Student wins HALO award for tornado relief project, meets Taylor Swift

Student wins HALO award for tornado relief project, meets Taylor Swift

onstage during Nickelodeon's 2011 TeenNick HALO Awards held at the Hollywood Palladium on October 26, 2011 in Hollywood, California. The show premieres on Sunday, Nov.7th at 9:00p.m. (ET) on Nick at Night.

Melissa Brown

When University of Alabama sophomore James O’Dwyer first saw the devastation in Tuscaloosa following the April 27 tornado, he knew he had to do something to help. He decided to organize a donation drive in his hometown.

His efforts snowballed into an international non-profit relief organization, and six months later O’Dwyer was flying to Los Angeles to receive a Nickelodeon HALO award from Taylor Swift.

O’Dwyer, like most UA students, went home following the cancelation of classes. But the images of destruction and the thoughts of Tuscaloosa residents left homeless wouldn’t leave his mind.

“That night, as I lay in my bed, I thought about how many people didn’t have a bed to sleep in, a roof over their head or their next meal,” O’Dwyer said. “I knew I had to do something.”

O’Dwyer scheduled the first donations drive on Facebook, creating an event and texting his friends and church family about it.

He asked people to bring anything they had that could help someone who had lost everything. O’Dwyer figured he could load up the family minivan and take it to Tuscaloosa when he returned to move out of his dorm.

He quickly realized that wasn’t going to be possible.

“Honestly, I was worried it was going to be a complete failure and nobody would come,” he said. “After about 10 people volunteered to stay until we loaded the truck and cars kept coming, I started worrying that we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in an 18-wheeler.”

During the second drive, just two days after the first, O’Dwyer collected nearly $3,500 in cash donations alone.

“CNN showed up with Fox, NBC and CBS and I was like, whoa,” he said. “This could be something really big.”

And it was something big.

O’Dwyer and volunteers filled two 18-wheelers, two 26-foot box trucks and a 15-foot U-Haul in five days. Corporate sponsors were asking how to get involved.

After teaming up with another Georgia relief coordinator, Lani Nichols, the two formally established the Magnolia Disaster Relief non-profit organization on May 25.

Local and national news media took notice, and so did Nickelodeon. In September, O’Dwyer received a phone call from Nickelodeon that informed him of his nomination for the HALO award.

“They just called me and said they were trying to do a piece on Outstanding Teens and wanted to hear my story,” he said.

A few weeks later, TV personality Nick Cannon surprised O’Dwyer in the middle of a pool game at Wilhagan’s.

“I had no idea what was coming,” he said. “When he showed up, he told me that this was my HALO Hit and that I had won a HALO Award. I was completely speechless.  Then he gave me the check for $10,000 and I didn’t even know what to do.”


O’Dwyer received $10,000 for his education and $10,000 for Magnolia Disaster Relief, in addition to backstage passes to a Taylor Swift concert. He also met the superstar, who presented him with tickets to the HALO Awards taping in Los Angeles.

Mary Hart, a University of Alabama sophomore and O’Dwyer’s girlfriend, was part of the MDR from the beginning and attended the Nov. 9 awards show.

“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Hart said. “I was so proud of James and he had such a great time and seeing him happy after all his frustrations and hard work was so cool.”

For O’Dwyer, the awards show was validation of the magnitude of his work.

“The whole experience was pretty surreal,” he said. “It didn’t hit me how big of an award it was until about half way through the filming of the awards show. Then it just hit me – this is a really big deal and this is so cool.”

O’Dwyer and the MDR are still working hard. The organization has served 15 different communities in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Kansas with supplies and raised over $30,000 in cash donations. MDR also completed a shipment of 500 pairs of shoes to Haiti.

MDR’s current project is preparing “hit kits,” portable kits that would provide things a small community would need following a natural disaster.

“It doesn’t surprise me that his efforts turned into something so big because he is a very dedicated hard worker,” Hart said. “When he goes after any project, he always tackles it head on and exceeds all expectations.”

For O’Dwyer, the past seven months have been a whirlwind of hard work and accolades, and he’s looking forward to developing the organization and helping more people in the months to come.

“We’ve been figuring it out on the fly pretty well so far,” he said. “I’m excited to see our organization settle down now into something that will hopefully be able to stick around for awhile and use what we learned from the April tornadoes in future disaster relief efforts.”