The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift? For Disaster Relief Volunteers, It May Be a Chainsaw

Joanna Manning

This Mother's Day, in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, these moms and their kids are fighting natural disasters and humanitarian crises together.

Many mothers count their children’s first words or first steps among their fondest memories. For Jennifer Nieder, it was watching her daughter, Kayla, kick in a wall during a flood relief operation.

“I think when she got to do that she thought, ‘Okay, that was pretty cool,’” Jennifer said. From there, Jennifer says, Kayla was hooked on serving with disaster relief organization Team Rubicon.

Jennifer and Kayla are two of a number of mother-and-child volunteering duos who serve together as a family in Team Rubicon. Mom Jennifer, a U.S. Navy veteran who joined Team Rubicon in 2016 and got her first chance to get dirty with the organization in 2018, led the way, volunteering for anything that came available. Soon, she was enlisting her then 22-year-old daughter’s help during flooding in Everman, Texas. Now Jennifer is on staff part-time, currently serving as the operations section chief on the South Central Command and General Staff, overseeing the region’s COVID-19 responses. And Kayla is a committed Team Rubicon volunteer, or Greyshirt.

When Kayla is not kicking in walls with her mother, she teaches fourth-grade ESL in Fort Worth. She is eager to join her mother for another op in the near future, preferably on a larger deployment. “The one that we did together [in Everman] was just a one-day op. We want something longer with more travel involved,” she said.

Kayla Nieder (center) stands in front of mom Jennifer and other Greyshirts on their first disaster relief operation.

They both laughed when asked if serving together for a week or more under difficult circumstances might strain their relationship. “We kind of like each other,” Jennifer said.

With an active hurricane season predicted for this year, the need for volunteers will be as great as ever, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, there are positions available where Greyshirts can safely work outside in a disaster area.

“I’m a sawyer—a Saw One,” Jennifer said, referring to the chainsaw operator level one certification she received through Team Rubicon, and to the job of cutting down trees and clearing sites of debris that she often takes on after natural disasters. “I know there’s been some talk about not doing a lot of mucking out of houses at this point just because of the PPE shortage, but sawyers will be utilized for sure. And that’s one opportunity where the two of us could go out together and work in that kind of an atmosphere.” 

Kayla, who is not yet qualified as a sawyer, could work as a swamper, pulling limbs and clearing brush to make conditions safer for the sawyers, her mother suggests.

If the image of mom wielding a chainsaw doesn’t square with some people’s idea of motherhood, Kayla doesn’t think twice about it.

“I’m glad that she gets to do something that makes her feel good and makes her feel important because she is important,” she said. “My mom’s kind of a superhero.”

Her Mother’s Day Gift? One of the Most Fantastic—and Exhausting—Weeks of Mom’s Life.

For Kendall Bruton, Team Rubicon’s disaster operations associate for the Midwest, getting her mother, Nancy, to serve with her was a dream several years in the making. Kendall’s mom has been supportive of her involvement with Team Rubicon ever since she first deployed to Moore, Oklahoma, in the aftermath of a devastating EF5 tornado in 2013.

“I went there for 10 days and came home and just couldn’t shut up about it,” Kendall recalled. “For the next year and a half, I deployed a bunch of other times and was getting more engaged, and my family was a big part of that because whenever I would deploy, my daughter would go stay with grandma and grandpa.” 

Though her mother was supportive, Kendall believed she could benefit even more from getting involved in the organization directly. That chance to bring her mom into the fold came when Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2017, and Kendall was part of the mobilization effort, chartering flights to move close to 100 volunteers through O’Hare Airport. 

“I said, ‘Hey, Mom, this is your opportunity to step into the arena. Sign up. Become a Greyshirt and do this with me,” volunteered the younger Bruton. So, mom Nancy signed up with a friend and helped Kendall execute the movement plan. After that, Nancy was also hooked. One year later, after Hurricane Michael struck Panama City, Florida, the mother-and-daughter duo deployed for a week close to Christmas time.

“That was her first true boots-on-the-ground experience,” Kendall said. “Finally, I was able to say ‘you can do this, too, you know. There’s nothing stopping you.’”

