My hometown is about 5 miles from the house in Belva, West Virginia that suffered severe damage where I worked on assignment with team Bravo to deconstruct and remove all its unsalvageable contents. I knew I would encounter familiar faces, since I lived so close to the disaster hit area, but when we arrived, we suited up and unloaded our gear as usual. We began working on dismantling the siding to try and salvage some material. Myself and my fellow volunteer, Martha Dyer, walked up to the debris pile and I noticed a woman walking towards us. When she got closer, I heard “Well hey there, Heather.” I took a closer look and realized it was a childhood friend of mine, Melissa Brown Johnston.
We grew up in Gauley Bridge playing in the creeks and rivers, catching snakes and being playful children in a small town. She hugged me tightly and for a moment we stood suspended in nostalgia mixed with disbelief. Melissa, her husband Erick, and their two young children Makayla and Brooklyn had lost almost everything to the recent flood in WV. She told me how she never could have imagined this could happen. They had only recently remodeled the majority of their house. All their hard work, along with their memories, were now caked in muck and mold. I expressed my deepest sympathies at her loss. She was still in shock, gazing over the hill where the Gauley River had receded, the very river we played in as children. She told me her children were in the camper they were now living in taking a nap. She still looked toward the river when she said “I never could have imagined this happening.” We said our goodbyes, saying to each other “I love you chick” and she returned to comfort her girls.
I walked back to the assignment sight, I encountered Erick, her husband. I interdicted myself and told him who I was. He shook my hand. I again gave my most sympathetic response. He looked at me and said “we all made it out alive, that’s all I could ask for.” We shook hands again as I returned to the strike team and he mounted his front end loader, both preparing for the task ahead. This moment of realization to where I was and what I was doing got me through the heat of the day. I swung my sledgehammer harder, and dug even deeper for energy to remove what was now a soggy building of muck-covered memories. The sight was as pristine as we could make it so they could begin to heal and rebuild from this disaster. I would personally like to thank each team member for their hard work as it was now so much more personal.
My team leader, Heather Brown, notified me the next day that a veteran member of Team Rubicon had bought the two girls bikes to replace the ones that were destroyed by the flood. They delivered them on our last day of the assignment. We presented these two shy and timid children with their new bikes. When the girls saw the bikes, they were elated. Makayla, the oldest, said “can I have that Mommy?” Melissa said “yes you can baby, these people got them for you.” She immediately hopped on as lime green is her favorite color. To see the gratitude in the faces of these girls, I smiled and hugged Melissa. She thanked us again and again for the bikes and all the we were doing.
This assignment, along with the others that I encountered with my team, prompted me to join Team Rubicon. I no longer wanted to be a spontaneous volunteer. I wanted to be a permanent member of this organization and what they were doing to help people like my friend Melissa and all others affected by disasters. So I’m currently going through the process. I have joined this amazing group of veterans and civilians that use their time and skills to help those in dire need. My new family. My TRibe.