Erin Brenneman, a Goshen College Social Work graduate of 2013, died in July 2017 as the result of a tragic traffic accident. She had been living and working in Portland, OR for several years and was preparing to start an MSW program this fall. In the wake of her death, it has become very clear that Erin was known and loved from coast to coast. Those of us who learned to know Erin through Goshen College, whether from campus classes or SST in Senegal, want to name our grief at Erin’s death, our joy at having known her, and some of the significant contributions she made. The following thoughts are from some of her faculty members and peers, from Social Work and from Senegal SST.
Soon after graduating from college Erin became an employee at Ryan’s Place, a center for grieving children and their families. Around this time, it also became evident that she was struggling with anorexia nervosa. As you may know, this is a very difficult disease to watch progress. Aileac Deegan, Executive Director of Ryan’s Place, and GC social work grad ’06, was instrumental in helping Erin seek and gain access to the care she needed. This eventually entailed Erin’s decision to return home to Montana. With the help of good treatment, and her strong support network, Erin was successful in establishing her recovery from anorexia. And in fact, she developed a passion for helping others who are struggling with eating disorders, both personally and professionally. She started a blog “Loved & Worthy of Love: An Endless Journey Toward Self-Acceptance” (www.lovedandworthyoflove.com/), and was planning to start an MSW program this fall, with the explicit goal of helping people with eating disorders. Shortly before the accident, Erin recorded a 5-minute video about overcoming fear, which was posted on Mirror-Mirror Eating Disorder’s YouTube page, offering support and encouragement to people struggling with eating disorders. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-omKQjtBxRQ]
One way that we faculty will honor and cherish Erin’s memory is by continuing to extend our care and compassion to help others recover from eating disorders. If you’d like more information about eating disorders, we recommend the National Eating Disorders website: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
You will always be the best person I know at being angry and calm at the same time. Your ability to find humor in the most unforgiving places will not be forgotten. I am so proud of what you were able to accomplish, overcome, and appreciate all the support you gave me during our time together in school and as good friends. During chapel, we were singing a song that had the words “spirit friend”. We started cracking up for no apparent reason and from then on started calling each other by that name. I now see this name has taken on another meaning and will always remind me you are near. I am so happy with where you are now, but am going to miss you so much.
Ryan Wengerd (Spirit Friend)
I remember Erin for her kind heart and good sense of humor. She was insightful, hilarious, compassionate and fierce all at the same time. I don’t know many people who live like that.
Erin was truly an incredible person! She would go out of her to make others feel included. She was always encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and help others in the community. She got me involved in shoots game club at Gaining Grounds. She also pushed me to think outside the box. I feel Erin made an impact on everyone she met, which is evident by the amount of support she was shown after the accident. She gave us all an incredible example to try to live up to and pushed us to be better human beings. Her wit, sense of humor, love for other, generosity, and independent spirit will never be forgotten. She was taken way too soon and it’s still hard to believe she is gone.
-Meg (Suter) Schroeder
Even though it’s been years since I went to Senegal for my Study Service Term with Goshen College, I still feel a little twinge of guilt about my SST experience. I feel guilty because my most meaningful memories from that summer and the most impacting relationships from that summer do not revolve around my cultural experience or my host families; they revolve around my Goshen College friends—Erin, more specifically.
Going into SST, I thought I had a good idea which Goshen students I’d gravitate towards over the course of the trip—people I already knew prior to that summer. Even though Erin and I were in the same class at a tiny school, our paths never crossing significantly prior to going to Senegal. However, one day early in the semester, I found myself having a spontaneous lunch and three-hour conversation with Erin and two other students—John and Jess—on the tile floor of our French classroom. I don’t remember the circumstances that led us to having lunch or the nuances of the conversation, only that it set the foundation for a lasting friendship and that the discussion was vulnerable, intense, hilarious, crass, and challenging—the recipe for all of our conversations in the years to come.
On SST in Senegal, I could count on Erin, John, and Jess to secure a sleeve of coveted MegaChok cookies, share pieces of laboriously peeled mangos, and process both the frustrating and joy-filled moments of cross-cultural living. I remember that Erin had a particularly meaningful connection with her host family in Thies, and I was impressed by the ways she prioritized that family relationship. Once we were back in the U.S., John, Jess and Erin were my go-to people for processing my complex SST experience. I was grateful, though, that we moved from being compartmentalized “SST friends” to being friends who shared other pieces of life. We went on a fall break trip to Chicago. We had countless four-way Skype discussions, linking us together from Goshen, Iowa, and Oregon when we dispersed after graduating. We readily swapped lengthy emails updating each other on our lives. Erin was especially good at sending snail mail. We eventually progressed into a strange yet surprisingly effective habit of sending life updates in the form of PowerPoint presentations, instigated by John’s Christmas break boredom. One of Erin’s PowerPoint presentations was titled “Sassafras PowerPoint” and contained important updates such as her decision to be a red panda for Halloween, the current state of her relationship with a cat, and that she was considering moving to Chicago and was therefore saving all her money “like a cheapskate Canadian”. I’m thankful for the small pieces I have of Erin in these forms, still saved on the fridge, in boxes, or in my e-mail folders. Whenever I read something that Erin wrote, I’m amazed by how clearly her writing mimics her way of talking; it makes her feel close.
