Reflections on 9/11: fifteen years later

By: Emary Aronson, Managing director, education & relief

In September 2001 Robin Hood’s offices were located in Lower Manhattan; the view of the World Trade Center filled our conference room windows. We were eye witnesses to the attacks of 9/11. But then we were privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the recovery efforts.

Without a disaster plan to follow, we operated on instinct. Within days, we called all the organizations we were supporting at the time and asked three questions: Are you alright? What do you need? What are you seeing? Our grantees are always on the front-lines and we knew they would have found a way to help already.

What they told us was how they were helping their clients and all New Yorkers survive during that very uncertain time. Staff members were reaching into their own pockets to provide money for food and other essentials. Two weeks after 9/11 we convened all our grantees. What we learned from them formed the basis of our approach as the Robin Hood Relief Fund.

Relief work is different from other grant-making. In response to this emergency, the six board members who comprised the Relief Fund Committee met weekly to authorize funding so that those in need would be able to receive services quickly.

Over the next three years, the Relief Fund allocated $65 million, more than half of which was raised in one night at the Concert for New York City. This concert has become one of the iconic images of that period. Organized by three Robin Hood board members and led by Paul McCartney, the concert brought together musicians like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Billy Joel and David Bowie, and stars like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. The concert was held on October 20, 2001, in the midst of the anthrax scare, and was the first large public gathering in New York City after 9/11. The floor of Madison Square Garden was filled with first responders. It was a spectacular night as it gave us all permission to relax and laugh again.

In response to the concert, the Relief Fund received donations from around the world. From a mother in Colorado we got a note explaining that after hearing about what had happened in New York, her five-year-old son wanted to help too. So he emptied his piggy bank and asked his mother to send us all the money he had. Taped to the bottom of the letter were three quarters.

Perhaps the defining activity for the 9/11 Relief Fund occurred in December 2001. Hearing of too many people that had not yet received any support, Robin Hood provided $5,000 to every victim’s family. There was no application process. We just had to find the families. With no lists of families available we set about creating our own. This was before Facebook, before social media. We called every company that had been in the World Trade Center, spoke to the airlines and the Pentagon, followed leads, and in two weeks’ time developed the most accurate list of victims and their families.

The letters we received in response to these checks shared something
about each person who had died: their talents; hopes; dreams that had been cut short.

They were all so moving. One letter began: “Our son, Rodney, was born eight days after his father was killed by terrorists while he was at work on the 97th Floor. Baby Rod had a very rough start in life and spent three weeks in the intensive care unit… It is comforting for me to know that in the midst of this crisis that has been thrust upon me you have been so generous.”

And then there was: “Your gift is the only one offered to us and by a strange coincidence, all our family members were born in Nottinghamshire, the
legendary home of Robin Hood.”

All these years later, we meet people who say, “My sister was lost on 9/11.
I remember when that check from Robin Hood magically arrived.”

We will always keep in our hearts those who were lost on 9/11. Despite the 15 years that have passed, when I close my eyes and think of those days, one image is clear. It was December 5, 2001. The recovery efforts at Ground Zero continued around the clock. I was spending the evening with a K-9 unit.

It was cold and as the night wore on, it grew even colder. We went inside to warm up and there I saw a firefighter who I had seen working on “the pile.” He was older, his uniform slightly different. His face was lined and he was exhausted. He stood apart from the others, had his coffee and then went back outside. The other firefighters explained that he was a retired firefighter who had been working every night into the early morning. He was searching for his son.

The instincts that led us to create the Robin Hood Relief Fund and to do it the way we did are still very much felt throughout Robin Hood. Our work is about caring for others. That is what Robin Hood does. That is what it means to be Robin Hood.

Learn more about the Robin Hood 9/11 Relief Fund:

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