AmeriCorps Stories: How 9/11 Changed My Life
(Washington D.C.) -- In the aftermath of the tragedy that struck America a decade ago, hundreds of AmeriCorps members stepped forward to help, offering assistance to the injured, serving as family caseworkers, and helping those displaced from Ground Zero find housing and other services. For many, their service was a life-changing experience, inspiring them to pursue lives of public service.
All across the country, the events of that day and the heroism of our first responders inspired thousands of then-teenagers and 20-somethings to give back. Many voluntarily enlisted during wartime and knowingly risked their lives to protect our country. Others chose to serve their country through AmeriCorps, meeting vital community needs in education, health, disaster relief, and other areas. All have upheld the virtues of honor, sacrifice, and selflessness that have always been the source of America's strength.
Just as America was not looking for war on that clear morning in September, the “9/11 Generation” did not ask to grow up amid a terrorist attack or large-scale conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet members of this generation have stepped up, serving their country at home and abroad, through the military, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Their lives may have been marked by national tragedy, but from their shared experience, they have chosen to learn the lessons of unity, compassion, and commitment.
The stories below recount how September 11th was a life-changing experience for six AmeriCorps members, inspiring them to pursue careers as doctors, teachers, nonprofit managers, and emergency responders. As one put it, “My time with AmeriCorps and the 9/11 experience made me commit a lifetime of service. The experience impacted my world view and how it defined what it is to be an American.”
On September 11th and throughout the year, Americans show their true patriotism by achieving together what we could never accomplish alone. On this hallowed day of remembrance, let us salute all those who have nobly served our country, and join with them through our own acts of service to rekindle the spirit of unity and compassion that swept our nation after that tragic day.
Olive Eckstein – AmeriCorps Alum
New Yorker Olive Eckstein was just seven weeks out of her year term with AmeriCorps and working on her next move in her native Queens when the first plane hit on September 11.
“I had just wrapped up my year term with AmeriCorps and NCCC and was ina stuffy interview suit at a Kinko'sin Queensthe morning of September 11, 2001. I wasmaking copies of my resume whensuddenly everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at a small television screen, hanging from the ceiling and the only sound was the news broadcast that was on. I knew life changed after that moment.”
Eckstein's impulse was not to rush home and seek refuge, but to go out and help.
“Iowe my deep sense of commitment to our country,myconfidence in critical situations,and a feeling of responsibility to others in needto AmeriCorps. The only natural response was to immediately find a way to help.”
Having completed disaster relief training in AmeriCorps and prior training asan EMT allowed Eckstein to immediately rush to Ground Zero and find a way to help any way she could.
“I quickly changed out of my interview clothes, despite my mother's worried face. I made my way to Shea Stadiumwhere I befriended agroup of EMTs and traveled to Ground Zero that night with full gas masks on. We were mostly in shock and feelinghelpless as we waited and hoped for someone to be recovered.”
While they waited, Eckstein and the EMTs doused firefighter's soot and ash-covered eyes with saline andtended to small wounds and burns as they tried to make sense of what we were seeing in front of our eyes.
“After a few more trips like these, we were stationed at a nearby elementary school that had becomea respitesite for the firefighters, police officers, and steel workers who labored intensively at whathad become known asGround Zero.”
Like many New Yorkers, Eckstein felt an impulse to do anything to help so she signed up for daily shifts at the respite site, serving food, talking with the ground zero workers to keep their minds off ofthe disaster, and organizing supplies to help keep the recovery process going.
“I spent the next several weeks there, foregoing job interviews and social opportunities because I just needed to be there.”
“Volunteering as an AmeriCorps alum at Ground Zero was an incredible opportunity in the face of such a tragedy.Just like AmeriCorps continues to do, ithas impacted my lifein many immeasurable ways and gave me the opportunity to be on the scene and help our nation's heroes in one of our nation's darkest days.”
Eckstein has continued her path in public service in the medical field, and now serves as a Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Fellow in Houston, Texas.
AmeriCorps Alum Tracey Connelly
As a native of Long Island, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 hit close to home for Tracy Connelly. Loved ones working in the World Trade Center went missing. Family members responding to the attacks were injured. For 36 hours, she had no idea where her father was. Days after the events, she learned of friends' deaths by passing their memorials in Penn Station.
On that day, Connelly bore witness to the many realities of a disaster. The government building she worked in was unprepared for such an event and total chaos ensued. With no way to communicate, the flight or fight mentality kicked in and coworkers fled the building.
And while her path had always been one of service, the events of 9/11 changed her focus, and ultimately the course of her career. After spending six months attending funerals, wakes and memorial services – Connelly knew she needed a change. She set out to do something good with AmeriCorps.
After serving a year in Charleston, SC with AmeriCorps NCCC, Connelly wanted to spend another year in service and joined the American Red Cross Readiness and Response Corps in Seattle, WA.
