I took the path down a bumpy road.
While mourning the loss of my father who died on 9/11, I began working at an organization helping others who were also impacted by the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Robin Hood had moved offices a second time and by the time I started in mid-November 2001, the staff was at another temporary office in Union Square. I wonder now if I should have thought harder about taking the job. First, they moved because they worked across the street from the World Trade Center. Then, they had to move again because of a terroristic threat in the form of an anthrax scare. I thought the universe was sending me a message about a new path, but was there another message in there that I missed? Perhaps this organization wasn’t the place for me?
On the eve of my first day, my friend Amy offered to make a dry run with me. When we got to Union Square and found the building on the corner of 12th and Broadway, Amy took my picture in front of the Strand bookstore, which is in the first floor of the building where I’d soon work. I felt silly standing there and hoped none of my new co-workers were walking by and would remember seeing me posing for a picture. But Amy always knew when to capture a big moment, and this was that — the beginning of a journey down an entirely new path.
After my little photo shoot, Amy and I strolled to my favorite diner on 9th Street, talking and laughing. I was relieved the commute ended up being fairly straightforward and comforted to have my friend by my side.
The diner was only a few blocks from NYU where I was graduate student and one of my favorite neighborhood places — it had a Western theme and cow-hide seat covers that made me smile. As we waited for menus, I looked up at the TV and saw breaking news.
Earlier that morning, while Amy and I were on the train, a plane took off from JFK headed to the Dominican Republic. Two minutes after take-off, the plane crashed into houses in Belle Harbor, which is part of a large swath of Queens known as the Rockaways. All two-hundred sixty people on the plane and five people on the ground were killed. While there is never a good spot for a plane to crash, the Rockaways were hit particularly hard on September 11th because so many firemen and cops lived out there. Fifty-nine people from Rockaway — seventy if you included summer and former residents — died on September 11th. Most of the passengers on the plane were from Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan. What are the chances? A horrific, deadly plane crash in NYC only two months after we were attacked by terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center?
My heart stopped when I saw the footage. Like most New Yorkers, I immediately thought of terrorism but it quickly became clear the crash was an accident. Amy and I looked at each other in silence, mouths agape. I almost didn’t have the emotional energy to feel much of anything for the victims and their families. This was someone else’s tragedy and while I felt sadness, I didn’t have room for more heartbreak. I said a prayer and turned back to Amy and we ordered breakfast.
Looking back, I regret the detachment I felt even though I know it was self-protection. I wish I could have wrapped myself in the story and cried along with all of those who lost loved ones on the plane and on the ground — like so many had cried for me and my family. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had any space left in my heart for more despair. It was as if my heart was computer storage and the disc was full. If I let in more suffering, my heart would reject it and shut down. I needed to survive. I needed to be able to eat breakfast and start a new job and go through life. I was almost full and couldn’t bear anymore.
The next day, I commuted to work alone. I had deliberately kept low expectations for my new job and internally, I gave myself a six-month try-out. If hated it or it was too hard emotionally, I would quit. No job is forever and I didn’t (and still don’t) see any shame in trying something and not liking it. It would be worse to not try at all.
The weather on my first day was chilly but I was better prepared and at least wore a winter coat. I had some jitters but they were regular first-day jitters. I’d had a lot of success both academically and professionally. My supervisors raved about me at previous jobs and I’d found it didn’t take much to be a star — diligently doing what I was asked and learning along the way. Being nice to co-workers also helped and I assumed I could easily learn the new job, excel at it, and make friends with my new colleagues. My only concern was whether I could work on a project to help others in a similar situation while I was still dealing with my own loss. I suspected it would be difficult to do both and didn’t know how I could separate my personal feelings from my professional responsibilities. But on that first day, I had confidence I would figure it out as I went along.
The exact responsibilities of my new job were unclear. Aside from knowing the work was specifically related to the Robin Hood September 11th fund, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to do. The fund had already started making grants to organizations that served the poorest victims of September 11th — people like the busboys at Windows on the World; the folks who had lost their jobs at the nearby restaurants that were shuttered; the families of the people who sold newspapers; delivery people; and anyone else who had nowhere to turn. In total, Robin Hood had sixty-five million dollars to distribute.
