Sunday, September 11, 2011

Volunteering Post September 11th, Then and Now

I have been having such a difficult time writing about my experiences on September 11th. I usually don’t write about something difficult or painful until I have perspective and understanding of the situation. I have realized that no matter how much time will pass, I probably never will understand the events of September 11th. I don’t have any have perspective. All I can think about is the pain and suffering of all of those families who lost loved ones that day. I also think about the first responders who have since died or have life threatening illnesses due to inhaling toxic fumes at Ground Zero as they selflessly worked night and day to recover the victims from the rubble. As my husband went into work this past Friday in Lower Manhattan, blocks from the site, I also still have the fear and sense of powerlessness as security is heightened due to threats made to New York City.

But in darkness, there is always light. The light I choose to think about is the heroic acts that saved lives that fateful day. I think about the amazingly strong wives and husbands who have carried their families through the loss of their spouse. I think about the countless individuals who have channeled their loss and personal tragedy into creating non-profits that strive to make the lives of those affected by September 11th more tolerable. All of these souls inspire me. They are my heroes and I feel encouraged to participate in acts of kindness and volunteerism on September 11th in their honor and in honor of those lost.

Like every person in America, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the twin towers being attacked on September 11th. I was sitting in one of my Graduate Social Work classes at Fordham University Lincoln Center in New York City. An administrator came into class to say that two planes hit into the twin towers and was believed to be a terrorist attack. I immediately called my parents on a pay phone to let them know I was okay. I also called my weirdly calm fiance who was still sitting at his desk in his office, in the heart of Times Square. He said people were staying at work and he was going to wait and see how things unfolded. I told him I was coming down to get him.

I ran down town to get him, fighting the crowds of people who were walking uptown. When I got to his office building he was standing outside with many others, clearly in shock, watching the recap of the planes hitting the towers on the Jumbo Screen. We ran back uptown to Fordham to get my car and drove home out of the city.

I went back to my future in law’s house and watched the news for hours and felt scared, helpless and powerless. I watched the recap of the towers falling again and again. After two days of sitting watching the news, I needed to do something to help. I heard there were crisis centers set up in lower Manhattan for rescue workers and families of the missing. I thought my social worker skills could be useful. I took the train down the city and walked downtown hoping that through divine intervention I would be led somewhere that I could be helpful.

I found a crisis center at Chelsea Piers. I talked to the woman in charge of mental health there. She first said she was only going to take people already with their masters who were licensed, but for some reason she let me stay. I first worked with families who came looking for information regarding their missing loved ones. We tried to comfort them and gave them the latest information on where to go and who to call to try and locate the missing. Sadly as more and more time passed, and the search went from rescue to recovery, there was a greater understanding of the unimaginable casualties that were the result of this horrendous attack.

I spent my days at the crisis center listening to rescue workers who were seeing unspeakable scenes of devastation at the site. I also talked to people who were at the scene during the fall of the towers and witnessed horrific images that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. I worked along side caterers, massage therapists, other mental health workers and other people who came because they felt like I did, helpless and powerless. Helping, even in a small way, made us feel less helpless and more in control. I set up a paper wall outside of the Pier which people could sign and write prayers and tributes to those lost.

I know the volunteer work I did following September 11th was so insignificant compared to the work many did following the attack. I am in awe of those selfless firefighters, police officers and other emergency responders who gave their lives to help others that day(and every day). I would like to think though that all of the small acts put together added some goodness into a suffering, broken and devastated city. I think doing special acts of kindness on a day that signifies such a deep, painful loss for so many is something small that can honor the memory of lost loved ones. Love, resilience, strength and compassion brought New Yorkers together on September 11th. These traits still bring light to our mighty, yet still healing city today.

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