Center offers support for people who lost loved ones

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2004

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. Margie Miller knew the look.

A few weeks ago, nearly three years after terrorists slammed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center, a woman walked into the WTC Family Center on Long Island. She had just been told that her husband's remains had finally been identified, and she needed to speak with a grief counselor.

For Miller, it was a sadly familiar scenario. Her own husband died at Marsh & McLennan, an insurance brokerage firm, on the 97th floor of Tower 1 on Sept. 11, 2001.

''No matter when they show up here, they don't have to retell the story. We know how they died,'' said Miller, the center's family liaison. ''We're still doing funerals.''

Approximately 650 of the nearly 2,800 World Trade Center victims came from Long Island, center officials say, including 215 of the 343 firefighters who died.

In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, relatives swarmed the WTC Family Center. Some stayed for hours eating, sleeping, crying and hugging. Many found it a refuge from their homes, where they were surrounded by reminders of their loved ones.

They're still coming.

This year the center has seen 200 newcomers. Some came after being told that a fragment of their loved one's body had been identified. Others had stubbornly thought they could handle the emotional stress on their own.

In all, 700 adults and 400 children have been treated at the WTC Family Center a brightly lit former medical supply store with playrooms and arts and crafts tables that could easily be mistaken for a day care center.

''I thought it was very important for my daughter to realize that she's not alone, that she wasn't the only one that lost a father,'' said Cella Yuen, whose husband, Elkin Yuen, was at a business meeting at the World Trade Center when he died.

She first brought 6-year-old Nicole to the center about a year ago.

''We believe that people come when they're ready, and for some people it took three years,'' said Dr. Thomas Demaria, director of behavioral health services at South Nassau Communities Hospital, which opened the center within days of Sept. 11.

''We thought that as time went by there would be less of a need, but we find as time goes by there's been an increase in need for certain groups, especially for the children.''

Dr. Minna Barrett, a clinical supervisor, says one 9-year-old boy complained about ubiquitous bumper stickers memorializing 9-11. ''When I sit in the front seat of my car, every car that passes tells me my daddy died,'' she quoted the boy as saying.

''As we speak, there are widows and families getting the first notification that a bone from a family member has been identified,'' she said. ''Now, three years later!''

All the services to victims' families are free. After initial funding from the hospital, the center got grants from Project Liberty and other groups. It now operates on a grant from the nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation that runs through 2005.


Three year-old Jake Campbell, who was four months old when his mother, Jill Maurer Campbell, was killed in the World Trade Center attacks, touches a picture of a heart he made in an art therapy program at the Long Island-based WTC Family Center Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2004, in Rockville Center, N.Y. Since the attacks, Campbell and his caretaker grandparents have been coming to the center for it's grief counseling and education services, along with the group support environment of the center.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Dr. Josette Banks of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, which is conducting a comprehensive study of services offered victims after Sept. 11, called the Family Center unique.

''In terms of a program that was built specifically for this purpose, we've seen nothing else like it,'' she said. ''Many places set up services as part of ongoing programs, but as a longstanding entity itself, that's unique.''

Those seeking help can choose from a menu of services, support groups and other activities that bring them back into a community setting. Although one-to-one counseling is available, the center prefers other methods.

''We believe that ... to isolate them individually is more difficult,'' Demaria said.

Miller saw a sign on the center's window one day after Sept. 11 and walked in. Soon, she was attending support groups. She then joined the family advisory committee and now works as the center's family liaison.

''It was hard to imagine that there was this massive place that was all 9-11 families, that everyone who was here had lost (a loved one),'' Miller said.

Thelma Stuart said she initially joined a support group for the families of the 37 Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers who died on Sept. 11; her husband, Walwyn, was assigned to the WTC's underground PATH Station.

''That really wasn't going anywhere for me,'' she said. ''I realized even though there were 37 families, we were all at different places in our grieving process. I decided to take a chance on this ... and I really loved it.''

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