Four stories about the uplifting power of family and friends, new and old.
We start the new year with one more look back at four compelling Personal Journeys from 2015.
Two stories are about the strength of family bonds. “House of Hoops” told the story of Georgia State University’s amazing 2014-2015 basketball season and the father/son team that took centerstage. “Family Found” was about a woman’s near life-long search for a father that revealed instead a surprise brother who helped fill in the missing pieces of her past.
Sometimes it’s not family members who are there in a pinch but friends who come to our aid when we’re in need. “Strong Survivor” told the heartbreaking story of a young woman who suffered unspeakable abuse as a child but who is finding her way out of a dark past thanks to the support of others. In “The Liberator’s Widow,” a WWII vet’s wife gains a better understanding of her reticent husband after she befriends those who shared his experiences on the battlefield.
All four stories are comforting reminders that we aren’t in this alone. It’s the love and support of family and friends that carry us through the rough patches. That’s why we count them among our favorite Personal Journeys of 2015.
Battle of Metz anniversary prompts an emotional expedition for the wife of World War II replacement soldier.
Shirley Sessions, who was featured in Personal Journeys last February, battled a health crisis in the months after the story published. But she rallied to attend another reunion of World War II veterans and continue her quest to understand her deceased husband’s military experience.
For decades, Shirley pursued details of her husband’s time in World War II. I joined the pursuit and wrote about it in a story called “The Replacement Soldier” in 2013.
When she finally got the story of Eddie’s service and survival in the war, she had less than a year with him before he died in March 2014.
How did she handle her grief? She took a trip to Europe, so she could see for herself the places where he fought. And I went with her.
Since then, Shirley and I have kept in touch, and are in contact with the veterans and their families who we met in Metz, France, for the 70th anniversary of the battle they fought in.
This year, the group was reuniting at Fort Benning to dedicate a monument to their unit, 95th Infantry Division, known as “The Iron Men of Metz.”
It looked like Shirley’s health might keep her from attending.
She had shoulder surgery in April and a bad reaction to medication. She spent time in the hospital, and is still recovering from some memory loss.
But she and I journeyed together to Fort Benning in late November for a weekend with the Iron Men and their families.
Shirley had just met the group last year in Metz and thoroughly enjoyed this latest reunion.
“Everything about it was so incredible,” she said.
She’s now a full-fledged member of the group, and considers the vets and their families as friends.
“Once you become a part of a group that understands that you’re partially who you are because of what you’ve lost ... it’s like a family reunion,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”
The time with the veterans “made her feel young again,” she said.
Part of the weekend included a banquet, complete with World War II-era music. It inspired some of the veterans to dance — and one invited Shirley onto the floor to dance with him.
“I was delighted,” she said. “I haven’t been on a dance floor in 20 years or more. I used to love to dance.”
The visit to Fort Benning also helped her learn more about her husband, who was reticent about his war experience.
Listening to the veterans’ stories, she was able to fill in details of what it was like for Eddie.
“The experience in Metz and everything since then ... all of this has helped me know Eddie better,” she said. “It’s taken all of this time and places and people and learning more about the history of World War II for me to put these little tiny stitches in place. One of these days I hope I have a tapestry done.”
Her weekend included some somber moments as well, including a ceremony that honored veterans who died in the war, and those who’ve died since the last reunion.
They were honored by a song the 95th’s veterans hear at their reunions called “My Buddy.”
It says in part:
Nights are long since you went away
I think about you all through the day
My buddy, my buddy
Nobody quite so true
Shirley choked up as two young women sang it for the veterans.
“It makes you think of your loved one, your heart has left and is never coming back,” she said.
Kevin Riley, firstname.lastname@example.org
Felicia Villegas triumphed over evil and emerged a fighter.
