I had just sat down at my neighborhood Tex-Mex restaurant with a family friend. It was May 31, a little before 5 p.m. I put my phone on the table in case my daughter or father called.
It was a big day for me because I had just put the final touches on the activities for the Minority Business Council retreat for the city of Virginia Beach the following week. Every year the city brings its agencies with purchasing authority together to review the previous year’s performance for minority vendor participation and other activities. Elected city leaders, department directors, city staff, board members and volunteers attend the retreat.
Everything was going as planned just as it had the previous couple of years. The moderator role was new to me, but I thought I was up to the task. As a certified Process Communication Model trainer/coach, I help managers understand the six personality types to communicate, resolve conflict and ultimately achieve organizational goals.
I planned to create different activities to keep the spirit of cooperation fresh among the attendees and hopefully be invited back another year.
That all changed the moment I received the first of many messages that a mass shooting had occurred by the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, a complex of Colonial-style city government buildings housing the mayor’s office, city manager, City Council, courts, police and fire departments, finance and a host of other departments including public works — where the shootings took place.
I initially discounted the report as erroneous, but the messages kept coming. The Hampton Roads region is comprised of seven cities in southeastern Virginia. We are not a major metropolitan area but combined it has a population of 1.7 million people based on 2014 estimates.
I was stunned. I have lived in the Hampton Roads area for over 40 years. I did not know what to think other than to ask my friend to call her son-in-law who worked in the municipal building.
At first she hesitated because the reports seemed so impossible. This could not happen in our town. Finally, she contacted her daughter and found that her son-in-law was at work but not in the building. After hearing of the tragedy, he went home due to the shock and magnitude of the loss of his friends and co-workers.
We lost 12 people that afternoon, and four were wounded. The loss that 12 families suffered cannot be calculated. Our community suffered as well, though it does not compare to the families that did not get the chance to say goodbye to loved ones who were taken without notice or warning.
The training retreat I was to lead understandably was postponed until Aug. 21. I had an intense feeling of sadness as I prepared. I almost turned down the opportunity because of the grief I felt. Knowing that one member of our group lost his life to a senseless act of violence was painful, and many of the people attending the retreat were personally connected to the victims.
Normally, there is a theme to our events but this year there was just immense sadness. I spent days thinking about how to motivate this group and then an epiphany: just one word for the theme — Inspire. I built a series of attendee exercises designed to first build self-awareness, then group awareness, and then to combine that knowledge and create a personally crafted message intended to inspire the person next to them. Something more than a pep talk — a personal message from a friend to someone they got to know better as a result of the activity.
I was not sure “Inspire” was a success until I was leaving and the chairperson along with the community liaison told me how much they needed the Inspire activity because it helped them as a whole lift from sadness.
Virginia Beach as a community pulled together and developed the hashtag #VBStrong as a standard, but we still hurt. We endured many memorial services and vigils both public and private. The United Way of Hampton Roads raised over $4 million to distribute to the families. The city of Virginia Beach has received a $3 million grant through the Victims of Crime Act to build a VB Strong Center to help family members and the community recover. Sadly, there have been more mass shootings that have torn the fabric of their local communities since that fateful day.
Life is precious and very fragile. We must cherish each moment with our loved ones but we also need to pause occasionally from the workplace grind to value and appreciate the time we spend at work with our colleagues.
Todd Wright is owner of Newport News, Virginia-based Touchpoint Communication. Email him at email@example.com.