“I love you, see you tomorrow.” – How I persevered through tragedy and how it made me who I am today

June 16, 2021

Erica and Rachel as children

Written by Erica Niesse

In my almost nine years at HRchitect, I have written over a dozen blog posts. Most of these have been about my love for Workforce Management systems and the key time and attendance processes that drive these systems. While I intend to write many more blog posts about how these systems continue to change and evolve, I thought I would make this one a little different and a little more personal. I want to talk a bit about where I am currently in life and how my sister and this incredible company helped me persevere through tragic life circumstances to become the dedicated mother and vice president I am today.

My sister, Rachel Leslie Thorn, was always my best friend and cheerleader. We were three years apart in age, and from the minute I was born, I wanted to be like her. Rachel was a free spirit, a dedicated friend, and someone that would never shy away from giving you her honest opinion. If Rachel was giving you advice, whether it be about your clothes or career choices, you took it. Aside from her love of her family and friends, she was an incredible recruiter. She paved the way for me and many of my friend’s careers. While studying at Georgia Tech, I planned to go into marketing for real estate development companies. However, two weeks before graduation, Rachel called me up. She said, “I got you an interview for a software consulting job, and you would be great at it!” Fourteen years later, still working in software consulting, I am so thankful for her advice and mentorship.

The incredible light that my sister shined on many lives, especially mine, was taken way too soon. On Saturday, February 20th of 2016, my sister and I had a late lunch and talked about our upcoming weeks and how we would do some meal prepping the next day. We departed by making plans for the next day and saying, “I love you, see you tomorrow.” Sunday morning, February 21st, I woke up and texted my sister, with no response. I then received the worst call of my life from my mom, saying that Rachel had been in a condo fire and that I needed to rush to the hospital. That day was a blur. I was surrounded by our family and Rachel’s closest friends as we all said goodbye to my beautiful sister. Rachel had succumbed to smoke inhalation and left this life at 37 years old. She had also lost her dog, Bunny, in the fire that morning as well. Five fire stations responded to the fire that morning and worked tirelessly to try to save Rachel’s life. They went into a burning building and pulled her out. Although she did not survive, we all were able to say goodbye. We are forever thankful to the Atlanta fire stations for giving us this blessing.

Though this is a hard story to tell, this particular day has forever unimaginably shaped my life. I had two questions I had to face: How do I continue without my biggest supporter and best friend? How do I make her proud?

It took me only a short time to figure out how to answer those two questions. I was going to build a life that would make her so proud of me. I would persevere, I would work tirelessly to build a great life for my family and me, have children that would know all about my sister, and I would live each day to the fullest.

I have been able to do all of this with the support of my loving family and also my supportive work-family at HRchitect. The night my sister died, my boss, Brian Kimball, called me at 10:30 pm to check on me and give his sincere condolences. He told me to take the time I needed and to not worry about work. I will never forget that phone call. It reminded me of how incredible HRchitect is and how we have such a close work family. The CEO, Matt Lafata, was also so great during this time, sending me and my family flowers and calling and emailing to check on me often. To this day, he continues to check on me on Rachel’s birthday every year and the anniversary of her death each year. The sincerity and love I felt from my company are something I had never seen from any other employer. It is something I will never forget.  I was shown so much support from my company, and I will be forever grateful for that.

It was important for my family to honor Rachel in a way that would make her proud and to help other families not have to go through what we went through. We felt the best way to do this was by assisting through service and working closely with the Atlanta Fire Department to keep this from happening again. My mom, Elizabeth Gill, made this her mission and currently serves as Chair of the Fire Rescue Foundation Signature Project. She decided to do everything she could to support the firefighters who worked tirelessly to try to save my sister’s life and the lives of others. Some of the amazing initiatives she has advocated for are:

  • Having firefighters hand out smoke detectors and put in plans to make sure there are stricter rules on fire escapes.
  • Working with the Atlanta Humane Society to create a sticker that residents could put on their door that lists how many pets are in the house, so they can also be saved in the event of a fire.
  • Her biggest project of all: working with the fire department and Buckhead Rotary to update the fire stations for the brave men and women who risk their lives every day. This endeavor allowed them to enhance the fire station’s public service capabilities, features, and equipment.
  • Each year on the anniversary of Rachel’s death, we bring food to the fire station, and all five of the stations come together so we can remember Rachel and the bright light that she shined on all of us. Our family will continue with this service as our way to honor my sister.

It has been five years since Rachel left this beautiful world, and there is not a minute of the day that I do not think about her. In these five years, I have learned so much about myself. I have learned the importance of memories, life experiences, service to others, and how to be present. In the last few years, I have expanded my family. I have two beautiful children; a 3-year-old boy named Jackson and a 1-year-old girl named after my best friend. Her name is Rachel.

In my professional world these past five years, I’ve greatly expanded my role at HRchitect. I transitioned not only into consulting leadership but also assisting with sales and helping to build out new practices. I get so excited about the exponential growth happening at HRchitect, as we expand and build new consulting practices to support the implementation, optimization, and support of many more systems. I am excited about the future, not only in my family life but also in my work-life.

Rachel helped to shape me into the woman I am today. She always believed in me and gave me the best advice. I would not be where I am today without her, and I will continue to live each day trying to make her proud!

To learn more about the Atlanta Fire Relief Foundation and to make a donation, please visit atlfrf.org/adoptafirestation.

Erica Niesse

Erica Niesse joined the HRchitect team in 2013 and is now the Vice President, Implementation Services. She is responsible for managing HRchitect’s consulting practices focused on the implementation, optimization, and support of various HCM and WFM systems.  In Erica’s time with HRchitect her team has completed hundreds of successful implementation projects. Learn more about Erica and connect with her on LinkedIn.