later this year.

“Thanks to so many wonderful people who care about us, what could have been a sad and difficult day turned out to be so joyful and perfect,” Holly concluded.

The Story Behind #MightyMaraMonday

Sometimes, things in life go smoothly. A baby is born, the parents go home, and the new family begins.

Other times, it’s not so simple.

Digital Operations Director Mindy Dent felt the truth of these words when her second daughter, Mara, was born. Baby Mara had a spinal defect that doctors did not detect until after she was born. This resulted in the Dents spending 26 nights in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), with Mara braving two spinal surgeries in the first two weeks of her life.

Today, Mara is better than ever. Her early tribulations earned her the nickname “Mighty Mara,” and her family has decided to give back to those who helped them during an extremely challenging period of their lives.

A Close Encounter with the NICU

For nearly four weeks, Mindy spent 12 to 15 hours at the NICU facility of Children’s of Alabama. She noticed things during her stay, such as how much coffee the nurses drank to stay alert for a 12-hour shift, or how many newborns were visited by their families.

Sadly, Mindy learned of a darker truth in the NICU.

“Children’s is the hub for pediatric care for the entire state; it just happens to be in town for us,” Mindy said. “There were days where we were the only ones listed on the visitor log. For some, the parents had to go back to their home city. For others, the parents chose to abandon their child when they discovered they had a medical issue.”

For the times when the Dents couldn’t be beside Mara, they purchased a sound and light machine to provide a sense of comfort.

“Mara is still drawn to her ‘light-up aquarium’ to this day,” Mindy said. “I don’t want any of the babies in the NICU to feel alone. That helped spark the idea for hospital donations and Mighty Mara Monday.”

Giving Back

When Mindy heard that her sister’s friend had experienced a similar stay in the NICU, she was intrigued to learn that the friend had started a “giveback day” as a thank-you for the support she received.

Mindy’s own experience, coupled with the encouragement of her friend, laid the groundwork for the Mighty Mara Monday campaign.

To support both the patients and medical staff of the NICU, Mindy is ringing in February 24, Mara’s first birthday, with the Mighty Mara Monday celebration.

Instead of gifts, Mindy has asked supporters to contribute in other meaningful ways.

  1. Donate NICU-approved items to Children’s of Alabama (must be new). This also includes Starbucks gift cards in $5 and $10 increments for NICU nurses to use on long shifts. A shopping list is available here.
  2. Donate directly to the NICU. The money will be used to sponsor nurses and staff in receiving further training and skills development.
  3. Collect and contribute aluminum pop tabs. The Ronald McDonald House has a special reimbursement rate with Birmingham recycling. Last year, the charity raised over $15,000 from pop tabs alone.

To date, the family has collected $1,600 in NICU products, $245 in Starbucks gift cards, and $850 in cash donations, including money given from Strong Shout-Outs.

When Mighty Mara Monday arrives, the Dents will deliver donated items to Children’s of Alabama and the Ronald McDonald House. They will also recognize 20 “superheroes” who helped the family during Mara’s hospital stay. These honorees will be celebrated with a superhero cape, cookies, and mask. Will there be any heroes here at SAM? We can only wait and see.

If you are interested in learning more about Mighty Mara Monday or contributing to the cause, check out the Children’s of Alabama donation page, or browse the Amazon shopping list.

Deidra’s Engagement

Deidra and Fiance

When the news dropped that Staff Accountant Deidra West and fiancé Eddie Box had sealed their engagement, Team SAM knew that 2020 was starting on a high note.

The couple met three years ago via an online dating service. A year and a half into the relationship, Deidra and Eddie were seated at Bruster’s Ice Cream when the prospect of marriage came up. Amidst waffle cones and maraschino cherries, the couple gleefully agreed to seal their relationship with the vows of marriage. There was one caveat, however.

Between the two of them, Deidra and Eddie had a family of seven kids. They knew that mixing the two sides would be a delicate affair, so they decided to wait another year and a half until the kids were finished with school.

When the 2019 holiday season arrived, gift shopping wasn’t the only thing on the list. It was time to begin looking at engagement rings.

“At first, I only wanted a diamond band,” Deidra said. “But as we shopped, I kept getting drawn to the traditional engagement rings. We narrowed it down to my top six, and I left Eddie to pick his favorite.”

The holidays passed, and New Year’s Day saw the arrival of the whole family at Deidra’s home. She thought the gathering was a bit odd, but once she realized what was planned, it all made sense. On the first day of 2020, Eddie presented Deidra with a stunning diamond ring, officializing their engagement and announcing to their families.

