The 20th Anniversary of Sept. 11, Robin Hood’s Relief Fund and My Life’s Loss

Looking Back

This September 11th marks the 20th anniversary of my father’s death at the World Trade Center and it is also the 20th anniversary of my journey at Robin Hood — a place I have called home on and off since November 2001.

My dad, FDNY Battalion Chief Fred Scheffold, would help anyone who needed it. And he believed we all had a responsibility to look out for each other. He once saved a man at Six Flags, carrying him down 10 flights of stairs while administering CPR. He got no thanks or acknowledgement and didn’t want any; he composed himself and took us on more rides.

His loss left my mom, my sisters and me, reeling to put it mildly. But I knew there were so many New York families going through the same thing. In October 2001, a friend called to ask if I’d like to pursue an opportunity at New York’s poverty-fighting organization Robin Hood.

I had heard of Robin Hood. The organization was producing a huge concert at Madison Square Garden, the Concert for New York City, to raise money for a 9–11 relief fund and many active-duty firemen and cops were invited, along with all the families of rescue workers who had died on September 11th, including my own.

After the World Trade Center was attacked, Robin Hood had set up a relief fund to help victims of the attacks who were most vulnerable — the poorest survivors, such as those without access to all the benefits we had as a fireman’s family. Robin Hood planned to hire a grantmaking team to distribute the relief money and my friend asked if I’d be interested in the work. She thought of me because of my previous work at non-profits and my graduate studies in public administration. And, obviously, because of my dad. I decided to apply.

At the Concert for New York City, I got a glimpse into exactly what Robin Hood was capable of doing. Just five weeks after the World Trade Center was attacked, they’d managed to put together a massive fundraiser that brought together New Yorkers again for the first time and included major political figures, actors, comedians, and big names in music — David Bowie, Elton John, Bon Jovi, the Who, Billy Joel, and Melissa Etheridge all performed.

A couple of days after the concert, I found out I’d gotten the job and I accepted with trepidation. This was uncharted territory for me. Terrorists hadn’t flown planes into the World Trade Center before. I had never lived through the disappearance and possible death of my father. I had never worked for a foundation trying to help families suffering from the same trauma that I was going through. It was a time of firsts.

When I started in mid-November 2001, my main concern was whether I could work on a project to help others in a similar situation while I was still dealing with my own loss. I knew it would be difficult to do both and didn’t know how I could separate my personal feelings from my professional responsibilities. But on that first day, I had hoped I would figure it out as I went along. It was an important pursuit.

The fund had already started making grants to organizations that served the victims of September 11th who were living in poverty — people like the busboys at Windows on the World; the folks who had lost their jobs at the nearby restaurants that were shuttered; the families of the people who sold newspapers; delivery people; and anyone else who had nowhere to turn. Ultimately, Robin Hood distributed more than $65 million dollars in cash assistance and other grants to nonprofits serving surviving families, including giving $5,000 in cash assistance to every surviving family worldwide.

The relief fund was the first of its kind for Robin Hood. While the staff had plenty of grantmaking expertise, none of it was specific to disasters or mass acts of terrorism. My team was charged with figuring out the best way to distribute the money after making grant recommendations to the board. As we researched and evaluated, we met with different types of organizations: existing nonprofits interested in receiving grant money from the Relief Fund, other foundations, relief organizations such as the Red Cross, new victims’ groups formed in response to the attacks, and experts in disaster relief who shared advice and guided us.

Fortunately, my family was well-taken care of — the Fire Department supported us in many ways. We had insurance, my father’s pension, years of my parents’ good financial planning, an FDNY liaison to help us, the union, and scores of firemen and friends who were willing to jump in anytime with just about anything we needed. As my mother kept telling my sisters and me, we were lucky. But so many of the families directly impacted by the terrorist attacks had little or no support at all.

Before I went to work at Robin Hood, I hadn’t thought much, if at all, about someone being afraid to ask for help. My family was overwhelmed with people who wanted to help us, and it didn’t seem possible that someone else might not know where to turn.

Robin Hood changed my thinking. There were people who died who were living very different lives from my family. The guy who had been delivering bagels to a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when the Towers were attacked; or the person who had worked the grill at a bodega and survived but was rendered jobless and suffering PTSD after being trapped under a cloud of blackness. Robin Hood was trying to find ways to help the ones who needed help the most and might have been afraid or just didn’t know how to ask for it.

After September 11th, government agencies and large relief organizations, like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, set up a relief center on the West Side of Manhattan on Pier 11. Everyone who was impacted by the terrorist attacks could go there to ask for help — families of victims, those who lost their jobs, and people who couldn’t return to their apartments. But to enter the Pier 11 relief center, those seeking help had to walk past police and government officials posted at the entrance — people who wore uniforms and badges and carried guns. Relief agencies had tried to make it clear they didn’t care about a person’s immigration status and would help anyone who needed it, but many New Yorkers were afraid to risk it. At Robin Hood, we worked to find the organizations helping those who were afraid to access these more traditional forms of support.

Since then, Robin Hood has deployed their relief fund twice more: after Hurricane Sandy, and then at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, the fund has provided $226 million in relief aid to New Yorkers who were struggling to survive, regroup, and carry on following each of those disasters. Each time, the fund managed to provide direct support to people and organizations even before the government could mobilize. And the teams worked tirelessly to find the most impactful organizations and individuals to support until every dollar in the fund was depleted.

Working at Robin Hood was hard during that time. To this day, mourning the loss of my dad, my hero, has also been hard. But the work we were doing is critically important to families suffering an incalculable and sometimes inconsolable loss. I was able to bring empathy, but also a unique perspective to Robin Hood’s mission because I was living what so many others were going through.

Today, I’m a mother of two and raising my children in the city of my birth — the city my father gave his life for. I’m also a senior manager at Robin Hood helping nonprofits with governance and board placement, a marathon runner, an entrepreneur, and a fireman’s daughter. And I’m proud to continue supporting the families who need us most two decades later.

Read more of Claudette’s writing at claudettes.medium.com.