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Volunteers Find That Kind Words, Smiles Lift Spirits at Ground Zero

November 19, 2001
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In the days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, David Ripps wanted to volunteer.

Aside from donating blood, however, it didn’t seem there was anything he could do.

“I’m not a grief counselor, not a physician, no EMS training,” Ripps said. “They needed people with construction skills and I’m a computer programmer.”

But when the chance came nearly two months later, Ripps didn’t hesitate.

His opportunity came through the American Jewish World Service, which asked synagogues for volunteers to work at St. Paul’s Chapel, located close to where the World Trade Center once stood.

On a recent Thursday evening, Ripps joined 10 other volunteers in an all-night effort providing support for the workers clearing rubble at Ground Zero.

Volunteers came from two Manhattan synagogues — the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — as well as from the AJWS staff.

Even after two months of work, the scene is disturbing. White-gray ash still floats in the air and stores around the perimeter of the fenced-off area are closed, their goods still covered with a thick layer of dust from the disaster. One relief worker said that when the wind picks up, it feels like it’s snowing.

Some relief crews are still working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. For them, St. Paul’s Chapel serves as a place to rest and regroup.

Located on the perimeter of the trade center site, the chapel is open to Ground Zero workers 24 hours a day. Modern buildings collapsed all around it during the attacks, but the 235-year old church sustained almost no damage. Even its stained-glass windows remained intact.

“You’ve heard of ‘the little engine that could,’ ” said Susan Weinman, one of St. Paul’s volunteer coordinators. “I like to call this ‘the little chapel that stood.’ “

The chapel quickly became a supply depot for rescue efforts, and evolved into the full-service comfort station it is today.

“This is the Hilton of comfort stations,” Weinman said in an orientation speech for volunteers at the beginning of their shift. “It’s a four-star comfort station.”

It’s not easy to volunteer there — groups have to sign-up months in advance.

“Getting to volunteer at St. Paul’s is like getting tickets to The Producers,” Weinman joked.

Besides offering a hot meal and supplies ranging from flashlight batteries to saline solution to razors, St. Paul’s has a rotating, 24-hour volunteer staff of chiropractors, podiatrists and massage therapists available to workers.

Above all, it offers workers a kind of refuge in the storm.

The smell of acrid, burning material still fills the air outside, jack hammers roar and searchlights illuminate the area 24 hours a day, but the inside of St. Paul’s is calm, restful and comforting.

The pastel pink walls and the backs of the pews are covered with homemade banners and cards from well- wishers across the country. One boy included his picture in a card, and a note urging firefighters to “keep up the good work.”

At night the lights are dimmed so workers can sleep on the narrow cots or on the blanket-covered pews. Candles and, sometimes, live jazz piano add an almost romantic air to the space. Some workers come for Chapstick, others for warmth and conversation, and many to pray.

The volunteers do a variety of tasks: checking i.d. cards at the restricted work area, providing cheer to the workers and going on food runs.

Volunteers bring cups of coffee, snacks and assorted supplies such as lip balm and tissues to the workers. Cigars are the most popular item.

At about 4 a.m., volunteer Emily Silverman brought coffee to some electrical workers.

“They were so happy,” she said. “They really appreciated having the human contact.”

“I felt like we were bringing them exactly what they needed.”

“One guy told us he hadn’t been home in four days,” volunteer Amy Schrager said. “Our showing up gave them the opportunity to take a five-minute break and take their minds off their work.”

Coordinating domestic volunteering was something new for the American Jewish World Service. The 16-year-old development and relief organization usually focuses on disaster relief overseas.

AJWS staffer Amy Schrager said it felt good to volunteer so close to home.

“We do disaster relief all around the world, so it was a little bit of a shock to us to be doing a project in our own community,” Schrager said. But she said the project fit in well with AJWS’s mission.

“At our organization we talk about tikkun olam all the time,” Schrager said, referring to the Jewish concept of “fixing the world.”

Volunteer Ripps also was inspired by that vision.

“Tikun olam is always in the back of my mind,” he said. “Certainly the disaster was an example of brokenness in the world, and it’s our obligation to try to repair some of it — to show that there are not only people who are trying to tear the world apart but that there are many more people who are trying to put it back together.”

Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president and executive director, spearheaded the effort, which came after the group received calls from several people looking to volunteer.

The volunteers aren’t the only ones still drawn to the site.

The chapel also maintains an 8-foot high, wrought-iron fence where passersby cry, reflect and write messages on muslin banners. The fence holds an assortment of American flags, bouquets of flowers and memorial candles.

It also offers messages from visitors around the world, such as a T-shirt that says “Holland Loves New York” or a supportive banner from the Czech Republic.

One petite blonde woman who appeared late in the evening asked for help hanging a laminated poem she had brought from Ontario, where she works as a firefighter. The chief of her ladder company had written the poem to memorialize his New York counterparts, and it drew tears from onlookers.

Volunteer Adriana Ermoli-Miller likes such moments of human contact the best.

By day Ermoli-Miller works for AJWS placing professionals in temporary volunteer posts as consultants. She found the experience of volunteering to be the other end of the spectrum.

“I liked the whole idea of service that doesn’t involve a specific skill other than just your own compassion, and that’s what I found so rewarding,” she said. “All I could offer was my compassion and my willingness to hear someone,” but that seemed to be what people needed most.

Volunteer Seth Moscowitz also found that his most important contribution was offering compassion.

“When the volunteer coordinator told us to be sure to give the workers a hearty hello, I thought, ‘Come on.’ But I found that when you were uplifting and cheerful, it made a difference,” he said.

What struck many volunteers was how much their small efforts were appreciated.

“It was very humbling,” Cindy Wachenheim said. She had come to volunteer just one night, she explained, but for the workers “it’s night after night. They were thanking us and I was, like, ‘No, thank you.’ “

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