She credits AmeriCorps with opening her eyes to a host of causes, “I didn't have a master plan. I knew I was passionate about HIV testing and awareness, but AmeriCorps exposed me to a lot of race and social justice issues, education issues, the importance of preparedness, and tye importance of being trained to do response,” said Connelly.
In Seattle, Connelly found herself working with underserved communities and finding ways to ensure disaster readiness and response information is accessible to all. She continued the same work after her term ended for two years, and was later hired by the City of Seattle to do the same job, which she continues today.
Much of this work she says is actually about people. “I must build a relationship and earn someone's trust before I can begin talking about emergency preparedness. I need to find out what their priorities are and connect with them through things that are important to them.”
From removing downed trees to doing case management, AmeriCorps serves a critical function in disaster response. Connelly noted that when doing disaster response after an EF-4 tornado as an AmeriCorps NCCC member, she was struck by the distinct role that AmeriCorps plays.
“AmeriCorps is in a unique position to not only do the ‘boots on the ground' manual labor but also the compassionate community work as well,” she said. “National Service participants are trained disaster respondents. They know what to do and can offer a helping hand. Thanks to AmeriCorps, hundreds of thousands of Americans who have the motivation and passion now also have the training and skill to help in a variety of ways.”
Ten years ago, Tracy Connelly was struck by the confusion and disorder that followed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Looking for a way to escape the sorrow that permeated the mood of the time, she joined AmeriCorps. Now, she works to prepare communities for the unexpected and is a living example of the spirit of unity and compassion that swept the country in the aftermath of the tragic events of that day.
AmeriCorps Alum Victoria Sharp
How did Victoria Sharp end up in career in emergency preparedness when she came out of school with a Bachelor's in Fine Arts from University of Georgia?
Her time as an AmeriCorps member, working alongside first responders and with grieving loved ones in New York and New Jersey after 9/11 profoundly impacted the would-be artist to pursue a career in disaster preparation and emergency response.
Sharp was serving on her second day on the job as an AmeriCorps member with the Atlanta Red Cross National Preparedness and Response Corps on September 11.
“A volunteer called to alert us about the first plane. We went into the classroom, which had the only TV and turned it to a local news channel. After adjusting the rabbit ears on top, we all witnessed the second plane hit just a few moments later. I think we all had the same reaction and that was pure terror. Instantly, we all knew it wasn't an accident. At that moment, the phones at the Red Cross starting ringing non-stop and it would be like that for over a week.”
It seemed like “fate” in the words of Sharp, who thought about how odd it was to have selected to serve in the National Preparedness and Response Corps when she did and how perhaps serendipity played a part “because I was truly humbled and blessed to be in a position to help, serve and respond to this at a time when so many others I knew wanted to. I had been selected for a mission and was so eager to help with the Red Cross.”
When she first arrived and came to Ground Zero, Sharp was struck by what she saw.
“Seeing Ground Zero in person and being there is an experience never to be fully actualized through the television. The smoke from Ground Zero could be seen from everywhere. Every single person you encountered were eager to share their story. On a trip through the Subway, you would be connected through a few degrees of separation because of someone who knew someone who lost their lives – survivor's guilt, I learned, is what affected many post 9/11.”
Sharp was deployed to Fairfield, New Jersey, where she served as a Family Service Caseworker. Many of the clients were widows of employees who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald employees, the financial company that lost three out of every four employees at the firm.
“These women had no idea about their husbands' accounts, which presented an additional layer of unforeseen stress to the situation when bills and notices started to arrive. Some were left virtually penniless merely because they didn't know anything about their husbands' financial systems. Every client
I met with said the same thing: "I just never thought anything like this would happen to me.”
As a result, Sharp has made it a personal goal to stress the importance of knowing your family's financial information and why it's important because “no one ever thinks it's going to happen to them and sometimes it doesn't. But it's best to be safe than sorry.”
Ten years later, Sharp is still working in the field of emergency preparedness at Centers for Disease Control in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. She works with targeted communities to address specific preparedness issues, engaging a collaborative effort of the public sector and the business and nonprofit communities.
“Joining AmeriCorps in 2001 was indeed a life-altering experience. It's a story of my life for which I am most proud and will forever impact me wherever I go.”
AmeriCorps Alum Julie Struck
After September 11, 2011, Julie Struck, an AmeriCorps NCCC member supporting a community of schools in Aurora, Illinois, and her team were flown to support recovery efforts after the terrorist attacks. First in Washington, D.C. for three days, Julie supported a Red Cross call center open to anyone with friends, family and loved ones in impacted areas. She talked with individuals in an effort to connect people back together.
Julie and her team were next flown to New York City, where she spent the better part of October and November as a case manager at Pier 94—helping people who had lost loved ones, lost homes, lost jobs. But that wasn't enough for Julie. After graduation from NCCC in November, Julie and a group of friends returned to New York City volunteer again, this time with Service Center 2 (one of the 10 Red Cross centers) – supporting the general recovery effort and managing cases.