As for the wedding, the exact date depends on when Eddie’s son finishes his surgical residency in Tampa, but it’s looking to be the first or second week of June 2020.

The ceremony will be intimate, with only the couple and their children. Later, they will host a reception to celebrate with friends and family. Deidra described the reception venue she plans to use: a beautiful, two-story building that is more than 100 years old. Located in Springville, Alabama, the building is flourished with exposed bricks and original pine hardwood.

Make sure to give Deidra a hearty congratulations if you haven’t yet. And best wishes for a long and happy marriage from Team SAM!

The SEO Belt

Meetings have a reputation for being dull, unglamorous affairs. That is, unless you’re a member of STRONG’s SEO team.

Deep within S3, muffled shouts of victory seep through the walls of American Graffiti. The hook of Eye of the Tiger can be heard faintly. Applause follows.

Inside the rounded chamber, a cherished rite is taking place. It is a monthly transfer-of-power centering around the SEO Belt.

The Belt represents everything victorious. Speed, accuracy, ingenuity, total domination. It’s the pinnacle of Team SEO success.

To stay organized, the SEO team creates a list of tasks each month, divided out by team member. The first person to complete their list in full earns rightful claim to the Belt for that month. In the event that no one finishes 100 percent, the trophy is given to the closest contender.

The interesting part about this “ceremony” is that each winner decides his or her acceptance method. Some, such as January winner L.C. Carlton, opt for a simple round of applause. Others prefer a more ostentatious crowning. SEO Belt transfers have ranged from walkout songs to full victory laps, belt held high in traditional wrestler style.

Thanks to an accidental click, the team ordered a child’s sized belt. Needless to say, wearing the Belt in the typical waisted style is no small feat. Instead, it has been transformed into a shoulder sash, neck accessory, and most recently, a prop for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Winners must relinquish the Belt at the end of the month, but that doesn’t mean their deeds will be forgotten. All recipients sign the back of the Belt in gold Sharpie before handing it over, forever emblazoning their names amongst champions.

Traditions like the SEO Belt are just one way that teams are making time to Have Fun and Play Like a Champion every day at STRONG.

Accounting Saves the Forest

We’ve all heard sayings like, “Don’t rock the boat” and “Go with the flow.”

But innovation doesn’t come from sticking with the status quo.

Yenae Bollinger and Deidra West, both Staff Accountants at SAM, saw the opportunity to make a big impact on their department. And they didn’t hold back on bringing their ideas to life.

Old Habits Die Hard

When Yenae joined SAM in 2018, she noticed how much time the Accounting department was spending making copies and sorting paper. She also became concerned about the environmental impact of so much printing.

There has got to be a better way, Yenae thought.

Knowing that change doesn’t always come easily, Yenae began by suggesting changes to the deposit and invoicing process.

“When we billed clients, we used to email attachments of invoices while also overnighting a paper copy,” Yenae said. “And with deposits, we would make up to five copies of each check and throw away the stubs.”

Now, Accounting has switched to digital copies of checks and invoices, made easy thanks to the Intact software the department already uses.

When Deidra arrived on the scene, she too was perplexed by the amount of printing going on.

“I worked part-time for an auditor for a few years, and they had made 500-page audit documentation paperless, so I knew we could do the same here,” Deidra said.

Deidra pushed to move media reconciliations to a paperless system. After printing several copies of each report, there were sometimes reconciliations that were over an inch thick. SAM has made the switch, and Yenae and Deidra are now working to get more stations on board with sending paperless documents, too.

Hint: Media reconciliations are what Accounting uses to verify that the media schedule matches a client’s budget, ensuring no spots are missed.

More Changes to Come

People and processes are naturally resistant to change. Yenae and Deidra were wise to champion these changes to Accounting little by little. This way, it ensures details don’t get missed, and everyone on the team has time to adjust to the new ways of working.

The paper-saving duo’s next target is the purchase requisition (PR) and purchase order (PO) process. They are working out the last few kinks before introducing a two-phase roll-out to move this process entirely online.

Both Yenae and Deidra had ambitions at one time to open their own professional organizing companies. Now, they are bringing their skills to SAM to tidy up processes and copy rooms with increased efficiency.

“January is one of my favorite months because stores are filled with organizing tools,” Deidra said. “I love the feeling of cleaning up and reducing waste.”

