The day starts at 6 a.m., sliding off of a cot in a makeshift office at the edge of Camp Atterbury in southern Johnson County.
Russ Hessler showers and dresses, then sets to work completing paperwork for Team Rubicon, a veteran-led nonprofit tapped to help Afghan refugees in the United States, including the more than 6,500 being temporarily housed at Camp Atterbury. Wearing a gray Team Rubicon sweatshirt with “Rusty” written on it, he flips on the lights in the organization’s warehouse at 7 a.m., wakes up some of the other volunteers and eats breakfast if he has time.
Volunteers — some of whom sleep at the warehouse; others live nearby — arrive for a morning briefing.
They also talk about some of Team Rubicon’s cultural principles, various mottoes that mean different things to the volunteers.
“One of them is ‘Change your socks.’ It has nothing to do with changing your socks. … Sometimes you need to take a break,” he said. “‘Your mother’s a donor.’ That’s a philosophy (which means) we’ll spend when we need to. We don’t want to waste money, though, because we live off of donors.”
Hessler goes over the day’s plan and assigns teams work that needs to get done. He then retreats into his office and responds to emails and phone calls.
He often gets questions about donations, though on Tuesday, the questions focused on the recent extension of Team Rubicon’s operation at Camp Atterbury. It was originally scheduled to end this Friday, when another organization, Save Our Allies, would have taken over, but the assignment was extended to Jan. 7.
The timing works out well. The refugees are expected to be completely resettled by then.
From health care to Team Rubicon
Hessler joined Team Rubicon around Veteran’s Day 2017.
He had followed the group’s activities since 2014, which was when he first heard about it. The organization has existed for 11 years, since 2010. Team Rubicon’s mission is to serve communities by mobilizing veterans to continue their service, leveraging their skills and experience to help people prepare, respond and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises. They have responded to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes throughout its history.
The U.S. Marine veteran from Columbus, Ohio, worked in the health care industry as an information manager at the time.
He went through volunteer training for Team Rubicon from late 2017 to early 2018. Later that year, a tornado hit a town in his home state of Ohio. The organization did two weekend clean-ups to help the town in the aftermath.
Hessler signed up for one of the weekends. In his line of work, he mainly worked on computers, so the opportunity to do physical work was great, he said. After that, he completed additional Team Rubicon training.
Then he was deployed to Mexico Beach, Florida, to assist following Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that struck the town of less than a thousand people on Oct. 10, 2018.
Hessler was one of a few hundred people deployed to the area over the course of the three-month operation. He volunteered for two separate weeks — one before Christmas and one after.
That is when he realized he loved the work, so he became a trainer and instructor for the nonprofit.
“My wife says I love service, and I do,” he said. “I like the veteran component of (Team Rubicon).”
The call to help refugees
Hessler, along with several of Team Rubicon’s volunteers, arrived at Camp Atterbury in September.
He is a team lead for the Atterbury operation, though he’s not a fan of the title.
“I don’t like that term only because I’m an instructor,” he said.
Team Rubicon’s resettlement operations were assigned to its North Branch, one of three branches in the United States. North Branch was given the resettlement operations because the South Branch was dealing with Hurricane Ida and the West Branch was dealing with wildfires out west.
In late August, Hessler saw a phone call on his calendar about resettlement, which peaked his interest. As the call inched closer, he realized it was about refugees so he jumped on the call, which had about 180 people on it, he recalled.
During the call, John Conners, a North Branch deputy director, talked about his experience watching the refugee flights land at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. Refugees were getting off the flights with barely any luggage. Soon after the Department of Defense called Team Rubicon and asked for help — a surprising request as many do not know what the organization does.
The nonprofit had never done a resettlement operation like this, and may never do it again. Still, Team Rubicon set itself apart as an organization that is willing to try. The contingent of veterans involved with the group contributes to that mindset, Hessler said.
“There were a lot of veterans throughout the month of August in Team Rubicon who were wanting to do something, and when this came up, I think (we) realized we can try to do that,” he said.
Atterbury is one of several bases that is housing refugees, and people from Team Rubicon are doing the same kind of work at the other bases, Hessler said.
But at Camp Atterbury, the U.S. Army has provided a lot of assistance. They have a facility that has easy access, heating and showers, and the military picks up the donated goods and moves them over to the refugees for distribution, he said.
The Department of Homeland Security — both federal and state — has also been accommodating, Hessler said.
What’s next as holidays approach
With the holidays approaching and the operation extended to January, plans are being developed for what Team Rubicon will do over the next six weeks.
For Hessler, his wife originally planned to visit for Thanksgiving, but those plans changed. Now, he will visit home later this weekend before spending the holiday at Camp Atterbury with a skeleton crew.
Several Hoosiers have already reached out to give Team Rubicon turkeys. A lot of the volunteers have offered to serve on the holiday, but he doesn’t want them to be away from their families.
Local support has been amazing — from donations to volunteers, he said.
