Another thankful year full of love, but this one is extra sweet

Walking on the beach, the love of my whole heart and soul tells me he has to ask me something.

And getting on one knee, Seth says: “Will you marry me?”

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Thankful for our family who captured this moment from the dunes. So sneaky!

Yes. forever yes, I say, shocked just as much at the size of the diamond as the fact he wants me to spend forever with him, and the fact our families are hiding and slowly emerging from the dunes.

I’m the happiest ever — I get another family to love with Sherri, Woody, Beck and Zoee, plus more, and move into a whole new chapter of life.

* * *

My sister walks across the stage at the University of Alabama, gaining a degree in food and nutrition. She’s on her way — and I’m the happiest and proudest big sister.

She did it. And now she’s one step closer to becoming a dietitian, making our society healthier one piece of advice at a time.

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The cutest Bama grad.

* * *

Seth and my brother Jason bond over the fire pit at my brother’s new home — they’ve basically been bros since they met.

They talk and bond over football and golf and loving God and their walks with the big guy upstairs.

And I sit back and think about how thankful I am for Seth and Jason’s relationship and openness to talk and be honest and vulnerable.

the boys
They aren’t too manly to have a few fruity cocktails on a rooftop bar.

 

* * *

My parents gift us with a trip to Dominican Republic — one of our family’s best trips with laughs and pool time and lots of food and too many Mamajuanas.

It’s Seth’s first time out of the country and all of the Strong children’s first trip to Dominican, and a perfect time to spend together.

turn up
Turn up.

* * *

As we sit around our family supper tables this year, I can’t help but think of what I’m most thankful for: love.

It’s not just because I’m recently engaged. Or just because I’m in the midst of wedding planning. Or just because it’s what you’re supposed to say on Thanksgiving.

It’s because I have a hell-of-a-great family surrounding me, loving me, supporting me. It’s because I’m so thankful for who is surrounding me, who will be with Seth and I on our special day in less than 160 days — all people who have played parts in my life to make me into the person who I am today.

And it’s mostly because the Lord tells us how special love is in Corinthians: And now these three remain — faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Love is my favorite, but I’m also thankful for how life has played out this year, smoothly and just like God planned. And my Duchess and Chiba, Miller Lite, good health, cosmetologists who fix your hair after you think you can do it on your own, Mexican food, pizza, football weekends with Seth, allergy medicine that’s saved my life from spending most of my daily time in a very old building, and the after-school writing club I lead at a local charter school.

Cheers to another Thanksgiving, and here’s to another year full of people and things to be thankful for.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. -Psalm 100:4

 

My first trip to jail — no, not as an inmate

The correctional officer tells me to put my purse in one of the lockers.

It’s the last place I want to leave my new Kate Spade.

I’m not normally that boujee, but I am here.

I look at him unsure, put my bag inside and close the blue door.

He hands me the key and I tug at the locker door to make sure it’s locked.

“It’s locked,” he said in a don’t-worry-about-it tone.

I put the tiny key in my skirt pocket.

And then I take a seat outside of the huge and very secured jail door.

No — I haven’t been arrested.

Yes — I’m on the job and at a bond hearing, my first one in Horry County.

I’m anxious as I wait to go behind the four — yes four — thick doors and into the room where inmates wait to see if they’ll be released.

People gather in the waiting area to watch the hearings on television screens.

I’m the only one they’ll let back.

The officer says it’s time.

My heart starts to pound.

He takes me through three of the doors, and each one slams hard behind us. He swipes a key card or pushes a button at each door to unlock them.

I’m on my own to get to the fourth door.

I walk in my hot pink mules on the concrete floor to the last door. And block walls are on each side of me.

I look through the sliver of a window and see inmates right there — they are feet away, and I have to walk right by them.

Of course they are regular people who have been suspected of doing bad things. And I’m used to seeing mugshots and hearing about those bad things each day — not much phases me anymore.

But from the movies and gossip and the society I’ve grown up in, criminals or alleged criminals always seem to have been separate from the outside world, not just physically.

It’ still an odd feeling to be in the same room.

I knock.

Nobody comes to the door and a brief panic starts because I’m locked in a hallway I can’t get out of either way I turn.

