For Amanda and Samantha Grinnell, being at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday made them feel close to their brother, Pvt. Tyler Grinnell.
It was their first time attending an event with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) -- a non-profit organization that cares for families of fallen veterans -- since their brother passed away at just 20 years old while serving as a tanker in the United States Army.
The Grinnell sisters were there for a day of career development and networking workshops hosted by the Patriots Foundation, complete with a tour of Gillette Stadium and the Patriots Hall of Fame. Employees from all different facets of the team shared what they knew about résumé building, content creation, construction, football operations, data analytics, athletic training, and more – but Amanda and Samantha got much more out of it than that.
"The Pats have always had a special place in our hearts and we're really happy to be here," Amanda said. "I think he would just be so psyched."
Tyler was a Patriots fan as a child, and though his allegiances changed after the family moved to Pennsylvania, they had fond memories of when he was little, making homemade Patriots shirts with glued-on letters and fabric paint to cheer on New England in a Super Bowl against the Giants.
Gillette Stadium wasn't the only place they could feel Tyler's presence with them, though.
He loved Harry Potter, and while walking down Newbury Street a day prior, the sisters saw the Harry Potter Shop. They were reminded of another one of his favorite movies, "Borat," thanks to a reference from a fellow TAPS group member.
"It just feels like he's letting us know that he's here with us," Amanda said. "And he put us here together."
That sense of unity extended to the entire group, as TAPS also brought them together with other survivors of fallen military members, offering support and guidance from people who know exactly what they're going through.
For Austin Durbin of Houston, Texas, that sense of connection was refreshing.
"I'm happy to experience this and be here with everybody," he said, introducing himself to the group while honoring his father, Staff. Sgt. Jerry Michael "Iceman" Durbin Jr, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.
"This is very nice and I haven't felt this close to people in a long time."
As Patriots Foundation president Joshua Kraft articulated to the group of survivors, supporting the military has been an important focus in giving back to the community since his family bought the team in 1994.
"It's the military that allows us to come out here on a Sunday and tailgate, have a great time, watch Mac Jones light it up – because the military defends all those principles and values that are American: freedom, unity – I don't have to tell all of you," Kraft said. "Those folks in your families made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us, so we're honored and privileged to have all of you here."
TAPS and the Patriots have been working together since the Krafts purchased the team, but programming for kids coming into adulthood is a new addition created by Renée Monczynski.
Renée was in the Marine Corps, dual-active with her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Steven Monczynski, when he was killed serving the Navy.
Their daughter, Ashley, was just five-weeks-old at the time, and the single mother started volunteering with TAPS through her own military service.
"It has been a journey for her and I together, but also we found our TAPS family, and that's the first time we were ever truly accepted for who we are and could just be," Renée said. "We were surrounded by people who got it without us having to say a word. We found a true family."
Renée chose to mentor kids slightly older than her own daughter in order to be the best mom she could be – prepared for what was to come. When Ashley reached her teenage years, however, Renée noticed a gap between their Good Grief programming for children and all the existing programs for adults, which mostly focused on support for adult spouses, parents, or siblings of fallen service members.
Renée wanted to know what was next. She encouraged kids to write down questions they had about life and submit them in a box. Over the course of two years, she received more than 500 Post-it notes and brought them to TAPS founder and CEO Bonnie Carroll, who enabled Renée to create a safe space for 18-to-30-year-olds.
They bring in partners like the Patriots to help support and guide these young adults with their decisions.
"Our partners, our funders, our collaborators -- we call it the TAPS village, it's pretty wide and vast," Renée said. "And we ask them to answer questions in the five pillars of the program: personal development, career guidance, financial stability, communications, and the one most important to us as military survivors, is service to others."
The last part is especially evident, with around 75-80% of TAPS staff being survivors themselves, giving back in the same way someone else helped them.
It brings things full circle for Renée.
"It's a beautiful privilege," she said, "to walk alongside someone whom I've known since their teen years, and watch them make decisions and choices for their own lives based on a foundation that we created for them."
Learn more about TAPS and its mission here.