The relief fund was the first of its kind for Robin Hood. While staff had plenty of grantmaking expertise, none of it was specific to disasters. My team, led by Emary, was charged with figuring out the best way to distribute the money and then making grant recommendations to the board. As we researched, we met with a few different types of organizations: non-profits interested in receiving grant money from the relief fund, other foundations, relief organizations such as the Red Cross, new victims’ groups founded in response to the attacks, and experts in disaster relief who shared advice and guided us. Some of the people we met, like the woman who led the Oklahoma City Foundation after the bombing at the Federal Building there, were knowledgeable and helpful. Others were abrasive know-it-alls.
Fortunately, my family was well-taken care of — the Fire Department supported us in many ways. We had insurance, my father’s pension, years of my parents’ good financial planning, an FDNY liaison to help us, the union, and scores of firemen and friends who were willing to jump in anytime with just about anything we needed. As my mother kept telling my sisters and me, we were lucky. Her contrasting example was always the hypothetical thirty-year- old secretary who was now a single mom with young kids. What would she do? She was likely saddled with rent or a mortgage, student loan debt, paying for day care, car payments, other financial obligations, raising children on her own, and of course, her own grief.
Before I went to work at Robin Hood, I hadn’t thought much, if at all, about someone being afraid to ask for help from all the relief organizations. My family was overwhelmed with people who wanted to help us and as much as I was aware of my mom’s hypothetical example, it didn’t seem possible that someone else might not know where to turn or how to ask for help at all. Robin Hood changed my thinking. Besides my mother’s example, there were others who died who were living lives very different from my family. The guy who had been delivering bagels to a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when the Towers were attacked; or the person who had worked the grill at a bodega and was rendered jobless and suffering PTSD after being trapped under a cloud of blackness. Robin Hood was trying to find ways to help the ones who needed help the most and might have been afraid to ask for it.
After September 11th, government agencies and large relief organizations, like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, set up a relief center on the West Side of Manhattan on Pier 11. Everyone who was impacted by the terrorist attacks could go there to ask for help — families of victims, those who lost their jobs, and people who couldn’t return to their apartments. My mother and Karen went to Pier 11 to meet with the medical examiner and request my father’s death certificate. My mother also met with relief organizations and she was touched, especially, by the kindness she received from the staff at the Salvation Army. They assured her the Salvation Army would always be available to help — not only then, but at any point in her life. She spoke of a Buddhist organization distributing money on the spot to any family who needed help as a result of losing someone on September 11th.
Others had different experiences at Pier 11, if they managed to get inside at all. To enter the Pier 11 relief center, those seeking help had to walk past police and government officials posted at the entrance — people who wore uniforms and badges and carried guns. Relief agencies had tried to make it clear they didn’t care about a person’s immigration status and would help anyone who needed it. But if I were in the country illegally and had to pass tough-looking guys with machine guns, I’d probably turn around and leave. Robin Hood was trying to find organizations helping the people like those who were afraid to go to the relief center. We would then recommend grants to those organizations from the relief fund.
It took me a few weeks to catch on at work. Emary invited me to meetings with many different kinds of organizations and I went. I dutifully introduced myself, sat with my notebook ready and tried to figure out the purpose of each meeting. My colleague on the team, Renuka, had started a week earlier and was already very busy. She supported and guided me when she could but she was also new and navigating uncharted terrain.
After several weeks, we settled into a bit of a routine. Renuka either found new organizations for Robin Hood to consider funding or responded to them when they found us. She screened them by phone and asked for a proposal if their work was relevant. Then, after we reviewed the proposal in more depth, the rest of the team would make a site visit to see the work firsthand. In the first year of the relief fund, we found and supported over 40 new organizations.
Renuka led us to organizations all over the City and New Jersey with a particular focus on immigrant communities. We schlepped to the far reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. One day, while wearing a new pair of shoes I was particularly excited about, we visited an organization in the hinterlands of Queens. The walk from the subway was so long and my feet got so beat up I don’t think I ever wore those shoes again.
Most of the organizations we met with were run by wonderful, caring people who were working hard with survivors of September 11th. We met dedicated social workers and psychologists, warm-hearted case managers and kind volunteers. They had a sincere desire to help those with nowhere to turn. I was honored to be part of their work — it was exactly why I went to work on the relief fund.