Then I bang on the thick door — it takes a lot to make a noise through these.

All the inmates sitting on the rows of benches turn to look. Another officer lets me in.

He opens the door and I walk through, trying not to make eye contact with anyone.

I hear giggles from the inmates as I walk through and whispers.

I’m so uncomfortable. And I’m the only person from the news media there, so all eyes are on me as I walk in.

And what’s even scarier is they aren’t handcuffed and have free reign around the court room, though many are seated. Oh, and that there’s like only two officers in the room.

But most of the inmates listen well to the officers’ instructions.

I’m told where to sit — on a cream-colored plastic chair beside the pew-like bench the women inmates are sitting on. The men are in a glassed off area where the door is I walked through.

The woman are calm, motionless. The men — loud and joking around.

I just watch.

The first person is up.

He gets a bond of about $100. And when it’s time for him to go back, he scoffs at the officers, says, “Take me to jail.”

He bucks his chest at an officer.

And a short scuffle starts.

I’m already freaking out that nobody in the room is wearing handcuffs or has shackles on their feet.

And then I remember — there are four bolted-tight doors between me and the free world.

I try not to panic.

Then it’s time for the two guys I’m there for to stand in front of the judge, who is sitting behind a glass wall.

The judge denies bond for both of them.

And they clearly aren’t happy, don’t understand.

The two men walk through one bolted door.

I stand up to go toward that same bolted door to the hallway that leads me to three more bolted doors.

But the guard won’t let me in the hallway just yet.

The two men are arguing with an officer, and he says he doesn’t want me in the hall with them.

So instead, I’m standing in the glass room with more than half a dozen inmates. And anxiety rushes to my head.

I need out.

He finally walks me down the hall to the three doors I’ll have to walk through to get out.

And I’m free.

I grab my purse out of the locker and rush to my car.
There’s no time to address my anxiety.

I have a story to get online.

A decade later, I see Myrtle Beach differently than I did as a girl

My preteen legs run fast to the top of my great aunt and uncle’s Myrtle Beach motel.

It’s pouring rain, and half a dozen of us cousins are racing to the top of the Midtown Motor Inn to see the rain falling over the ocean.

We sit at the top on that green artificial turf that covers the stairs and balcony floors.

We talk, watch the rain, climb on the stair railings like monkeys.

And now, more than a decade later, I drive by that old motel and remember how innocently happy we were running around those floors, swimming in the motel pool, knocking on guests’ doors and running away.

I remember us getting our own motel room for our cousin sleepovers, jumping on the two beds that had coin slots which made the beds vibrate – something you don’t see anymore. I remember grabbing warm towels out of the big dryer to help fold and put on the cart that took the clean towels to rooms.

I’ll never forget our countless trips to the Pavilion – my favorite amusement park that isn’t there anymore. I nearly cried when I heard it was going away.

I’ve been back in the area for about a month, reporting at The Sun News – a paper my family and I drove by tons of times when I was growing up.

But now I’m seeing the things I never saw in my lack-of-understanding-the-bad years.

A prostitution bust.

 

Police arresting someone in connection to drugs in an Ocean Boulevard hotel.

A Coastal Carolina football player charged by police with criminal sexual conduct, which I found in a routine look through police reports early one morning.

Part of me wonders – has there always been this much crime? Or did I just not know of it when I was a little girl? I’m not sure if that question can be answered.

But I’m so thankful for my job – a job that lets me dig into those issues, shine light where some may not want it shined.

I know it’s important to shine that light. I know families on vacation should know what’s going on. And I know locals should know the dangers around where they live.

Though I miss my young years, growing up ignorant to the bad stuff, I’m happy to be back to make a difference in the area that helped raised me.

Midtown 2

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

They try to ‘skedaddle’ as the bulldozer is feet away

I hear her talking loudly over the bulldozer – the bulldozer that’s clearing out her home in the woods.

The photojournalist Jason and I covering the story realize what we were hoping for on the car ride over was true – the people living in this soon-to-be-gone homeless camp are there.

They’re collecting their stuff.

Their hands nearly black from dirt.

Sweating just feet away from the bulldozer.

