A 3-year-old voicemail goes viral, leads to emotional reunion

Emilia Epstein, right, with her younger sister Helena Epstein, left, in Miami Beach The younger Epstein posted a TikTok video of Tameka Rooks's motivational voice mail, which went viral. (Helena Epstein)
Emilia Epstein, right, with her younger sister Helena Epstein, left, in Miami Beach The younger Epstein posted a TikTok video of Tameka Rooks's motivational voice mail, which went viral. (Helena Epstein)

When Helena Epstein was preparing to sit for the Graduate Record Examination earlier this month, she reached out to her older sister, Emilia Epstein, for advice and encouragement about the test, commonly known as the GRE.

Emilia delivered in a big way - in the form of a voice mail she had saved from a GRE testing site in Boston three years earlier when she took the exam.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

The voice mail started out like any other standard courtesy message, explaining where to report and what to bring to the test. But then the Prometric test center representative - a stranger to Emilia - turned sincere and personal:

“Come confident and well prepared. Miss Emilia, this is what you studied for, this is what you worked hard for. Bring your best girl confidence. Bring your best girl magic. It’s called girl power. Girl power is the best power, ain’t nothing better than that! So, put in your head that this is what you want. Don’t come nervous.”

The one-minute message, which was posted on social media and quickly went viral with 6 million views, continued:

“Because when you have to do something for work, you’re not nervous. But when we study for something, I just feel like people are more nervous when they study to get prepared than when you walk into work. Work is unpredictable and you are ready for work, you know what I’m saying, Miss Emilia? So just come the same way as if you were coming for work. And just tell yourself, ‘I worked hard for this.’ Other than that, honey, I will see you tomorrow in the afternoon. And come with a smile because I’ll have one already. Have a great evening.”

After hearing the voice mail in 2021, Emilia, now a project manager in San Francisco, remembers crying and thinking, “Who is this woman - who doesn’t know me, or anything about me or why I’m taking the test - who spent the time and energy to make sure that I’m coming in happy and prepared and feeling good about myself?”

On the day of her exam, Emilia saw the woman at the test center. “She was there with a smile,” Emilia, 28, remembers.

But Emilia didn’t know anything more than the woman’s first name, Tameka, and after thanking her for the voice mail in person, Emilia didn’t think much more about it.

Tameka Rooks outside a friend's home in Brockton, Mass. (Janae Rymer)
Tameka Rooks outside a friend's home in Brockton, Mass. (Janae Rymer)

It was just an act of kindness that has stayed with her, and in her phone, for years. So, when her little sister expressed anxiety about her upcoming GRE on June 1, Emilia knew she had to share the voice mail.

As Emilia played it over FaceTime, Helena, 24, started to cry.

“I’m not a good test taker. I was feeling stressed and under a lot of pressure,” said Helena, a consultant in Houston who plans to apply to dual master’s degree programs in business and science. “I thought [the voice mail] was so sweet.”

The next morning, Helena told her sister she was going to share it on TikTok. “Imagine someone sees it and knows who she is.”

That’s exactly what happened as the TikTok video amassed 6 million views and more than 14,000 comments - and then prompted a spontaneous group effort to track down Tameka Rooks, the woman from the voice mail.

After seeing Helena’s video, a TikTok user drove to a test center in Boston to confirm Rooks had once worked there and passed the information to Helena through the app. Helena called the center and asked if they would share her contact details with Rooks.

When Rooks, 43, who lives in Boston, heard from a colleague that someone had come into her previous test center looking for her, she was suspicious. She wasn’t on TikTok and had no idea an old voice mail had gone viral. In fact, Rooks was sure her old co-workers were playing a prank on her.

When she finally watched the TikTok video, she was shocked.

“It was just unbelievable,” she said. “And to see that so many people had already seen it by the time I found out! The world knew before I did.”

When the two women spoke on the phone, Helena told Rooks how her voice had moved so many people, and that thousands of people wanted to be sure she saw all the heartwarming comments.

“A voice mail like this can really change people’s perspective on how they’re feeling about an exam, or how they’re feeling about an interview,” Helena said. “Everyone needs to hear nice words.”

Rooks said for her, the voice mail was not out of the ordinary.

The day she left the voice mail, Tameka was working as a contractor at a Prometric testing site near the Boston University campus. Prometric facilitates more than 500 exams, including the GRE and law school entrance exams. They also administer educational assessments for younger children.

Because of the pandemic, Rooks was calling dozens of test-takers each day from her bedroom, reminding them of their upcoming exam. Her calls mostly went to voice mail.

There was no official script to follow, so after giving the required information, Rooks would often leave an encouraging message.

“The goal is to get you to come in and not be nervous,” Rooks said. “It’s a lot of money [to take the exams]. So I’m just trying to push you. You might be my next doctor. I might need your help one day.”

Taking the GRE, for example, costs $220.

Rooks, now a manager at a different Prometric location, said she’s always tried to bring some humanity into her messages.

“People do need a bit of acknowledgment and encouragement,” she said. “Never know how it might change their day, you know?”

The Epstein sisters know how much of a difference that kindness from a stranger can make. After taking the GRE, Helena received her highest test score to date.

“I attribute some of my performance to some of that ‘girl power’ I got right before the exam,” said Helena. She and Rooks have become friends and have chatted regularly through this time of public attention.

In fact, Rooks was the first person Helena called when she came out of her exam.

In the robust comment section on Helena’s original TikTok, several people commented that they also received encouraging voice mails from Rooks over the years and recall her tenderness toward them on a stressful day in their lives.

Emilia and Helena wonder how many of Rooks’s voice mails are out there, sitting in voice mail boxes, and how many people either don’t listen at all or hang up before getting to the good part.

Rooks said she is flattered by the love from across the globe, and wants people to know “it’s just a voice mail. If you need to hold on to it, hold on to it. But don’t think that you need somebody to tell you that you’re great. That’s within you.”

Related Content

How the migrant crisis tested schools 2,000 miles from the southern border

The pope’s right-hand man is reshaping the church, becoming a target

GOP pick for N.C. governor downplayed Weinstein allegations, assault by Ray Rice