We also met with some folks who were crass and lacked sensitivity. In one meeting, a woman was seeking money for new protective clothing for the people working in the recovery effort. Rescue workers needed new gear because as she put it, “they are at the World Trade Center searching for bodies and their clothing is getting all mucked up by blood and guts when they are searching.”
Who says something like that? Especially in a professional setting. Those words haunted me. It could have been my father’s “blood and guts”! How dare she talk about the human remains of these victims as cavalierly as something that was “mucking up” clothes? I seethed. I sat quietly, probably visibly shaking, but I didn’t say a word. What could I say to someone who clearly had empathy for those doing the relief work but was so callous in her reference to the victims? Emary glanced at me and I could tell by her expression she was also disconcerted.
In another meeting with an older, former Wall Streeter who had started an organization to help Russian immigrants, he spoke about his visit to Ground Zero where he saw many firemen, especially chiefs, just “standing around.” Seriously? I thought, You in your fancy suit and tie and perfectly manicured nails and Park Avenue apartment are criticizing the people who are doing recovery work after a terrorist attack? I wanted to shout at him, “You couldn’t bear one minute standing in their shoes! How dare you criticize them?” But I didn’t. I stood up and excused myself from the meeting. I went back to my desk to take some deep breaths and was checking email when maybe fifteen minutes later I felt hands on my shoulders. I turned and saw the rich guy’s wife, who was also at the meeting. Her training was in social work and as she poked her head over my shoulder with a big smile, she asked if I was okay. I saw Emary lingering behind her. It felt like this woman had not only invaded my personal space, but was physically accosting me — I had excused myself from the meeting for a reason and I wasn’t now required to listen to what she had to say, much less accept her hands on me. But I had regained my composure and smiled and told her I was fine. She gave my shoulders a squeeze and walked off in her Chanel suit and high heels.
As 2001 rolled to a close, the relief committee decided we should send $5,000 to every family who had lost someone on September 11th. And the board wanted us to do it quickly because the holidays were approaching. At first, this seemed like a pretty straightforward project. We would gather lists of names (and hopefully addresses) from each company at the World Trade Center, lists from the airlines for those on the flights, a list from the Pentagon, and mail the checks. Wishful thinking. The project was a beast. It required help from nearly everyone on staff as we called companies all over the world. A British financial firm was hosting a conference at Windows on the World that morning and many others who were at the World Trade Center did not work there. Some were at the Twin Towers for job interviews. Others for meetings with clients. There were people on the flights who lived abroad. Human resources files were destroyed. There were complicated family situations. Someone was divorced and remarried with a wife, ex-wife, and three children. Who should get the check? Or how about the guy with the second family his wife didn’t know anything about? Should his wife get the check? What about the other kids? They also lost their father. What about the man whose father didn’t accept that he was gay and living with his life-partner and not a roommate? Who should get the check?
My team tried to put together an accurate list. We listened as those who lived told us about their colleagues who died. We collected names and addresses and within days of beginning the task, the accounting department began cutting checks. Our mandate was to err on the side of largesse. The father who didn’t accept his son was gay and had a partner? Send checks to the father and the partner. Children who were estranged from their mother? Send checks to kids and her parents.
As word spread of the project, phone calls started. There were complaints about sending checks to the wrong person or the wrong address. But mostly, people were grateful. Robin Hood received hundreds of thank you notes and letters from grateful recipients.
This campaign also served to further raise Robin Hood’s public profile. Once word got out that Robin Hood was giving out money, my team fielded more calls from survivors who needed help. And not only family members who lost someone — people who lost their jobs, survivors who ran for their lives when the towers collapsed. One woman shared with me that her job before September 11th was as a cocktail waitress. While she was still physically able to do the job, after losing her brother at the World Trade Center, she struggled to smile and serve people. But she needed a job and forced herself to go every day. Calls became frequent, and the discussions were complicated. Aside from this one-time $5,000 donation to the families of victims, Robin Hood didn’t directly distribute money to individuals. Robin Hood made grants to other organizations so they could help folks navigate. But those organizations weren’t distributing the money to individuals either. They were running programs to help survivors — hiring case managers, providing mental health services, and working individually with folks.
