Rising from the ashes: Briton Wertz ’98 P’26 credits lessons learned at Elon for her resilience

Wertz, a career and technical education teacher at Southern Guilford High School and a firefighter at the the Elon Fire Department, said her time in the Elon community is the reason for a lot of her success in life.

After a forest fire, the nutrients from the burnt trees are absorbed back into the earth. The forest ground is exposed to more sunlight and rain, allowing the seedlings released by the fire to sprout.

Briton Wertz ’98 P’26 uses this forest fire phenomenon, called technological succession, to describe her current point in life – embarking on a new beginning in a familiar place after many setbacks. Whether it be personal issues that led her and her children away from her home in Elon to the coast or the catastrophe of Hurricane Florence that destroyed that new home, Wertz has always rebounded, growing from the scorched land.

“The storms in life are necessary,” said Wertz, a firefighter for Elon Fire Department, a career and technical education teacher at Southern Guilford High School and a parent of a first-year Elon student. “If you can hold on knowing that the sun is going to come out, then it’s going to be worth it.”

‘It just felt like home’

A self-proclaimed “walking billboard for Elon,” Wertz has a hard time pinpointing what it is about the university that encourages her to share the distinctiveness of Elon with anyone who will listen.

Whether it be the professors who still remember her name a quarter-century later or the beautiful landscape of the campus, Wertz knows that Elon is where she feels most at home.

“It was everything to me that I had ever dreamt a college would be. It spoke to my soul. The bricks, the grass, it just felt like home,” Wertz said.

The journey home, both finding it in the first place and rediscovering it after being drawn away, had many unforeseen twists and turns. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Wertz and her family moved to Germany when she was nine. In Germany, she had no real connections to America but knew that she wanted to return for college and study sports medicine.

She and her mother examined college after college and compiled a list of the ones with the best sports medicine programs at the time. Wertz traveled to America for her campus tour expedition with her aunt and uncle who were still in America. Leaving one of the campus tours unimpressed, her uncle suggested they stop by Elon, which was on the way to their next destination. She remembered hearing about Elon from a soccer player her father coached who went there. She agreed to give it a shot and they set off to the small college in Alamance County nestled in a grove of oaks.

She doesn’t remember her exact impression of the campus when she arrived there in an RV. but she does remember where they parked – on East Lebanon Avenue near Whitley Auditorium – and the feeling she had when she stood out of the car. That feeling was so strong that a lifelong Phoenix was born.

She canceled her other college tours and dedicated herself to doing everything in her power to ensure she would be an Elon student.

Arriving at Elon a year later, she immersed herself in as much as she could, as quickly as she could. As an undergrad, Wertz was a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, a student tour guide, a member of the intramural soccer team and even spent time as the backup mascot.

“Everything I tackle, I tackle head-on. I dive in headfirst,” she said.

Discovering her calling

But where she truly found her calling was volunteering with the Elon Fire Department. She began working with Station 8 in October 1996 through a series of decisions that ultimately led her there. In her sophomore year, as a part of Elon’s commitment to have students get out into the community and shadow professionals working in fields of interest, Wertz interned with a physician assistant.

She realized that to have a career as a PA, she needed health care experience. Taking an EMT course at Guilford Technical Community College, one of her classmates suggested that she get involved with her local fire department to get some experience. She did and hasn’t looked back since.

“I ran with the fire department the rest of my time at Elon. Most of my professors would let me leave for a call if it was a significant one,” she said.

Elon Fire Department Assistant Chief Ray Pruitt was just a volunteer firefighter when Wertz first arrived at the department. Pruitt remembered being impressed with how motivated Wertz was, and how active she was with the department given her other commitments as a student.

“She was real gung-ho to get started and pretty much within a year, she became an interior firefighter,” Pruitt said.

Wertz continued to work with the Elon Fire Department after graduation before she left to work with Guilford County EMS in 1999. After leaving, she maintained a relationship with the university and the fire department, even bringing her kids to visit.

She stayed with Guilford County EMS until 2007 and had every intention of staying in the area. But suddenly, she had to leave the community that she had found solace in after a decade because of an acrimonious divorce that left her a single mother of two kids. She moved to Cape Carteret, where her parents and brother were, to tap into a strong support system for her kids.

Although it wasn’t the home she created in Elon, she picked up without a hitch using the determination and grit she developed at Elon. She became a substitute teacher, eventually teaching full time, working with the EMS in Carteret County, and coaching soccer and cheerleading.

“The things I learned at Elon helped me become an effective coach and teacher,” she said. The most important of those lessons is to be comfortable in your uniqueness. Wertz gives this advice to all her students and players and was something that Elon professors helped her realize.

Wertz felt she had finally settled into this life away from Elon. She had found a good fire department that she occasionally ran with, teaching was becoming more comfortable, and the cheer team she coached were conference and state finalists.

Resilience and rebounding

That changed after the devastation of the second worst hurricane in the history of North Carolina, Hurricane Florence, left her and millions of others in despair. But as a first responder, she thought it would be blasphemous to ask for help. It was her job to save the others that needed help, not to be the one needing help. So, she put on a brave face and went forward.

A friend had reached out to her asking how she was doing after the hurricane, and her initial reaction was to continue carrying the burden alone. But she resisted and talked about how difficult the situation had been for her and her family. It was an alien feeling, Wertz said, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. The next day, she was called into the fire station on her day off and was met by someone from a first responder peer task force that gave aid to those on the front lines who had been severely affected themselves.

It was then that Wertz realized it was OK to rely on others for help, the same way she’s been there for others — like Elon taught her.

“The power is in how you respond to something,” Wertz said.

Following Hurricane Florence, Wertz continued in Cape Carteret still running with the local fire department and coaching cheerleading. But as her daughter was set to graduate high school and her son was beginning high school, she thought it would be a good time to return to Elon.

In April 2022, Wertz and her kids returned, and only months after her return, she made her presence felt in the community.

She began working as a CTE teacher for health sciences at Southern Guilford High School and has worked to create the first EMS program in the school system. She’s now a member of the Collegiate Chapter Advisory Board for Elon’s Alpha Omicron Pi chapter and will serve as the Lifetime Engagement Advisor. And most importantly, she got back involved with the fire department.

The only difference now is that now her family is just as involved with the community as her son, Massimo, is a junior firefighter at Station 8 and her daughter, Mia, is a member of Elon’s Class of 2026.

“My kids have always been surrounded by Elon stuff. Mugs, T-shirts, Elon onesies. But now, it’s a part of them, too,” she said. “To share the fire department with my son … and for my daughter to have her own Elon experience, it’s more than a dream come true.”