Nancy describes the gift of that week with her daughter as one of the most fantastic—and exhausting—of her life. “We both went down there and poured our hearts into helping rebuild for people who couldn’t do the work that TR comes in and does,” she said.

Kendall may have had a leadership role in the operation, but the role reversal between mother and daughter was not a source of strife but instead one of pride.

“She’s a different person when she’s out in that field responding,” Nancy said. “It’s amazing as a mom to see her operate that way.”

Kendall and Nancy Bruton in Chicago.

The admiration is mutual. One of Kendall’s most cherished photos from the Panama City deployment is of her mother dressed in full Tyvek, ripping out drywall and insulation from a damaged home. “Being able to see her gain confidence in herself, to see her step into something new and watch her just come into her own was one of the coolest things,” she said.

That service didn’t end with natural disasters, either. The women are currently serving on COVID-19 relief efforts in Chicago. Kendall has been coordinating and mobilizing Greyshirts for Team Rubicon as it operates a massive PPE drive at United Center and helps stand up a field hospital at McCormick Place. When Kendall arrived on site to coordinate logistics, she immediately saw another opportunity to enlist her mother’s help: The team needed meals, and Nancy was the perfect person to provide them.

“I’m serving dinner five nights a week to the team, and Kendall’s in charge of everything that happens and doesn’t happen,” Nancy said. “It’s been probably one of the best experiences I think that we’ve ever had together.”

“She’s really done a great job reaching out to our community here with her friends in our churches and local restaurants and asking people to help contribute and provide meals throughout the week,” Kendall added.

Nancy is grateful to her daughter for bringing her into the organization, and credits their service with bringing them closer together. “We now share a passion,” she said, noting that their relationship has strengthened in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “It’s almost impossible how much we’ve grown in the last few years together,” she said.

When she attended Team Rubicon’s 10-year anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last January, Nancy was given a glimpse into how deeply her daughter’s service to the organization is felt by other members.

“The people who came to me and told me what a fantastic daughter I had just gave me a totally different insight into her heart and into the person she really is outside the family,” she said. “It’s just something to be so proud of.”

In a few years, Nancy and Kendall will be able to share their passion for service with another generation. Kendall’s 12-year-old daughter eagerly awaits the day that she can join her mom and grandmother on a deployment.

“She is super excited and she will tell you that the day she turns 18 that’ll be one of the first things that she does is sign up for Team Rubicon so that she can get out into the field,” Kendall said with a laugh. “She knows what Team Rubicon does and sees how passionate I am about it. She really does love it.”

Eventually, Mom Fell in Line

In Chicago is another familial combo, with Lucy Loftus in the lead. Following her service in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Iraq from 2003-2004, Lucy wanted to instill a sense of community and service in her two young sons. When she learned about Team Rubicon’s mission-first mentality she was all in, joining in 2015, with her first deployment in response to tornadoes in LaSalle, Illinois, in March of 2017. Soon, sons Nathan and Joe had also become Greyshirts, with Nathan deploying alongside mom in response to severe storms in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in September of 2018, and with both Nathan and Joe joining mom in response to tornadoes in Pendleton, Indiana, in June of 2019.

Currently, Lucy and Nathan, who is active in the Illinois National Guard, are, like the Brutons, serving in Chicago, working on location at United Center as well as at other locations to help distribute PPE.

Nancy Loftus oversees her son’s chainsaw work in Pendleton, IN.

Nathan Loftus said that working with his mother has been “both a welcome challenge and a blessing.” He’s currently her team leader, a dynamic that could present difficulties in some families but one that the Loftuses take in stride. 

“Eventually she fell in line, and we have been working efficiently ever since,” quipped Nathan about the unique challenge of managing his mom. 

His mother is slightly more sentimental about their service together, and noted that she appreciates having the opportunity to watch her son develop his leadership skills, directing his team in a respectful manner. And in the process of serving with both of her sons, she has gained a better appreciation of the depth and breadth of the Team Rubicon community.

“The feelings I get when I look up to see my sons working side-by-side with Vietnam veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, first responders, and committed civilians are difficult to put into words,” she said. “I get to see them standing with what is great about this country.”

Lucy and Nathan Loftus.
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