Julie is now a volunteer management and disaster program officer with the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service. Julie's role involves expanding the capacity of volunteerism in the state through the Volunteer Generation Fund and helping the state respond to natural disasters, such as the recent flooding this summer.
Looking back 10 years later, 9/11 definitely changed her life. She says that, because of 9/11, she dedicated to her life and work life to service. And now she understands the importance of getting good solid programs and policies in place to help volunteers get in there and do their job and get things done.
AmeriCorps Alum Brendan Butler
AmeriCorps Alum Brendan Butler was almost 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero, but he never would have imagined how the 9/11 tragedy would still impact him today.
An Oregon native, growing up outside of Salem and living in Portland, Butler remembers like many Americans where he was when the tragedy unfolded.
“I was just waking up in Portland and remember hearing in the bedroom my friend's girlfriend saying, “We're under attack.” I turned on the TV and was shocked and speechless. We started to walk toward downtown and I remember eerily not seeing one airplane in the sky – it was a silence that I would forever remember.”
A recent college grad, he was always interested in joining AmeriCorps and was in the process of applying when September 11 happened. He received an offer to become an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Central Maryland Red Cross with the knowledge that he would be immediately trained and sent to work near Ground Zero.
“I never thought I would be in the middle of it all, helping the family members of the victims.”
After he was trained in Baltimore, Butler was dispatched for more than a month to work in Edison, N.J., an commuter suburb where many residents worked at the World Trade Center. He was charged with being a family outreach specialist with the American Red Cross, where he would go with a team to conduct home visits to support family members of the victims.
“I was going to these homes every day and sitting down with family members of those who perished, providing them with any support they needed. Whether it was just providing emotional support or financial resources to help pay a mortgage bill, I did whatever I could to help these families.”
Many of those who received assistance from AmeriCorps members were mostly women – wives, mothers, daughters, and fiancées of those who died on September 11.
“A lot of these women were constantly getting bombarded with the tragedy and sorrow. They were so paralyzed with grief that they couldn't even think about bills. We took the time to go through their mail and organized their bills to help them alleviate any burdens during this most difficult time.”
One Italian woman relied on her son for income, who was a construction worker working on Tower 1 when the first plane hit. Another woman had been busy planning her wedding when she didn't realize the last time she would hear her fiancée was through a voicemail. Butler dealt every day with a heavy heart and the weight of the tragedy through the stories of the loved ones.
“American Red Cross offered mental health professionals for volunteers to decompress the weight of the situation. The amount of life lost was something the American Red Cross never dealt with before and their trainings couldn't prepare us for something as grave as this.”
Butler's time near Ground Zero and his work with AmeriCorps inspired him to make a lifetime of service and make a career out of it.
He returned to the Central Maryland American Red Cross and served the rest of his service term in Baltimore, where he developed a fire prevention and escape program for children 6 and under in some of the city's most underserved neighborhoods.
From there, he studied national service and volunteering in graduate school and is now working for HandsOn Portland.
“My time with AmeriCorps and the 9/11 experience made me commit a lifetime of service. The experience impacted my world view and how it defined what it is to be an American.”
Ricky Matthews, AmeriCorps Alum
Ricky Matthews, who served in AmeriCorps in 1996, was working as a children's museum manager and teaching Youth Corps members in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 2001. Growing up volunteering with his mother through the church, he always took it upon himself to help in whatever capacity he could.
When the planes struck the Twin Towers, Ricky was at the museum. Everyone was told to go home. He saw on TV that Mayor Giuliani was asking people to help New York City. Ricky did not go on the first day, saying he was scared. But he went on the second day.
For almost three months, Ricky went after work to help New York City recover. He first joined the bucket brigade at Ground Zero – starting on September 12 – and for about three week removed debris, helped with triage, and searched for bodies. (Ricky is EMS-trained.) For another month, he worked at the FEMA- and Red Cross-run Southeast Pier processing people displaced from Ground Zero, finding them housing, helping them with their obligations, taking claims. From there, Ricky spent another three weeks at JFK Airport sorting goods that Americans across the country sent to New York City. He even involved his AmeriCorps members from the museum.
Looking back, Ricky said that seeing the need and the devastation compelled him to keep coming back. “What really moved me were the dedication of the firemen and police officers who were there, working double and triple shifts” to find people, Ricky said.
Now a first and second grade teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, Ricky is still helping his fellow man. When tornadoes recently his community, Ricky went out after the story to remove debris and help his neighbors get the help they needed.
“Whenever there is a need, I feel that I am able to offer something,” said Ricky. “If it's not financial, it could be words of encouragement or a hug, but I'm able to give something because I'm able to empathize with that person, that region.”