Tucson Twins Volunteered In Giffords’ Office While Dealing With Aftermath Attack

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KINGSTON, R.I. – January 21,2011 – University of Rhode Island political science majors Tristany and Kirsten Leikem flew home to Arizona for the winter break and were watching their younger sister, Lyndsay, play basketball in Phoenix on Jan. 8 when text message alerts sounded on their cell phones. There had been a shooting in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, their hometown. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among the victims.

The sisters found a television nearby and watched and waited for news. Finally, breaking news came across the screen. Giffords had been reported dead.

“It was so traumatic for us,” said Kirsten, who along with Tristany had interned in Giffords’ busy Tucson office last summer, where the rule was no phone should ring more than twice.

The TV broadcaster interrupted and apologized. Giffords was not dead, but she was wounded critically at an open meeting she was holding with local residents. Information about other victims was sketchy.

The sister’s worried as they drove back to Tucson. They learned that 19 people were shot, six fatally. While they had interacted with Giffords a few times in Arizona, the congresswomen had been in her Washington, D.C. office for most of their internship. But the sisters had gotten to know Giffords’ staffers very well.

They were devastated when they learned 30-year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, community outreach director for Giffords, was among the victims who had been murdered.

“The congresswoman’s staff were amazing people,” Tristany said. “The spotlight has been on the congresswoman, and rightly so. But I don’t want people to ever forget someone like Gabe. He was really special.”

When Giffords’ office re-opened, the twins volunteered their services.

“It was chaotic, with the press and the public,” said Kirsten, noting a memorial filled with flowers, notes and other memorabilia had been created outside the congresswoman’s office. “Although this memorial was large, as was the one in the Safeway parking lot, there were many smaller memorials created throughout the Tucson area. People crowded into the office with prayers and thoughts for the congresswoman’s recovery.”

The URI twins handed them blank sheets of white paper and asked them to express their thoughts.

“After they were able to do this, the people seemed to feel better,” Kirsten said. “They felt like they had made a contribution.”

The twins – members of the URI women’s tennis team – returned to campus this week for practice. The juniors are key members of the squad, starting in both singles and doubles for the Rams.

When asked if her future career plans had changed since the shooting, Kirsten, a political science and economics double major, said she had always thought of eventually becoming a U.S. Senator, but now she realizes she wants to go into public policy. Her sister has also altered her plans.

“I never thought about going into public service, but now I am thinking about going into it,” said Tristany, a political science and journalism major double major. “I know I want to go to law school and perhaps become a senator. Who knows? It’s a long time from now.”

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