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September 11
A Year Later

From emotional trauma to lost jobs, Catholic agency assists victims

New York

Ellen Shuman hopes people won’t sit in front of their televisions all day on Sept. 11.

The danger of “getting re-traumatized” is real as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks nears.

She hopes they will spend the day with family, classmates, neighbors and fellow parishioners.

Shuman, a social worker who directs the Catholic Charities Disaster Response Team for the Brooklyn diocese, has seen her agency deal with more than 5,500 new cases since Sept. 11. While the diocese sustained scores of deaths and many children lost a parent, the majority of those coming to Catholic Charities are suffering from trauma, including the loss of employment that has resulted from the terror.

Catholic Charities quickly assembled four mobile trauma teams, dispatching them to its four family centers in Queens and Brooklyn. But it also used parishes, schools and even went into people’s homes when “they couldn’t get to us,” Shuman told NCR.

Although the agency has wide experience in handling airplane and hurricane disasters, dealing with fires and with victims of loss and of violence, “the massiveness of this, how fast we had to act and our pledge to be here for people as long as they need us,” is what separated 9/11 from past tragedies, she said.

Out of such pain came healing, Shuman said, citing an invitation to children in Belle Harbor and Breezy Point, N.Y., who were suffering from loss and fear. The children were asked to write what they most wanted to send away, then tape it to a balloon and release their balloon on the beach.

Another therapeutic innovation happened when wives of living firemen, who knew each other at St. Francis de Sales parish in Belle Harbor, met with Shuman to support one another. The women shared fears about their husbands’ mental and physical health due to the loss of 343 comrades and the hazardous conditions at ground zero. Later they were able to go to other parishes and aid other firemen’s wives and their fear-filled children.

“We did what we needed to do,” Shuman said.

She related how staff stayed into the night cutting checks for needy clients so that they would not be evicted, lose their electricity or have their kids go hungry.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA reached out to many affiliates affected by 9/11. In response to proposals from the field and through the support of thousands of Americans, it received $31 million in direct funding for Sept. 11 disaster relief efforts. To date it has allocated $22.5 million in grants to 24 Catholic Charities agencies from New York to Oakland, Calif., where four families suffered losses directly related to the attacks.

The $4.28 million that Brooklyn Catholic Charities has been allocated by its national parent will insure that three trauma therapists will be available for at least two years. Shuman is also grateful for the 275 volunteers who came from Catholic Charities in Albany, N.Y., to assist staff in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Amid the grieving, there’s progress. “People who couldn’t leave their homes are getting on trains. Those who couldn’t go to work are returning or seeking new jobs. People with suicidal thoughts are getting on with their lives. There’s an outpouring of people who want to talk to a priest, a rabbi, a counselor,” she said.

Catholic Charities in New York City realized that besides the victims inside the falling towers, the toll of suffering around the World Trade Center would be immense as the impact of the attacks on low-wage workers -- who provided services to high-wage workers -- began to unfold. Estimates of job losses in the disaster ranged from 75,000 to 90,000 with 40 percent still unemployed a year later.

Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff and Worker Association approached Catholic Charities New York. He has had good relations with the agency over a decade. Hundreds in his organization had lost jobs as venders and suppliers to the towers or as maintenance and restaurant workers. Moreover, some two-thirds of Chinese New Yorkers live north of Canal Street, the border of eligibility for emergency rental and other assistance set by federal authorities. Lam’s group conducted interviews with jobless Chinese workers, assessed needs and referred persons to Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities issued grants of $1,000 to $6,000 to Chinese workers and families, for a total of $1.6 million. “This is what we do all the time,” said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities for the New York archdiocese. With increased requests since 9/11, the agency has had to add 15 to 20 social work staff, he said.

In the past Sullivan said that the agency had spent 90 percent on social services and 10 percent on direct cash assistance to clients. In the case of Sept.11 the percentages are reversed. To date Catholic Charities New York has received $25.4 million in contributions, much of it from parishes and dioceses across the land, and has aided some 9,000 clients.

Over the next three years, it will spend $8 million on employment assistance, including a Web-based job network, short-term training classes, support services to certain industries, paid internships and direct job placement. The agency has reserved $5.7 million in a scholarship fund for the 91 children in Catholic schools who lost a parent or guardian on 9/11. It has also identified 57 families directly affected by the attacks.

Students at 28 Catholic primary and nine high schools in Jersey City, Bayonne and Hoboken may have witnessed the towers burn and fall. For days afterwards they saw and smelled smoke rising across the Hudson in Lower Manhattan. Catholic Charities of Newark archdiocese rapidly dispatched social workers to 55 schools, offering stress counseling as the tragedy unfolded.

A year later it has provided resources to all parochial schools in the archdiocese. “We want students, educators and parents to see how our world has changed since that day,” said Julie Willis, disaster relief coordinator for the archdiocese.

Dominican Sr. Dominica Rocchio, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, said she hopes students will not relive the fear that gripped them last year, but will instead recall what happened, show tolerance to one another and become more appreciative of people different from us. Rocchio’s office received $80,000 from the Catholic schools of Cincinnati, where Charity Sr. Katherine Connelly is superintendent and was one of the first to respond. The money has been used to pay tuition for students who lost a parent on Sept.11 and for those whose parent or parents lost employment.

Catholic Charities personnel were among the first volunteers at Liberty State Park in New Jersey where the wounded and those traumatized in the evacuation arrived by ferry. Having learned from the experience of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City, Willis said that the agency is committed to long-term care of those with stress disorders, job losses and immigration issues. It’s being assisted with a $1.6 million grant from Catholic Charities USA.

Fr. Ed Lambro said he’s been surprised and heartened by the maturity and response of the Catholic faithful to the tragedy, and by the “deepening of their faith,” which he said he has observed. The clinical psychotherapist and development director of Catholic Charities in Paterson, N.J., said he was stunned by their generosity as well.

Catholics in the diocese, which includes some of the richest communities in the state and some of its worst slums, gave $650,000 for relief aid -- “the largest second collection in diocesan history.” In addition Paterson received $1.88 million from Catholic Charities USA.

Lambro spoke with pride of “our Irish, Italian and Hispanic firefighters” from whom “we’ve heard no venom” against the perpetrators of 9/11, he said. Instead “ they have referenced their youth in Catholic schools, their faith and their parishes.” He called the slain firefighters’ chaplain, Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge “a martyr of the faith.”

People want to find a reason for such tragedy so they can control their anxiety, he said. “But some things are unreasonable. I don’t know why it happened,” the priest-clinician said. “Often they think that too, but they just can’t say it.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002