BY TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOS RAEANNA ANGLEN
Peter Meijer stepped out of the command center at a Hurricane Sandy disaster relief site and immediately knew why he was there.
Another volunteer, a war veteran, came up to him, tears welling up in his eyes.
“He said, ‘Man, I’ve done three tours. But this past week, I made the most impact.’
“Ten minutes later, this older lady came up to me crying,” Meijer recalls. “I asked her what was wrong. She said, ‘Thank you. Until you came, I didn’t have any hope.’ Then she gave me a hug.”
Meijer’s quiet for a minute.
His time in the U.S. Army Reserves and embedded with the Iraqi Army as a combat advisor prepared him well for the physical rigors of disaster relief.
But the tears and hugs?
“I have no script for that,” Meijer says. “You realize, everybody’s winning. It’s 100 percent good, with a capital G.”
Meijer, 25, grandson of the late Frederik Meijer, grew up with plenty of lessons about making a difference in the world.
Now he’s doing his part through two organizations, both connected to his role as a military veteran.
Meijer is a volunteer for Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response and humanitarian aid organization that organizes military veterans to respond to crises.
And he’s on the board of directors for Student Veterans of America, an advocacy and support group that eases vets from combat life to college life.
A U.S. Army veteran, joined the Army in 2006 while in college at West Point. In 2010, while a student at Columbia University, he was deployed to Baghdad where he served as a combat adviser to the Iraqi military for a year.
When deadly Hurricane Sandy hit shore in New Jersey in October 2012, Meijer and other Team Rubicon volunteers jumped in to assist.
He prepared evacuation shelters, helped with search and rescue efforts and cleaned up debris in the battered Rockaway neighborhood in Queens.
The combination of military veterans and disaster relief makes perfect sense, Meijer says.
“When a vet comes back, he loses a sense of camaraderie,” says Meijer, who lives in Manhattan. “You have a profound emotional connection with the others you serve with. Suddenly, that’s gone, along with your sense of purpose.
“How can you find a new community to be part of that gives you a sense of purpose and community?”
Many find it through Team Rubicon.
“Your main mission is to help people — restore a sense of normalcy,” he says. “But there’s this beautiful silver lining. It also helps the vets, who often struggle with suicide, mental health issues, PTSD, issues of unemployment, how to integrate. All these difficult issues. When you try to work on them directly, you don’t make much progress. But when you’re working with other vets at a disaster, all those really difficult emotional bridges to get across fall away on their own.
“It’s the most gratifying thing.”
Meijer was in Moore, Oklahoma in May right after a deadly tornado struck, killing 23 people and injuring 377 others. Eight children died in the Plaza Towers Elementary School there.
As he worked on cleanup, Meijer watched as one little girl collected loose roof shingles and drew rainbows on them with crayons. She gave them out to volunteers as thank yous.
Meijer found out later she had been pulled from the rubble earlier at the elementary school.
“That kind of thing,” he says, “sticks with you.”
Meijer grew up in East Grand Rapids as part of the Meijer family. His dad is Hank Meijer, co-chairman of the food retailer.
Growing up, Meijer says, “there was a very high bar.
“We learned it was good to want to do good, but that there’s a lot of goodwill out there that’s never translated into action,” he says. “What change can you actually affect?”
Some of his core beliefs come from his grandfather, Fred, he says.
“It doesn’t cost anything to care and to be a good person,” Meijer says. “And, life is too short not to have relationships with people and work together.”
There must be something to those Fred-isms, Meijer says, because he sure touched a lot of people. “The outpouring after he died was such a touching symbol of the impact you can have,” he says.
Jennifer Clipp has known Meijer since he was a freshman in high school. For 20 years she was the secretary in the guidance office at East Grand Rapids High School. The two remain good friends, and Meijer often checks in with Clipp, now retired, from his adventures.
“Peter wasn’t a typical high school kid,” Clipp says. “Everybody liked him, but he wasn’t hanging out at the mall. Other things interested him. He’s an avid learner, and he wants to experience everything he’s interested in.”
And he was interested in the military.
“We had many conversations and disagreements about him going into the service,” Clipp says. “I didn’t want him to be in danger. I said, ‘Peter — why would you do this? You have your whole life to explore.’ He wanted to experience what it was about.
“Now, when you hear him speak about veterans, it’s truly heartfelt,” she says.
Meijer spelled his last name differently during high school, Clipp says, so as not to be recognized for his high profile family.
“He could easily be a very entitled young man, but he isn’t,” she says. “He’s never wanted anything given to him because of who he is. One of the reasons he chose to go to West Point was because he got in on his own, not because his father could afford to send him.
“I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
Meanwhile, Meijer is a passionate spokesman for Student Veterans of America, a go-between, he explains, “between the college bureaucracy and the Veteran’s Administration bureaucracy.”
They help with paperwork, internships, employment opportunities and other nuts and bolts of transition.
“But there are social and emotional issues, too,” Meijer says. “These students are older than their peers, they’ve had different experiences.”
Peer support is huge, he says.
“Guys who have been there can show others what hurdles they’ve faced, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Meijer was a student at Columbia University when he was deployed to Baghdad. When he returned, “I should have been as well prepared as anyone to make the transition,” he says. “I had already been in school. Yet it was still really difficult to adjust.
“You don’t want to be that guy in class who says, ‘Let me tell you how the world works,’” he says. “You don’t want to play the veteran card. But the reality is there’s a deep divide between the military and college campus atmosphere.
“A kid who’s just out of high school is living away from home for the first time, learning how to do his own laundry,” he says. “I’ve been shot at.”
While Meijer’s most dramatic stories of aid come from his experiences hundreds or thousands of miles away, he still has a soft spot for his own back yard.
His family has a long relationship with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. His grandfather created a donor advised fund for his grandchildren to be part of, Meijer says, and he continues to have a say in the projects it funds.
It funds restoration of a WW II glider at the Greenville Military Museum, he says, as well as restoration of the veterans memorial in downtown Grand Rapids.
The veteran experience is part of him, he says.
“You know when you’re in a foreign country at a restaurant and you realize there’s somebody else there from the same place you are?” he says. “Even if you don’t know each other, you have this immediate camaraderie.”
Same thing with veterans, he says.
“You share a lot of things that you can’t explain.”