How the OKC National Memorial, Museum impacted a local nonprofit leader’s journey

“I walked down the fence and I said, ‘Well, Lord if you want me to be here, this will happen,’” said Joanne Riley, executive director of Compassionate Hands, a local nonprofit. “I got the call the next day. ‘You got the job.’”

Flowers and stuffed animals lie atop and beside the 168 chairs that make up The Field of Empty Chairs at the Oklahoma City Memorial Tuesday. The 26th Anniversary Remembrance Ceremony was held Monday. Photo / Haley Humphrey

Riley was at the University of Oklahoma when she heard about the bombing.
While some say they could hear and feel the bombing in Norman, Riley remembered she was inside her vehicle, listening to the event on the radio. Like many others, she sat in front of the TV and cried about the domestic terrorist bombing that killed 168 Oklahomans April 19, 1995.
The California native, who moved to Yukon in 1980, did not have plans to ever visit the site, where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood in Oklahoma City.
“I knew that it was just a very emotional thing for me with all my grief going on,” Riley said.
That was until a job opportunity presented itself in a newspaper in 1996.
After becoming a widow in 1994, Riley said she felt lost. She decided to finish her public administration degree at OU and later found herself on the job hunt.
With experience working with the American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma, Riley interviewed for a job she never imagined. She was hired as the Oklahoma City National Memorial administrative assistant in October 1996 to help design the outdoor memorial.
“The beautiful thing about that was I was allowed to make it whatever I needed to make it because it was just so overwhelming everything that had to be done,” Riley said.
She jumped in headfirst to her new role of manning the office and fielding phone calls.
“Emotions were so raw and so rough,” Riley said.
There were four people — an executive director, communications director, Riley’s position, and an archivist — working out of the Bank of Oklahoma near the bombing site. Thousands of volunteers and committee members were also part of building the memorial from the ground up.
As the design competition of the memorial took off, Riley was tasked with tracking each registration form. There were about 1,500 entries.
“What’s crazy is we were running this whole thing on a used PC that was given to us by United Way,” she said. “I was doing it on a database in Word.”
Between 600 and 700 designs of the memorial were submitted. Each design had to have various elements that incorporated the Survivor Tree, first responders and each aspect in the memorial’s mission statement.
The competition had different phases, and with each one, there would be a deadline. If someone missed a deadline to enter their design, it would not be accepted.
Riley answered many a phone call regarding people who wanted their design to be received.
“It was like the whole world was invested in what happened here in Oklahoma City,” she said.
As the design momentum continued, Riley knew the team would have to collect names for the Survivor Wall. When April arrived, there were no days off, as she recalled mapping out where people were in each department of the building.
“We were running on adrenaline and cussing a lot,” Riley laughed.
In 2000, Riley returned to the memorial to accept a new position of museum operations director as it was being built. She oversaw ticketing, launching the volunteer program, filling the store with merchandise, organizing anniversary rehearsals and more.
Later, she fell into another role of being the staff liaison to the families, survivors, rescue workers and the conscience committee.
“I’m just here to listen and try to help you find resources,” Riley said of her role.
She accredited the staff liaison role as one that prepared her to be where she is today — serving people experiencing homelessness in the Yukon area for the last three years.
“I lost someone to cancer, but I certainly didn’t lose someone to a public murder,” she said. “I could say, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know how it feels to feel like you’re going to lose your mind because you’re so sad.’”
Riley walked alongside survivors and listened to the stories of family members, much like she has with homeless people in Yukon.
“I believe God prepares you for your next appointment,” she said.
When the museum’s enhancements began in 2014, Riley felt the weight of exhaustion and became ill. She ended her chapter with the memorial in 2015.
When she thinks about her history with the memorial, Riley said the most impactful memory is the survivors. One of whom she saw last week.
“I think the most important lesson I learned was how to handle your compassion for other people,” Riley said.
At the end of each day, Riley said she says a prayer for everyone who walks through Compassionate Hands’ door, helps as much as she can, and gives the rest to God.
“If you make a change in one person’s life, it’s worth all your work,” she said.

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