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Finding Their Keepsakes in Virginia

Brian Gellman

Brian is an active duty Army officer with over 20 years of service who enlisted as a medic and was later commissioned as an infantry officer. He currently serves as District Coordinator for Team Rubicon in the state of Maryland.

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TR volunteer Emily Jorgensen assists homeowner Latasha Mercer in relocating keepsakes in the wake of the tornadoes that swept through Virginia last month. 

Our job was to sort through and pile up debris blown around by last week’s tornados: one pile for wood, one pile for metal, and one pile for trash. However, we quickly learned it wasn’t debris that we were sorting through. It was people’s lives. Team Rubicon Volunteer Emily Jorgensen never lost sight of that.

While digging through shredded lumber that once was a roof, Emily found an old family picture and asked if she could return it to the family whose home we were cleaning up. When the owner arrived, Emily gave the picture to her.

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The homeowner, Latasha Mercer, thanked Emily and told her the one thing she really wanted to find was her wedding ring. Mrs. Mercer placed it on her dresser, and the ring was lost when the tornado ripped her roof off, sucking the dresser and her ring into the black sky.

Emily equated the challenge to an Easter Egg hunt, and she had a new mission. She walked back into the woods and asked herself, “Where would I be if I were a lost ring?” Emily stopped, looked down between her feet, and saw a shiny piece of metal, half-buried in the dirt. It was the ring. Only minutes after beginning her search for her Easter Egg, Emily handed Mrs. Mercer the lost wedding ring while a local volunteer and friend, Shante Coles, looked on and embraced Mrs. Mercer.

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Mrs. Mercer broke down into tears. She just recently renewed her wedding vows and said this was the only thing that she really needed to recover from tragedy. She explained, “Everything out here is important, but some things are more important.” Emily smiled wide and got back to business. She asked, “What can I help you find next?”

There are so many great things from this story. Emily, upon finding a faded picture in a pile of rubble, saw more than trash amongst the rusty nail-filled lumber to be hauled away. She saw someone’s life laying at her feet. Driven to make a difference in this woman’s life, Emily finds the ring and asks for her next impossible task, as if that last one was too easy.

Each site had a story like this. At my first site, we found a pair of solid gold glasses (no kidding, solid gold rims!). The homeowner lost them while closing his door as the tornado was barreling towards his home, dropping a neighbor’s van in his driveway.

Another team found a family’s bible that had been in their family for generations. It was sitting on top of a pile of debris untouched by the wind or rain. Sitting next to the bible was a family heirloom, also passed down through generations.

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It’s hard enough to fathom how a storm can generate enough energy to throw a car across the street like an empty beer can, but it’s even harder to internalize what it must be like to be in your home, your safe place, and to watch a storm rip it apart and take away everything you own. After surviving this, what’s left of your home becomes the object of public spectacle as disaster tourists drive by slowly with their mobile phones snapping images while strangers sort through your belongings, separating woods, metals, and other salvageables from trash.

Each resident we spoke with was grateful and solemnly optimistic. Many of them promised to reach out to Team Rubicon and invite us to their new homes. I don’t know how they found the strength to handle this extremely personal tragedy. I like to think it is partly because of people like Emily and hundreds of other volunteers from various backgrounds who united under a common cause and sense of community to give their time, skills, and a piece of their heart to those in need. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.