I think Joplin was my Eat, Pray, Love. I know, I know, I’m comparing a natural disaster with horrifying consequences to a pretty bad Julia Roberts film. But hear me out – Eat, Pray, Love is billed as “One woman’s search for Everything.” My opportunity to go to Joplin came in the midst of a similar personal search. And I’m certain that my one week in Missouri has not only challenged my worldview, but also given me a new path to conquer.
On Monday, May 23, I received three pieces of bad news before 10am. Just a rough start to the week. The third and most upsetting, was that my good friend Meg’s home had been destroyed in Joplin. Something happened then. In the Monday morning craziness of the advertising agency I work for, chaos of client meetings and status updates whirled around me as I stood still, thinking. I knew I had to go. I knew I had to help, somehow. My honest thoughts? “I need to get the f- out of LA and into Joplin NOW.”
I told my bosses with relatively little grace and explanation – “I have to go, I won’t be here the rest of the week, I have to go to Missouri,” and proceeded to run to the bathroom and weep, thinking “WHAT am I doing? I’ve never done anything like this before! These vets are going to think I’m useless and I’m going to be an emotional wreck. Am I strong enough to handle this, to help the people down there?” My angel of a friend/mentor and the Director of Program Development of TR, Joanne, talked me down. She said she knew I was strong enough to go, to represent TR as a journalist and photographer, that she saw something was telling me I was meant to be there.
One red eye flight from LA to Arkansas and a drive to Springfield later, I stood alone in an empty parking lot of a church, waiting for members of TR to arrive. My journey had begun.
I won’t go into the details of my week in Joplin – you’ve seen the news clips, read TR’s blogs and looked at the pictures of the amazing men and women of TR helping the victims of Joplin’s tornado. What’s amazing about TR is two-fold: the veterans obviously lend a tremendous hand in disaster relief, using their skills from the military to provide direct assistance in a very tangible way. But I think the veterans (and civilians like me who participate) also receive an amazing gift from the work they conduct in disaster zones. Bonds are formed with the residents they help, with the other vets, and with a previously off-the-map city that will always keep a special place in the hearts of the volunteers who toiled there.
So, what about Eat, Pray, Love? What’s the connection here? In the film, Julia Roberts’ character attempts to find herself by enjoying life in Italy (“eat”), finding her spirituality in India (“pray”) and looking for a balance of the two by finding “love” in Bali. In Joplin, I didn’t have to worry about food. Volunteers were basically tripping over bags of sandwiches and homemade hamburgers and hot dogs that residents would bring out for us. I didn’t have to spend $15 on lunch from a trendy vegan restaurant in LA, as I did most days while at work. In LA, food was something that broke up my day, got me a break from work. In Joplin, food was sustenance, not thought about until our guys couldn’t cut down another tree without nourishment to keep them going. Food in Joplin was a moment to connect at dinner, reflect on the day while cramming pizza down out throats before collapsing into bed.
Did I pray in Joplin? Hell yes, constantly. I prayed that none of our guys would saw off an arm or a leg while clinging precariously to a tree limb they were cutting off. I prayed for the people we were helping. I prayed for the missing. I prayed that we would be of use to the people of Joplin – and to heal their hearts just a little. I prayed as I turned over the shattered remains of a crib I found while conducting search and rescue – that I wouldn’t find a small child under the splinters of wood.
And what about love? Well, the gentlemen of Team Rubicon are downright handsome, talented and brilliant, yes. Watching these guys handle chainsaws can make a girl’s heart skip a beat. But I found love in Joplin by opening my heart to a world I knew very little about – the military and veterans. It was a world I didn’t grow up around, and I personally knew no one who has served. I honestly didn’t understand their world. But after working side-by-side with these amazing veterans, my heart opened. I saw their incredible drive to serve, their need to use the skills they had honed while overseas, and above all else, their incredible desire to be in community with other veterans while helping those in their darkest hours.
I want to thank TR and the volunteers for allowing me on this journey, clueless as I may have been. My eyes and my heart were opened in Joplin; barriers and stereotypes were broken down. I feel like something quite big is in front of me as I continue working with this amazing organization, and for that I am utterly thankful.