Big Kenny Honors Fallen Friend With Haiti Benefit
Big Kenny Alphin was already lending his hands, his heart, and his pocketbook to causes around the world, such as building a girls' school in Darfur, when the horrendous earthquake struck Haiti last month. The devastating disaster dealt a shattering personal blow to Kenny when he realized his good friend, fellow aid-worker Walt Ratterman, went missing right after the quake.
In true Big Kenny fashion, he immediately jumped on a plane to Haiti and began searching for his friend and offering relief in any way he could to the stricken country. Walt's body was later recovered in the wreckage of the Hotel Montana, and Kenny returned to the States with a broken heart but a renewed sense of urgency about devoting our lives to helping our fellow man in need and reaching out to give the children of the next generation a chance at a better life whenever and wherever we can.
One way he's doing that is by hosting the upcoming Help for Haiti Benefit on Feb. 27. The dual set of concerts held simultaneously in Nashville and Los Angeles will benefit Compassion International's work in the country of Haiti. Kenny talked to The Boot about the loss of his friend, the images seared in his mind from his Haiti trip, and the importance of helping your neighbor – next door, or halfway around the world.
What was the thing that struck you most about Walt when you first met him?
I met Walt back in 2007 when I was planning my first trip to the Sudan. I was going over with a group of nuns who had told me about this idea they had to get a school built there for girls who hadn't had an opportunity to have an education. So I had been following and speaking out as much as I could prior to that on the crisis happening in Sudan and specifically Darfur. I had friends who had been over there showing me pictures of stuff that no one should have to endure. The atrocities to the children are just beyond belief! So I had been planning to do something to help reach out in some way. So, after months and months of planning, I felt although we couldn't stop a war we could build a school. I had worked on getting over there to do my due diligence with the school and deliver as much aid as I could to the refugees that were in the war zone. And as we were leading up to the actual trip, all the people who had committed to going with me started dropping out like flies. Their reason most of the time was they thought it was a dangerous situation. Well, I had made a commitment and I'm a man of my word and I was going to hold up to it. I knew I was going to have to take care of power and some way to communicate, because we were going into a region of the world where we wouldn't have either of those. And the person who was supposed to be handling that dropped out, but he had seen a film called 'Beyond the Call' and in that I was introduced to this gentleman named Walt Ratterman. And I knew Walt had an ability in renewable energy or resources and how to power up a lightbulb or recharge a battery in the worst of conditions. So I contacted this guy and got him on the phone about a week before we were leaving. I asked him what I would need to power up batteries and how to use a satellite phone and he spent the next half hour explaining all of it to me and telling me where to get the stuff. He asked when I was making the trip and how I was getting there, and he said he was going to be heading into Haiti at that time, and he offered on the phone to meet me there. I was blown away.
He made it all the way into the Sudan with us and we loaded up a cargo plane full of survival kits and aid and basics. And we get the plane loaded, and it's a lot of heat and hard work and after we get camped on the ground in Sudan, I noticed Walt's head was hurting him and he wasn't feeling good and he said, 'I'll stay here and keep everything running and y'all can go.' Well come to find out after we made the trip and got home I'm talking to him asking if he's feeling better, and he says, 'Yeah, I'm feeling much better now ... you're not gonna believe it, I had malaria!' So he had malaria -- an illness that will kill most people, and through all that he pushed through that to make this trip and go way beyond the call. He had been in over 50 war zones in the most needy areas of the world prior to that. We had become really good friends and were always talking about the next time we'd get together, and he was down in Haiti the first of the year and working on the primary goals of putting renewable energy there, getting a light bulb up in rural health clinics. Children will die from the simplest things if a doctor doesn't have light to work with.
Did what you see in Haiti affect you even more strongly than what you witnessed in the Sudan?
I wouldn't say what I saw affected me more direly ... they are two completely different things. With Haiti, the amount of it at one time and the fact it was a natural disaster -- 200,000 people dead -- that happened in one day. It was like a huge bomb went off in a city of millions and the city is flattened. For all intents and purposes, there isn't an infrastructure in that country. They never had much of anything to start out with, no clean water or anything like that. But all the buildings in Port-au-Prince are collapsed, all the schools, the churches, everything.
How does witnessing that change you as a person? I'm curious where you find the courage to actually go to these places, roll up your sleeves and get involved firsthand. A lot of celebrities and everyday people don't have the courage to do that, because they don't want to face how much it hurts to see people in pain.
