It was supposed to be a joke, a dumb stunt I pulled to attract some media attention. Then a tornado struck and it wasn't so funny anymore.
I could start from the very beginning, but I won't, other than to say that for many years now I've had a small obsession with a remote, dry town in rural Alabama called Phil Campbell, which as you can see by my byline happens to be my name, too. I've also been obsessed with the fact that for years other people named Phil -- and Phillip, and Philip, and Phyllis, and Fil, and many other variations -- Campbell have visited into Phil Campbell, Alabama, meeting the locals and telling little jokes like, "I've come to take my town back."
I was so obsessed with the town that in 1995 I organized an American Phil Campbell Convention there. Twenty-two Phils and one Phyllis Campbell, from California to New Hampshire, showed up.
But that wasn't good enough for me, so, in early 2011, in time for the town of Phil Campbell's 100th anniversary and with the help of social media, I decided to do something really surreal: "The First International Phil Campbell Convention in Phil Campbell, Alabama, during Phil Campbell's 100th Anniversary Hoedown." Did I phrase that right? The hoedown itself isn't a hundred years old, the town is, but regardless. I loved the idea of such a long, ridiculous title. I loved the idea of meeting so many random people whose only common trait was a shared first and last name.
To do this, I friended about 200 Phil Campbells from around the world, from nine different countries and dozens of American states. I started talking it up in the media. AOL's "Weird News" covered it. Then The Wall Street Journal, followed by the BBC. I was going viral just for the sake of going viral -- it was great!
I didn't have time to do a head count, though, so I can't tell you how many Phils were actually going to go to that "convention." I didn't have time because on April 27, 2011, an EF-5 tornado, the worst kind of tornado there is, touched down near Phil Campbell, and then proceeded to tear the town in half.
Phil Campbell is a town of barely a thousand people. Twenty-seven people died that day. The tornado, whose swath of destruction was half a mile wide and twelve miles long, also damaged or destroyed nearly a hundred homes, not to mention hundreds of buildings, including Phil Campbell High School, the local Baptist church, and the Chat 'n Chew, the town's only restaurant.
You may have heard about what happened next. Well, six weeks later, I mean. It was covered by so many media outlets I almost lost track. In short, twenty Phil Campbells from around the world organized to help the town. Six short weeks later I had persuaded twenty Phil Campbells from Alaska to Australia, and quite a few places in between, to join me.
My little media stunt was turned into a serious relief effort. And it kind of worked. We Phil Campbells raised enough money to put a displaced family of five into a new home via Habitat for Humanity. Not bad for a score of working-class and middle-class people trying to help a group of total strangers in a town most of us had never visited.
Why do it? Why did I help? It's easy to sit at your computer reading a story like this and say, "Of course you helped. Why wouldn't you help?" But at first, if I'm really honest with myself, I didn't want to help. I've done fundraisers and media campaigns before. They're exhausting. It feels like they take away a little piece of your soul every time you do them. And, contrary to the hoopla of the I'm with Phil fundraiser and media storm, I think I do prefer writing alone. Certainly I like my alone time, if that makes any sense.
What's more, I didn't know these people. I live in Brooklyn, they live 950 miles away. I could have just walked away from it.
I decided to step in and organize something after the tornado devastated the town because, ultimately, it was the right thing to do; that sounds clichéd and unsatisfying, perhaps especially to me, but it's what it came down to. It's true that the joke was over for me and everyone else, but now something deeper had kicked in: the ingrained, intractable human compulsion to help others in a time of need. The doubt that I felt lasted only as long as it took to reach someone in Phil Campbell, Alabama on the phone and hear firsthand how bad the situation really was.
And through all that, something else emerged: A movie. I had been working with a local filmmaker named Andrew Reed to make some sort of short film for the town before the tornado struck, but after the tornado we realized we had a full-length documentary on our hands. After the Phil Campbells left Phil Campbell, Andrew and I kept working on I'm with Phil. It took a couple years and a lot of revisions, but we finally have a finished movie, scored for music and everything else. The movie has been incredibly well-received at the private screenings we've had, and I'm excited to hear back from the film festivals we've submitted it to.
Just this week we launched a Kickstarter campaign to help cover the costs that inevitably accrue even with DIY movies like this one. Moreover, Andrew Reed and I made a pact to help the town again -- the majority of net profits from the film will go back to Phil Campbell, Alabama, to help the town on its long road to rebuilding, not an easy task, even three years later (the media doesn't stick around to show you what really happens after a town this size is practically wiped out).
I hope the movie inspires people to do the kind of thing the Phil Campbells did in 2011, to just step in and help others. Maybe it will -- it took a natural disaster for me to decide to do the right thing, I hope for most people it takes a lot less!
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