In the weeks after the accident when Erin was hit in Oregon, I was on a group message that provided updates to those near and far. I was unsurprised that Erin’s family and loved ones were the perfect mix of being exquisitely thoughtful, fiercely loving, and irreverently funny—exactly like Erin herself. All of the people involved in that group message knew Erin from different parts of life: Montana childhood, Goshen College, Portland, work places, family relationships, etc. What struck me, though, was how we all also experienced Erin so similarly: as a lover of cats; as a powerfully loyal friend; as simultaneously the most loving and crass person you’d ever meet; as the person who tells you what you need to hear but supports you beyond a doubt; as an advocate for anorexia recovery and self love; as a workaholic with a heart for those in need; as a first-rate user of swear words and the phrase “girl bye”…the list could go on. With Erin, you never doubted that she loved you. You always knew.
I miss Erin. That will not change. I can’t count the times in the last months that I’ve thought of things I wanted her opinion on or times when John, Jess, and I have been together and keenly felt an empty fourth place in our conversations. The day that Erin was hit, it was John who called late at night to tell me. There are many things about Erin’s death that are impossible to comprehend. There are so many things that are said when a person dies tragically that are nonsensical, unhelpful, and untrue. What I know to be true is that I’m glad—when life took the turn that it did—that I had a friend like John who called me, both of us shaped by Erin. What I know to be true is that I will keep missing Erin. What I know to be true is that I’m grateful for all of the memories I have. What I know to be true is that Erin loved well and is loved.
During our short time studying together in Senegal, I really gravitated towards Erin. It wasn’t just for her humor and approachability, but because she was one of those people who seemed fully open to new experiences and possibilities. She was a great travelling partner because she regarded the unfamiliar without judgment or fear but with curiosity and love.
Two years ago I was wrapping up a year living in Chad as a volunteer English teacher. I hadn’t been in touch with Erin since college, but I was feeling reflective about the things that had brought me to that particular point in my life, so I sent Erin a message on Facebook. I talked about how being around her- seeing the way she engaged with people, noticing how she didn’t get hung up on material differences, and enjoying her sense of humor- these were all factors that positively shaped my own experience and made me want to pursue longer-term service. Of course, Erin responded humbly and thoughtfully. Among other things she said, “I think of SST as one of the most transformative experiences of my life, one where I was able to truly live in another way and find value in people I seemingly had nothing in common with.” I think it’s safe to say that these practices extended well beyond our three months in Senegal. Erin continued to value people and live in a way that was a gift to those around her. I’m so thankful to have known her.
– Madeleine Ruth
As a first time Goshen College SST leader heading to Senegal with three small children in the summer of 2012, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the group or the experience that summer. When I look back, I am filled with gratitude for what was an extraordinary time of personal growth and discovery, as well as relationship building within our Senegalese communities and student group. Erin was an integral part of both parts of my experience.
I remember talking with Erin at our orientation meeting several weeks before departing for Senegal. She stayed after the meeting and asked wise and curious questions, while also making several funny quips about her inability to pack small and her nervous excitement about the experience. As a social work major, she sought me out and wanted to know what I had learned and what my experiences were in the field. I was immediately drawn to Erin’s infectious laughter and dry sense of humor, her fierce loyalty to the people she loved, and her deep commitment to social justice.
Throughout that summer, she was gracious and kind to peers, leaders, and host families alike. She was appropriately annoyed and frustrated when plans were changed last minute or the bus never showed up but she often found a way to make those moments memorable for all of us. She had the ability to re frame even the most challenging situation and turn it into something she could learn from and usually laugh about later. She was a trusted temperature reader of the group dynamic and took the time to offer support to those who were struggling, while also sharing her own struggles openly and modeling for others how to ask for support from us and the group. She loved her Senegalese host families and eagerly took part in new experiences within Senegalese culture, even when it was uncomfortable and hot. She loved our children and often found ways to remind us all not to take ourselves too seriously. Because of the young ages of our children, I would often end up in the back of our rickety bus trying to manage three toddlers for many hours on long, dusty road trips. On those long rides, she often found a seat near the back of the bus with us, creating much needed distractions and games and conversations with all of us.
I learned so much from Erin that summer and the years after we returned from Senegal. I continue to be inspired by the way she lived into the complexities and messiness of the world, fiercely seeking the grace and love for herself that she so readily offered others. I admit that my grief around her untimely death is still making it hard to commit to these words, to know how to end this short narrative. There is so much more I could say and there was so much more life for her to explore. I grieve the fact that she is not in this world making it a better place, even as I carry her spirit and memory with me always.