It more than physically hurts. Riding down the streets, I see children that are drinking water from puddles on the side of the street and on the same street there lays piles of death. No child deserves that ... no child is meant to be put through and have to suffer those kinds of conditions. The isle of Hispanola, where Haiti is, is no further for me to get to from here in Nashville by plane than it is to get to New York City. I was raised "red and yellow black and white, they're all precious in His sight," and we should love the little children of the world. The first morning I'm there, I wake up to a lady walking up, she was a mother, and I was sleeping out on the parking area left beside the building my friend Walt collapsed in. And she said, "Can you help me find my son?" I asked her to tell me what happened, and she was a UN worker from Central America who had a year-and-a-half old daughter and a four-year-old son, and she's watching the walls collapse between her and her daughter and her husband and son. And the son and father are still in this building and these men are so desperately trying to get to them, and all I can think of is my four-year-old son.
It is such a dangerous situation ... Does your wife Christiev ever worry when you go on these missions, or does she just have such faith and know it's such a good thing you're doing that she doesn't let it get to her?
Well, I have my hard hat. That helps a lot. I helped build our local volunteer fire and rescue department in the community I was raised in, and I'm a farmboy. We're taught to be able to provide for yourself, to be able to fix anything if it's broke, and when there's an emergency, you've got the skill set to deal with it. When I was 13 years old, I pulled my first person out of a burned house before I got my drivers license.
You know, most of us don't even know who our neighbors are – it's terrible. Situations like this that's the real relevance that it brought to me and what Walt made so aware to me. I encourage people to go online to Bigkenny.tv and watch the video. My brother Christian and I put it all together from pictures I took off my phone and [set it] to this song that I wrote the week before this tragedy even happened, 'Cry With You.' On the video, I'm trying to describe what I saw and experienced while I was there, and it was so raw then but even now it's hard to think about it, and I know I have so much and there's so much we all can do. And if I can encourage people to think of them as our brothers and sisters and just our neighbors next door. There shouldn't be any fence-line between a neighbor, any river between a county, any ocean between a country or continent that can divide my heart from that of a child who needs me.
What can you tell us about the event, Help Haiti Live, that's happening this weekend?
With Help Haiti Live, we're going to be specifically raising money to help out the works of Compassion International. Christiev has been supporting Compassion children since before we got together. Because a child coming into the world, a child just can't be judged in any way other than that's a beautiful child who deserves any opportunity that any child deserves, that my child would deserve. We've got to be able to reach out and help them, and we're so fortunate that organizations like Compassion have been working in a country like Haiti for the past 40 years. They were set up there unbeknownst to themselves, they were capable of helping some 15,000 children and their families with immediate relief of water and food and medical attention and shelter and they've got 60,000 families there already that are members of the Compassion International network.
When they called me up right after I got back from Haiti and asked if I would be part of the event and host it, it was all pretty raw to me right then and I didn't know if I was prepared to handle any more of it, emotionally. But every day it's gone on I realize that yeah, I'm able to handle so much more and I need to. My heart won't feel right if I don't do it. At that time Alison Krauss was already involved in it, and Jars of Clay, Matt Kearney ... it's an amazing lineup of folks and they're all there doing it because they want to help. Everyone who will be part of the audience that night will be part of helping.
It will also be streamed live on the HelpHaitiLive.com site so there will be groups getting together at churches and community centers and all sorts of places to make this event even bigger. It's really a way we can all come together and show our hearts and share our hearts in the continuing effort to help the people of Haiti. I have to stress how important it's gonna be that we stick with this one. These people got dealt a blow that I've never even witnessed anything like in my life, it's so drastic, the damage that country is facing. Here we are hundreds of thousands still struggling for the basic needs of survival and also the hurricane season is just right around the corner and they have no shelter ... they need so much.
Your song 'Cry with You' – the proceeds are going to go to the Love Everybody Fund...
We've got it up for sale on my site right now and people who download it, we give them the opportunity to donate whatever amount you choose to give, you can give straight to the fund. It's an instant download link, and I just ask people to listen to it and spread the song around, and if they feel it in their heart and want to do something extra, they can go online and buy the track and give funds to the Love Everybody Fund. I've had so many people close to me who have wanted to help and they shoved checks in my pocket and we established this fund through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. I try to steward it as best I can and wherever I see the greatest need there or right here in our own backyard. We continue to try to help in so many places.
I wrote the song a week before the disaster happened. The song's about compassion for people hurting, and that I had seen suffering beyond belief way before this disaster happened in Haiti. I just had this overwhelming feeling of what else can I do, what else is there in me to help someone, and all that was left was 'I'll cry with you, I'll weep with you.'
You've spent your whole life in music, but do you ever see a day when your philanthropic efforts are going to overtake that balance and that will sort of become your main focus?
One of the things Walt said to me in an email ends with him saying that he figured the two most important things in the world were helping people, other than our families of course, and music, and he guessed that's why we met. And for me, I need the balance. If one outweighs the other, I'm no good. So I have to keep that balance. I have to have music in my life, and I don't want to have the successes that have come from music to me if I'm not doing something with it to help other folks. So I'm just gonna do the best I can. Every day's a new day and I give it all I can.