A Volunteer Planned to Spend a Week Serving Afghan Refugees, Then She Couldn’t Quit

Kelly Brenton

From the pastor with the dolls to meeting a Gold Star family, an Indiana Greyshirt reflects on helping with resettlement, and why she kept redeploying.

When I heard that Afghan evacuees would be housed at Camp Atterbury, in Indiana, while they awaited resettlement I wanted to find some way to help, especially since I live nearby. In fact, the base, and as it turned out Team Rubicon donation distribution site, is just 10 minutes from my house. 

So, on a muggy morning in September, I drove tentatively up to a large, unfamiliar warehouse at Camp Atterbury, nervous about volunteering with members of Team Rubicon—people I didn’t know, and an organization I had only learned about a week earlier. 

I planned on volunteering for a couple of days to sort donations for Afghan evacuees who had recently arrived on base. Little did I realize that those few days would turn into four months, that those strangers would become dear friends, that the warehouse would see my laughter and tears, and the organization would bring me purpose.

A bag of donated goods at Camp Atterbury. Photo by Kelly Brenton.

After a morning meeting, I drew my name on a shirt and started my first task. We were making clothing packets for our Afghan guests who were still wearing the same clothes they had fled their homeland in more than two weeks prior. We matched a top, bottom, underwear, and socks; added a slip of paper with the size, and saran wrapped it into a bundle. 

One of the first things I was told was to stay flexible because things were changing by the day and hour. It was an unprecedented experience for everyone involved, and things certainly did change. Individual clothing packets became boxes filled with mass quantities of clothing sorted by gender, size, and type. The warehouse filled as donations poured in, walls of diaper boxes lining makeshift pathways. Intake, sorting, and inventory were all streamlined. Our military colleagues finetuned processes to get supplies into guests’ hands. 

Our Greyshirts always went above and beyond. Early on, a diaper shortage caused a serious need for diaper rash cream. Volunteers showed up with bags full. Most mornings the first donations we unloaded were from our fellow volunteers’ vehicles. Every day someone asked, “What is the biggest need?”

When there wasn’t nearly enough winter wear for our thousands of guests, everyone took action. We reached out to friends, family, and social networks. Some organized donation drives at workplaces, schools, and with other nonprofit organizations to help fill the need.

I will take so many memories from this experience, but there are a few that stand out. There were the personalized notes sent in with donations that read “Welcome to Indiana,” “Hope this helps the amazing refugees,” and “Welcome to the U.S.! Hope you receive many blessings and make many friends!”

There was the time spent working alongside three of our Afghan guests who became honorary Greyshirts. One even signed up to become an official Greyshirt. 

There was the pastor who sent donation requests to hundreds of churches and who scoured stores for darker-skinned dolls so little Afghan girls would have a toy that looked like themselves. That pastor delivered donations weekly for the entire four months I was there. Every time, his truck would be packed to the brim, donations literally spilling out as he opened the doors. He always remembered his Team Rubicon friends with doughnuts, cookies, and M&Ms, too. 

Dolls sourced by an Indiana pastor and donated for Afghan refugees in Indiana. Photo by Kelly Brenton.

And, there was the ceremony Team Rubicon held to dedicate the warehouse we were operating out of as Forward Operating Base Sanchez, in memory of Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto Sanchez who died in the Kabul airport bombing. Along with that went the honor of meeting his family, who even began collecting donations for the Afghans. 

I was hooked on Team Rubicon after day one. I went home that night and told my husband, “I found my people.” A few days became months. I worked with clothing for several weeks, eventually writing up sorting protocols and becoming a strike team leader over clothing. I managed the Amazon Wish List. I learned the inventory software and later trained others. I also became a strike team leader over intake. 

I am so proud of everything we accomplished as a team at Camp Atterbury. In total, nearly 250 Greyshirts processed more than 2.6 million items for our 7,200 Afghan guests.

By the time our op ended on January 7, the weather had gone from temperatures in the 90s to a windchill of -1 Fahrenheit. Our warehouse had gone from empty to bursting at the seams to empty again. Strangers had become friends through this unique shared experience. The T-shirt I stenciled with my name in black marker on the first day had been worn and washed so many times that a newer volunteer remarked that she liked how I wrote my name in grey to match the shirt. I plan on proudly wearing that faded shirt many more times in the future and look forward to reuniting with my Team Rubicon friends whenever others are in need of a helping hand.

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