When I arrived at my office at the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region on Sept. 12, 2001, the phone was ringing off the hook. Colleagues from around the region were calling to ask: What can we do to help?
My staff had been weighing the same question. By week’s end, local leaders had entrusted the foundation with creating a fund whose sole purpose would be to help individuals and families directly affected by the Sept. 11 Pentagon attack. The Survivors’ Fund was born.
On one level, we were in familiar territory. Since its creation in 1973, the Community Foundation has tackled the region’s greatest challenges — drug violence, inequities in education, natural disasters, the economic crisis. At the same time, we clearly were building a bicycle as we were learning to ride it. We didn’t know how many people we would serve, what their emotional or financial needs would be, or what their personal circumstances were.
Checks began arriving by the boxload. We opened and read every letter — 12,000 in all. One said: “I want to be sure that, although we lost far more people in the World Trade Center, we don’t forget the many people who lost their lives or were hurt at the Pentagon and their families.” Another read: “This is not much. My only son was there and survived. Please make it count for the survivors that have lost loved ones.” Children sent rolls of pennies tied with red, white and blue ribbons. One envelope contained a check for $100,000 from Michael Jordan; it arrived without any fanfare. Before September was over, nearly $600,000 had been collected. By the end of the year, the total was $16 million. It ultimately reached $25 million.
Over seven years, until it closed in 2008, the Survivors’ Fund provided financial and case management support, in partnership with Northern Virginia Family Service, to 1,051 individuals as they came forward on their own schedules and their own terms. Clients included patients so severely burned that they remained in the hospital for months as well as those experiencing anxiety, marital problems, substance abuse or thoughts of suicide. We also served individuals who were not eligible for other relief funds — such as several airline employees who encountered the terrorists.
The goal was to help people heal at their own pace and in their own way, providing support in traditional and nontraditional ways. If learning to play the piano promoted someone’s recovery, we found a piano. We covered the cost of home repairs started by husbands who didn’t survive the attack, and we purchased clothes for family members who lost so much weight because of their grief that their pre-Sept. 11 wardrobes no longer fit. Money from the fund was used to pay non-reimbursed medical bills and for special equipment for those recovering from injuries. Many children and young adults who lost a parent received tuition assistance.
Some survivors could not return to their previous jobs. Paul Hollis said he could not go back to being a firefighter after what he saw at the Pentagon. The Survivors’ Fund paid for him to learn a new trade, sending him to a welding program at Northern Virginia Community College. “I’m still working with fire, but now I’m in total control of it,” he told us in 2005.
At times, it felt uncomfortably like we were playing God. Our distributions committee was forced to make difficult decisions every month in disbursing the fund’s diminishing resources. Fourteen months into the fund, with nearly 50 percent of the assets committed, we refined our guidelines to ensure that the remaining funds assisted those who had the fewest resources and the greatest financial and coping challenges. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the courage and strength of the survivors we came to know.
Sept. 11 brought our community together in ways no other event has. The Survivors’ Fund represented philanthropy at its best. The philanthropic spirit lives on in our community. I see it every day as people step in to help victims of floods and hurricanes, and those struggling through the economic crisis. The Survivors’ Fund taught us many lessons as a community about emergency preparedness and recovery. For me, it is the ongoing generosity of neighbors helping total strangers that is the richest lesson of all.
The writer is president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.