These innovators proved that good ideas are worth talking about. Thanks to their efforts, Accounting’s desks are a little cleaner, and the planet a little greener.


P.S. Make sure to give Yenae a big congratulations the next time you see her. She has been working tirelessly to earn the Certified Management Accountant designation. She passed the test on her first try this week. Great job, Yenae!

Losing Kilos Going Keto

The word “diet” doesn’t conjure fond memories for most people.

But one diet promises to permit much of the food that is forbidden by other weight loss plans.

The ketogenic diet, known simply as keto, places restrictions on only one food group: carbohydrates. Carbs are limited to anywhere from 15 to 50 grams per day. Other than that, dieters are free to eat all of the bacon, steak, and peanut butter their heart desires.

With an ultra-low-carb intake, the body enters ketosis, meaning it burns glucose from fat rather than carbs for fuel. The ketogenic state bolsters fat loss and can increase energy and overall health.

At SAM, four team members have seen incredible success by sticking with the keto diet. Here’s what they experienced along the way.


David McMath

How did you get started with the keto diet?

“I noticed Whitson avoiding some of the free lunches, and we got to talking about his results with the diet. What sold me was the number of recipes available for the diet. It made it easy to find meals that fit the requirements. I purchased the book Simply Keto that I recommend to anyone who needs information and recipes about the diet.”

What has been the hardest part?

“Giving up bread, pasta, and sweets has been hard. But having co-workers who are on the diet too has made it easier to stick to. There are also keto substitutes for banned foods called fat bombs. They’re usually small, homemade snacks that are heavy in fat. They help quell cravings that may have you otherwise reaching for carbs.”

What results have you seen?

“I’ve lost 35 pounds since I started on Memorial Day weekend. I still have a few more to go before I reach my BMI goal, but I’m not far off.”


Liz Elder

Why did you start the keto diet?

“I’ve always struggled with my weight. In November of 2017, I was at my heaviest. I had lost some weight in 2018 with Weight Watchers, but when my daughter got engaged, I knew I wanted to be in shape for her September 2019 wedding. This January I started keto.”

What results have you seen?

“I had pretty bad arthritis before this. Some days, I could barely pick up a cup with one hand. Within two weeks of cutting out sugar, I could feel the inflammation leaving my arthritis. I’ve stopped taking several pain and blood pressure medications. In the two years I have been dieting, I’ve lost over 100 pounds.”

What has been the most difficult part?

“Cutting out the addictions was tough in the beginning. I used food as a comfort mechanism. I’ve since replaced that with a healthier addiction – exercise. There was also the “keto flu.” It happens between weeks 2 and 3. For an entire weekend, I couldn’t get out of bed. It happens when your body detoxes from all of the sugar and junk you’ve put into it. But after that, my cravings totally disappeared. I accidentally ate full-sugar ice cream once, and I actually felt hungover the next day. It was terrible!”


Sheena Griffin

What has been your biggest struggle with the diet?

“I used to eat lots of fruit, so having to cut high-sugar fruits like apples and bananas has been hard. Giving up fried food (because of the breading) has also been difficult.”

What results have you seen?

“I’ve lost over 20 pounds in the one year that I have been on the diet. I feel better and have more energy throughout the day.”

Have you slipped up?

“Nope, I haven’t had any cheat days. Sometimes, I’ll go over on my carb limit for the day, but I haven’t eaten any of the banned foods.”

What advice do you have to those interested in the diet?

“Do your research. Learn how to scan ingredients. Some foods may say ‘no sugar added,’ but this doesn’t mean they are free of sugar or are keto-friendly. Learn which sugar substitutes you can use so you can stay in ketosis.”


David Whitson

What results have you seen with the diet?

“Since starting keto, I’ve lost over 40 pounds and have energy like I can’t remember. The last time I went for my biannual check-up, my doctor said my blood levels had returned to normal thanks to the diet. My mind is much clearer, and I typically only eat dinner and a snack for lunch.”

What is the hardest part?

“I kickstarted the diet with a month of no drinking. Once I came off, I forgot that beer isn’t keto-friendly. Luckily, hard seltzer is super low-carb and is a great alternative. I’ve never been big on sweets, so that part wasn’t hard.”

What advice do you have for future keto-ers?

“See if it’s right for you. If you can’t part with sweets, then it’s not going to work. The ‘keto sweets’ are good substitutes, but other than that it’s an easy diet… especially if you prefer savory flavors.”