When I talked with people who asked for Robin Hood’s help, I listened to their stories and tried to refer them to organizations we funded. Not everyone was happy with my answers and I didn’t really blame them. It sometimes made for very difficult conversations with people who were desperate, frustrated, and suffering. Robin Hood had hosted a huge concert and said they were going to directly help those impacted by September 11th. While technically true, I thought the message could have easily been misconstrued.
I also got an earful from a fireman’s sister-in-law. She criticized Robin Hood for raising money and not giving it to the people who needed it. I explained as best I could that my father was a fireman who died and I was doing my best to make sure we were getting to the people who needed it most. She snapped at me and told me I wasn’t doing a very good job. She told me her family needed the money too and we weren’t helping.
When I left work on the day I spoke to this woman, I was tense. She had rattled me and I was fighting back tears as I approached Kim’s building, where I planned to meet my mom. I saw her and Kim on the sidewalk talking to a couple of firemen friends. I wasn’t in the mood to be friendly and must have said something snarky because one of them remarked, “I see someone’s in a bad mood.” I looked at the ground and said quietly, “I had a really bad day.”
When my mom and I finally got in the car, I mentioned what happened but didn’t want to burden her with all the details and what I was feeling. She had been laughing with Kim and the guys when I arrived and it seemed like she was in a good mood. I gave her a quick synopsis and could feel myself starting to cry and I didn’t want to shed tears because of what this person said to me. I also wanted my mom to stay in good spirits so I stopped talking and was silent for the rest of the drive.
It had only been a month and I was starting to discover that the job wasn’t a neutral. The work was actively hurting me and impacting my personal life, including relationships with my family and interactions with people I liked.
Every day I worked on the September 11th relief fund at Robin Hood, I had to suit up for the job. In addition to my professional attire, I had to put on an invisible suit of armor to protect myself. In meeting after meeting, people told stories of those who were suffering. I had to put aside my own suffering and could truly offer my empathy — I knew how they felt. Most of the people I met didn’t know about my personal loss and I rarely shared it with them. It would have changed the dynamic of the meeting and that was not my role.
After days and days, my armor started to break down. In those moments when the armor had too many holes, I’d excuse myself, hide in the bathroom, and cry. After a few minutes of tears, I’d pull myself together and put on another layer of invisible Teflon, another suit of armor. And I’d feel strong again — like I could take more. That protection would last for days, sometimes weeks, but never forever. The scratches and chinks would start again at the next meeting and the process started over — like using a metal spatula on a nonstick frying pan.
I asked the reception staff to try not to send me as many calls from people who needed help. I hated to burden Renuka and my other teammate but I needed respite. The sweet receptionist told me she already directed the bulk of the calls to others. It didn’t feel that way.
Over time, I got really good at disassociating myself from the situation when I needed to. If I started to feel emotional or as if I might cry in a professional setting, I’d simply focus on hearing the words and not let them sink in. I’d let the words flow through to my ears but never permitted them to reach my heart. I could look at the person speaking and make eye contact then let my mind wander a little, or hear the words but not their meaning, or start writing notes to make my body do something else other than process what I was being told.
I can still do this. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve disassociated until my husband points out that I don’t seem present. I try not to do it as much anymore. I don’t think it’s healthy to suppress emotions, but in those initial months after losing my father and working at Robin Hood, I needed to survive. I couldn’t have endured the work otherwise. I would have disintegrated. Without my armor, the constant emotional attacks would have turned me into a pile of ashes.
This early time at Robin Hood was excruciating. I suffered. It probably wasn’t the best idea for me to have taken the job but I couldn’t have predicted how emotionally draining it became on a daily basis. I thought I might feel like I was contributing my talents to alleviate someone else’s suffering. I didn’t.
The end of 2001 and early 2002 were dark times. The relief work contributed to my depression and I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I didn’t go to work at Robin Hood. Might I have continued down the healthcare path — which was my course of studies in graduate school? Gone on to another non-profit? Taken a different turn and moved to a for profit job? Guessing over what might have happened isn’t helpful but I can’t help but wonder if I would have coped better with my father’s death in the absence of a job focused on September 11th relief work. I still have my armor when I need it.