They’re frantically grabbing everything they can so they can take it to where they’re going next – a destination they haven’t figured out yet.

We greet the two and the man waves his hand high in the air at us.

Now we’re standing a couple feet from them, asking what they’re doing, what their thoughts are about their things being scooped and placed in a dumpster.

And I’m just standing there in awe, like I was a few days ago when I first visited the camp. Nobody was there then, but you could tell it was someone’s makeshift home.

Clothes hung on coat hangers from tree limbs. Plastic bottles, mattresses, cans scattered about. Two tents nearly falling over.

I stand listening to the man and woman, trying to pull away from my emotions, away from the sadness I feel for this man and woman.

I have to get their story. A story I know people need to hear, a story I’m willing to trek through the muddy woods to get.

They’re a couple who met three years ago at bingo.

I start taking notes of what he’s saying.

I write down what they’re wearing – he’s in overalls, she’s in a sheer top and lace-like pants.

I write down their names – Mark and Sonya.

They met at bingo three years ago.

He has been homeless on and off. He has Graves’ disease, he says. He’s 60 years old.

She spent 15 years as a waitress. She had a husband who died in Afghanistan ten years ago. She has a son.

Three cops sit on the outskirts of the woods in their pick-up trucks.

They watch Mark and Sonya. They watch the bulldozer.

I walk over to them.

I’m quickly told they can’t comment.

And I think to myself – Dear, Lord please let there be a day where cops don’t think we’re the scum from the bottom of a shoe.

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I try to connect with the police. Try to show them I’m a human. Two know my family, my grandpa.

And then they’re friendly after we make the connection.

Mark and Sonya are deep into the woods now. Jason isn’t in sight.

I stand at the end of the trees waiting for him to come back, thinking I probably may never see Mark and Sonya again.

But I was wrong.

Two days later, they’d show up at The Sun News.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Homeless camp is like nothing I’ve seen before

“Hello. Hello. Anybody home?” my colleague Jason Lee calls into a homeless camp.

Nobody answers.

“Watch where you step,” he says to me. “There may be needles.”

The tree limbs work as hangers in a closet. Clothes hang on nearly every tree and blow in the wind. We keep thinking we’re seeing a person each time the wind makes the clothes move.

But no one is there.

Jason’s taking photos. I’m looking around.

Fresh donuts are in a box in a grocery cart. Another box is on the ground. It’s half full. Some donuts are smashed in the dirt.

There’s just absolute junk everywhere – a toilet seat, a bong, a cardboard wine box that’s been ruined by rain. I see a lamp shade, a half way set up tent, shoes.

I keep thinking – I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s just incredible.

 

Jason, a multi-media journalist, and I both agree it doesn’t feel right walking into someone’s home. Though the homes are outside and homes we aren’t traditionally used to.

We’re just off of U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach. We hear the cars racing by these two homeless camps, which are less than one hundred yards apart.

The reason we’re here is because one of the camps caught fire just a week ago. Our editor has sent us to check out the area again, to look for more camps.

I’m hoping we will run into people who live here. I want to hear stories about how they ended up living in the woods, what brought them here, what life is like in a tent.

And I want to tell those stories. I want to tell their stories to educate others, to shine light in these woods.

But nobody’s home.

We see a sign put up by county officials soon after the fire. It says the area will be cleaned up next week.

After looking at the area, we go to a warehouse-looking building that has a few businesses inside, like a motorcycle shop and another place where engines are built.

The owner of the building, a man who builds engines and rents out the motorcycle shop, says homeless people have lived in the woods beside his shop for the last 10 years. You can throw a rock from the camps and hit his building.

I wonder – why have these camps been set up so close to these businesses?

The camp closest to the building is the one that caught fire. The metal trashcan and area that burnt is still visible.

A manager at the motorcycle shop tells us that workers were throwing buckets of water on the flames to make sure the building didn’t catch fire.

I try to figure out what the story is here after seeing all of this. There are dozens of homeless camps in Myrtle. And I’ve got a lot of questions.

I have a feeling the story is a lot bigger than just one write up on these two camps.

We hop in Jason’s SUV and head to our next stop – an apartment where a 33 year old lived who died in a car crash a few days ago.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.