Journalist Marlene Sanders

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Many Americans will spend their Thanksgiving volunteering in soup kitchens or otherwise trying to help those less fortunate.

I had not volunteered in the past–it was against the rules for a journalist and I had no time–but now I spend one day a week helping my community respond to its vast needs as a way of giving thanks.

The events of Sept. 11 sent thousands of Americans everywhere into blood donation centers and deep into their pocketbooks to help in any way they could. Here, where the hijacked airliners struck the World Trade Center, people flocked to food distribution centers and swamped the Red Cross and other agencies with their offers of assistance.

In the beginning, there were too many people available to help, and they were turned away in the chaos that followed the buildings’ destruction. Finally, after a week or so, the volunteer agencies began to get organized and called for help.

I was one of those who responded. During my years as a television journalist, volunteering to do anything was out of the question. It was against the rules, and besides, there was no time. I have time now and I signed up.

That meant trekking to Red Cross headquarters on the A-train to Brooklyn. There, after the now familiar search of bags, I found myself in the interview line, answering questions instead of asking them. Oddly, the Red Cross workers sorting us out were not New Yorkers. They hailed from across the country: Mississippi, Nebraska, Oregon, and even from Canada. Volunteers too, they told me they were regulars at the scene of disasters, usually floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. Most had never been to New York and were in awe not only of the city but also of the unique disaster recovery problems they had to face, including heavy security.

After interviews, and picture taking for credentials, we were given an orientation lecture and then were presented with a choice of jobs. One possibility was to work at the Family Assistance Center recently set up. I readily agreed to do whatever was needed and shortly was sent to Pier 94 to work in R and R–not the familiar rest and recreation, but in this context, records and reports. I soon found that having learned to alphabetize in grade school was my most valuable skill. I never needed it on TV.

Volunteering Help to Unemployed Workers, Newly Homeless, the Bereaved

Pier 94, seemingly extending a mile into the Hudson River, was usually the site of flower shows and other exhibitions. Once the number of grand ships going off to Europe began to disappear from New York harbor, it became a haven for the dispossessed. Its present occupants, far from affluent travelers going to Europe, were the displaced workers, the newly homeless and the bereaved.

There were, and are, endless streams of people who need help. The City of New York tried to ease their pain by having all relevant city agencies present under one roof in order to help. A special section was reserved for the firm Cantor Fitzgerald that had occupied several top floors of one of the towers and had lost nearly 700 people. I find it painful every time I pass that section.

Areas were curtained off for the Salvation Army and for the Red Cross, the predominant organization. Trained workers interviewed clients, and most of the time sent them home to find more documents: proof of where they had worked, what they owned for rent, whether they had money for food or medical care.

The reports that came my way told their stories: Some had worked in the World Trade Center itself: messengers, cooks, brokers, clerical workers and salespeople. Others’ livelihoods depended indirectly on the two vast buildings: limousine drivers, operators of food and coffee carts in the street. Others lost their cars, crushed as the buildings crashed down. There were tour guides without tours, cleaning people who had worked in shuttered or destroyed office buildings or who had been employed by families forced out of their apartments. And there were hotel workers for a hotel no longer standing.

Different Stories, Same Complaint: No Money

All had one thing in common: lack of money to pay their rent, their utilities or their debts. Others had been made homeless. They listed their family members: spouse, children and frequently elderly parents as well.

I did no interviews, but saw people like those whose reports I alphabetized. By the hundreds, they sat in chairs throughout the building, disconsolate, quiet. Some were in tears. Fortunately, a day care center on site took care of their children during the long hours of waiting. An excellent food service, paid for by the Red Cross, provided meals all day long.

One day as I sorted and filed, I heard a dog barking and discovered that dogs were working, too–comfort dogs on leashes, walking about with their owners. They brought smiles to faces that did not have much to smile about. The dogs were petted and talked to and provided the promised comfort.

Meanwhile, I sorted, filed and gave out folders to workers who would reinterview clients and finally write those needed checks.

The work I and the other daily volunteers were doing and continue to do is far from challenging. But it needed to be done by somebody, and we were there. Meanwhile, those Red Cross workers from across the country were giving far more than those of us who were local, daily volunteers. These experienced people regularly left family and jobs behind for three-week stints, or longer, wherever there was need. Their reward was a hotel, meals and no pay. They work long hours, and their real reward is one I discovered for myself: the reward of helping at a time of need and a renewed feeling of gratitude for the things we have and have not lost.

Marlene Sanders is chair of the advisory board of Women’s Enews and an Emmy-winning television correspondent, as well as a former producer and writer for ABC, CBS and WNET, New York public television.