She’d taken the SAT weeks ago and heard nothing. Felicia Villegas was starting to get nervous. An email arrived in early November from Zelda C. Ray and Meredith Head, who work in admissions at Kennesaw State University, but it was just an invitation to lunch to celebrate her birthday. Ah, well. At least it wasn’t bad news.
What Felicia didn’t know the day she met Zelda and Meredith at Canvas in Marietta is that she’d be celebrating more than her 21st birthday.
“We have a present for you,” Zelda said.
“You’ve been accepted to Kennesaw State for spring semester!” Meredith said, presenting her with a T-shirt and her acceptance letter. “You did it all on your own. Your test scores were phenomenal.”
Felicia kissed the letter and held it close for a moment, her eyes closed.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I’m shaking.”
She starts class Jan. 11.
It’s hard to put into words just how big this day was, how far Felicia has come. At 4, while living with extended family in Texas, she began enduring what would be years of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. She eventually became pregnant as a result, then became a young teen mom.
After the abuse came to light, the family member was sentenced to life in prison, and Felicia and her baby moved back to Cobb County, where Felicia’s mother lives. But her struggles didn’t end when the trial did. For a time she, her baby and her mother lived in a car in a Waffle House parking lot — all while Felicia was a sophomore at Marietta High School. With the help of then-principal Leigh Colburn and Holly Tuchman, executive director of the YWCA of Northwest Georgia, Felicia and her daughter were provided safe housing until she graduated high school.
Felicia, who lives with her boyfriend, high school sweetheart Alvaro Echeverria, is now a mother of two and full-time employee at an area Zaxby’s. After she shared her story earlier this year, Kennesaw State University officials got in touch, eager to do whatever they could to welcome her to campus. On the day she toured the school, it seemed everyone wanted to meet her.
“Are you ready to start college?” KSU President Daniel S. Papp asked. Felicia, usually confident and bubbly, was too nervous to say much. She nodded and said, “Yes.”
“We’ll do everything we can to help you,” Papp said, “but guess who’s got to do all the studying?”
Felicia lit up at that point.
“That’s OK,” she said. “I love school!”
From Papp’s office you can see the sun setting over Kennesaw Mountain, its rays stretching out from the horizon as another day is done. In the distance, you can also see a neon Waffle House sign. It’s the sign that once served as Felicia’s night light, when she and her daughter were homeless.
The YWCA of Northwest Georgia continues to help her in various ways — Tuchman and longtime supporter Kim Gresh surprised her with a laptop recently, for example. A community fund has been established at First Landmark Bank to assist with her college expenses. She wants to study criminal psychology. One day she’d like to help victims the way Austin Police Department Sgt. Carl Satterlee did when she was young, scared and pregnant.
Given her past, Felicia does not like it when people touch her. The day of her KSU tour, when she was teary-eyed and trembling, I placed my hand lightly on her back for support.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“I feel alive,” she said.
Jennifer Brett, email@example.com
Ron and R.J. Hunter transformed GSU’s basketball program, but it wasn’t easy.
R.J. Hunter hits his first shot in Philips Arena near the end of the first quarter one evening in November. Now a rookie for the Boston Celtics, the former Georgia State standout looks out beyond his team’s bench where his effusive father sits in the third row.
Ron Hunter, feeling the stares of reporters, fans and GSU players, tries to temper his reaction as he watches his only son, now an NBA player, bury a three-pointer in competition against the Atlanta Hawks for the first time.
“I did a little fist pump, and I was trying to do it below the chair so no one could see it,” Hunter recalled. “But then I got to the point of thinking I didn’t care. I am a proud father and there is nothing wrong with being a proud father.”
In June, just a few months after a sensational ride in the NCAA tournament, R.J. was the No. 28 draft pick by the Boston Celtics. Still early in his first season, R.J is already getting consistent playing time and growing into his role backing up Avery Bradley.