In Columbus, Team Rubicon typically gets 50 to 100 new volunteers each year. In a month, Indiana had somewhere between 500 to 1,000 offer to volunteer because people saw what the group was doing. Weekly, Team Rubicon has visits from people across central Indiana delivering donations and items for the volunteers, Hessler said.
Local resident Kelly Brenton has been volunteering with Team Rubicon since September, and has enjoyed every second of it. She has witnessed firsthand how the processing facility has changed since donations began to flow in, and loves the camaraderie between volunteers, she said.
She is especially impressed by Hessler’s work ethic and leadership skills, she said.
“People are always asking him questions (and) he’s been pulled many different ways,” Brenton said. “It takes a lot to manage this operation.”
Often, Hessler is asked why he is volunteering with the refugees, and he always says he would rather be there trying to help instead of complaining at home.
“Teddy Roosevelt once shared, ‘It’s not the critic who counts,’ and we talk about it a lot in (Team Rubicon),” he said. “We are at least trying to do good. … We can’t help everybody, but we at least try to have a presence to try to do what we can.”
One of the most memorable moments for Hessler came on a hot September day.
A representative for an organization who wanted to give Team Rubicon a donation had called him and ask about Team Rubicon’s work and what they could do to help.
Hessler was outside a dining facility on base when he answered the call, standing between some desert-brown-colored barracks in the late-day sun, when several refugees walked passed him. They were dressed in traditional clothes as they went to have their evening meal.
“I look over at the sun and it’s huge on the horizon; it’s oppressively hot and I don’t feel like I’m even in Indiana anymore,” he said. “I knew we were in the United States, but everything around me indicated that I might be the guest versus all these individuals. … This opportunity to be here is an opportunity, at least for myself, to try to do better for the individuals who helped us.”
Donations still needed
Right now, Team Rubicon is asking for shoe donations as colder weather starts to take hold.
They also need additional donations of baby bottle brushes, sports bras and men’s items.
Team Rubicon has received a lot of donations, but they have noticed some issues. For example, while they have received clothing donations, some of the clothes are too large. At most they need more small- and medium-sized clothes, Hessler said.
Men’s items tend to come in less frequently compared to baby items. For example, they need more men’s shoes compared to baby shoes, he said.
Changing Footprints, an Indianapolis nonprofit that rehabilitates and donates shoes, has sent some shoes to Atterbury, but they need more.
Overall, Hessler has been buoyed by the amount of support they have received. The number of donations and frequency of them is unlike anything he has ever seen.
“It’s amazing. It gives you hope, a positive outlook toward humanity and what people can do when they’re trying to help anonymously,” he said.
As each day draws to a close, Team Rubicon wraps up operations and sits down for dinner.
Hessler ties of loose ends, along with the rest of the volunteers, before he turns off the lights.
HOW TO HELP
Here is a look at where you can donate:
Team Rubicon’s donation site:
Johnson County Park Amphitheater, 7105 S. Kern St, Edinburgh. Donations are accepted 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.
Franklin Community High School: 2600 Cumberland Drive, Franklin. Donations can be accepted during school hours, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Franklin Community Middle School: 625 Grizzly Cub Drive, Franklin. Donations can be accepted during school hours, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Johnson County Public Library:
Clark Pleasant Branch: 530 Tracy Road, New Whiteland. Donations can be accepted Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Franklin Branch: 401 State Street, Franklin. Donations can be accepted Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
Trafalgar Branch: 424 S. Tower Street, Trafalgar. Donations can be accepted Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
White River Branch: 1664 Library Boulevard, Greenwood. Donations can be accepted Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
The following Johnson County sites are also accepting donations:
Franklin City Hall: 70 E. Monroe St., Franklin. Donations can be accepted during business hours Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Franklin Parks and Recreation: 396 Branigin Blvd, Franklin. Donations can be accepted during office hours Monday to Thursday 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Johnson County Recycling District: 900 Arvin Drive, Franklin. The Franklin Recycling Center is open for drop-offs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday though Friday and 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month.
Trafalgar Christian Church: 300 West Pearl Street, Trafalgar. Those interested in dropping off donations should call or text Pastor Kyrmen Rea ahead of time at 317-408-9782.
Union Christian Church: 1331 East 300 South, Franklin. Those interested in dropping off donations should call Rev. Mark Parkinson ahead of time at 765-744-9772.
Wild Geese Bookshop: 40 East Madison Street Franklin. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 12-4 p.m. on Sundays.
Here is a look at what items are currently prioritized for Afghan refugees. All clothing must be new, and of conservative and modest styles, such as crewnecks or turtlenecks.
Winter clothing (Children- All Ages)
Winter clothing (Adults- Small & Medium)
Winter boots (Children- All Sizes)
Winter boots (Adults- All Sizes)
Athletic-style shoes (Toddlers – 1-4 years)
Athletic-style shoes (Children – All ages)
Powdered baby formula
Baby bottle brushes
An Amazon wish list for needs at Camp Atterbury can be accessed at amzn.to/3lr2M1c.
Source: Team Rubicon