THE BLOG

Lessons From a Tragedy

09/09/2011 10:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the dark days that followed, we cannot forget the inexplicable tragedy suffered that day, but we are also reminded of the extraordinary compassion displayed by individuals and communities across the country and the role organized philanthropy played in directing this historic generosity to where it was most needed.

On the day of the attacks, the September 11th Fund was jointly created by United Way of New York City (UWNYC) and The New York Community Trust to meet both the immediate and longer term needs of victims and their families. The Fund not only accomplished a great deal in terms of supporting those in need, but it also taught UWNYC and other non-profit organizations invaluable lessons about responding to tragedy.

While this day means many different things to many different people, I thought it helpful to look back at some of the lessons we've learned and revisit some of the incredible generosity that resulted from the tragedy.

Thanks to more than two million extremely generous donors, over half a billion dollars reached the Fund. As a result of these donations:

  • More than 45,000 individuals received cash assistance supporting more than 100,000 people;
  • 20,780 people received free legal support, covering everything from setting an estate, securing death certificates, getting access to public and private benefits, managing child custody issues, applying to the Federal Victim Compensation Fund, or avoiding eviction;
  • Almost 10,000 people enrolled in a mental health program jointly created by The September 11th Fund and the American Red Cross to allow people to seek help whenever and wherever they felt most comfortable;
  • 11,394 displaced workers were helped through the Fund's Employment Assistance Program;
  • Loans, grants, technical and marketing assistance was provided to over 1,000 small businesses and nonprofits in lower Manhattan and at Ronald Reagan Airport in D.C.;
  • Free health care for 12 to 18 months was provided for 15,000 people who lost their jobs or income and could not afford to buy health insurance and were not eligible for public health insurance programs;
  • Funds were provided to help monitor environmental conditions, and to assure that rescue and recovery workers had access to screening and treatment for resulting respiratory disorders.

These are just some examples of what the Fund was able to accomplish before it closed on December 31, 2004.

The compassion of ordinary Americans and the lessons learned through this experience will remain in our collective memory for years to come.

Shortly after 9/11, the City assembled a variety of service public and private agencies under one roof at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94. Having Federal, State and City agencies co-located along with various nonprofit service organizations made it easier for victims and family members to find what they needed to get by after such a horrendous tragedy. The collaboration between these various entities was vital to the success of post-9/11 disaster relief efforts.

United Way of New York City and other nonprofits quickly learned how to utilize the skills and resources made available by corporate America in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. IBM, JPMorgan Chase and McKinsey & Company, for example, were just some of the corporate partners whose pro-bono assistance was crucial to the success of The September 11th Fund in responding to such massive numbers of people needing help or offering assistance.

Before 9/11 there was no go-to organization in New York City for coordinating post-disaster services between various nonprofits, including consistent case-management and client tracking. As a result, the 9/11 United Services Group, which was supported by the September 11th Fund, was created to maintain a database of victims and to coordinate the efforts of forty different charity organizations. This ensured that agencies kept an open line of communication with one another and that individuals did not fall through the cracks during this time of crisis.

These lessons can be applied beyond situations of immense tragedy. The results-oriented efforts of organizations responding to 9/11 were remarkable because they put victims first and worked tirelessly to ensure they received the best possible care. Collaboration between other service groups and even corporations created programs that were stronger than any one group could have developed alone and ensured that efforts were not duplicated or wasteful. This type of cooperation is a vital tool to creating sustainable solutions to a range of social problems as everyone contributes by sharing what they do best.

The Family Assistance Center demonstrated the value of making social services easily accessible to those in need. The immediate and obvious victims of 9/11 were clearly in crisis, but those struggling to feed their families or find housing or employment should also be able to reach needed services quickly and efficiently. Just imagine the progress we could make if this "one-stop-shopping" model could be replicated to help everyday New Yorkers access the benefits and assistance they need to live healthy, productive lives.

Finally, the database created by the 9/11 United Services Group was an excellent tool for creating efficiency and accountability among various organizations. Every victim deserves an advocate looking out for their best interests as they navigate their way through webs of public and private social service agencies, looking for the proper tools to help their individual situations.

This tragedy forced us to find the best within ourselves and to deliver genuine compassion as we served victims and their families. As we remember the events of 9/11, we must also recall these lessons and seek to instill them in our work each day; in honor of those who suffered then and those who continue to struggle today.

Even a decade later there is still work to be done. The devastating effects of exposure to hazardous environmental conditions in Lower Manhattan are still revealing themselves as rescue workers, residents, day laborers and volunteers continue to be diagnosed with cancer and other lung ailments. As medical concerns continue to crop up in the years ahead, we will once again see a spike in the need for 9/11 aid.

To this day, government still has not provided funding to support the kind of disaster planning that would ensure the City's nonprofit sector would be fully prepared to respond to a future tragedy. Experts warn that another crisis is possible, as we are reminded by the latest threat this weekend. Clearly, local and federal government should allocate funds to ensure that the City is fully prepared to meet the needs of future victims.

In response to this tragedy, Americans joined together like never before. Generous individuals and corporations collaborated with nonprofit organizations and agencies to provide for those in desperate need of aid. The best way for us to remember and honor those whose lives were lost is to continue to work together to make sure that we are ready and able to serve those members of our community who most need our help.

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