Earlier this year, Personal Journeys profiled Ron and R.J. as they wrestled with the challenges of balancing the roles of coach and father, player and son in the high-stakes competition of college sports. The story also chronicled GSU’s magical 2014-2015 season. With an impossibly long, game-winning shot by R.J. in March and Ron’s now-famous tumble off a blue office chair, the Hunters shared one of the most thrilling, heartwarming moments in NCAA history.
R.J., 22, marvels at how his life has changed over the past year – going from college student at a little-known basketball school to playing hoops at the highest level. The relationship between father and son has changed, too.
These days Ron is more interested in giving R.J. advice about money and dating than how to play basketball.
He sends R.J. a text before every game, but it’s always words of encouragement.
“Everything is always positive. He never tells me anything I have to work on. He did enough of that in three years,” said R.J.
Instead, Ron is focused on continued success at Georgia State without the talent and contribution of his son.
“The players want to prove they can win without R.J., but honestly I feel the same way,” said Ron. “Everyone knows R.J. was a great player, but we want to prove what we are building here is special. This wasn’t just about R.J. getting into the pros and having a wonderful year. I came here to take this program to a completely other level, and R.J. just happened to be part of it.”
Helena Oliviero, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maureen Miles set out to find the father she never knew but found a brother instead.
As the Virgin Atlantic flight from London coasted down the runway at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, Maureen Miles experienced waves of emotion. In just a few minutes, she would meet the brother it took her more than 50 years to discover.
She stood behind the barrier at the international terminal waving a small British flag when she saw his 6-foot-3 inch frame, bright blue eyes and short crop of white hair come into focus. Chris Miles let go of his cart full of luggage, reached over the divide and wrapped his arms around his sister.
“I feel like I’m on cloud nine,” said Maureen, 72, the next day at Broadway Diner in Fayetteville where she shared a meal with Chris, 59, and her daughter, Meg Councilman.
“I feel like I want to pinch myself,” she said.
“I’ll do it for you, love,” quipped Chris.
For a half-century, London-born Maureen had nothing but questions about her family history. Her father, Dennis Miles, returned to service with the British Army shortly after she was born, and he never came home again. He wasn’t a casualty of World War II, but his marriage to her mother was. He met another woman and left his first family behind.
Maureen eventually tracked down her father, but it was too late. He had already died. Then she made a surprising discovery, she had a half-brother. The Salvation Army Missing Persons Bureau helped her track him down.
Chris was surprised and skeptical when he learned he had a half-sister. His father had never mentioned a previous marriage or a daughter – but he agreed to communicate with Maureen. They began talking by Skype several times a week, filling in the blanks of a history they never knew they shared.
But after months of regular communication, the two lost contact. A brief illness landed Chris in the hospital and other personal matters were consuming his time. Maureen was concerned but hopeful they would reconnect. When Chris resurfaced, he announced he was coming to visit Maureen the following week.
“It is easy to buy a plane ticket and to give it a lot of chitchat, but to turn up and meet someone that is your sister at the age of 59, never having known?” said Chris sounding incredulous. Just before getting off the plane, Chris choked up with emotion, but as soon as he spied Maureen in the crowd, he felt fine.
After making an impromptu stop at J.C. Penney for clothing more suited to Georgia’s weather, the pair shared a meal together at a local steakhouse before retreating to Maureen’s home where they relaxed, looked at photographs and began piecing together their family history.
The next morning at the Broadway Diner, despite having had little sleep, the mood was lively as brother and sister chatted about the British television show “Steptoe and Son,” English tea and the mysterious man who fathered them.
“I can’t believe how much alike in looks our mothers were,” said Maureen comparing their father’s wedding photos.
“I am still stunned that somebody I spent my whole life with could lead this double life,” said Chris.
“The one thing I will never be able to do is to get him back,” said Maureen. “I just want to know why.”
A little over a week later, Chris was headed back to London.
“It has been an immense journey in a very short space of time,” said Chris.
It’s now a journey they have vowed to make together.
Nedra Rhone, email@example.com