A 9/11 Reflection from Stephanie Berkowitz, President and CEO

Nineteen years ago, Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS) began providing mental health support to survivors of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. Tapped by the Greater Washington Community Foundation, we offered counseling and other services through the September 11 Survivors’ Fund over a seven-year period. It wasn’t the first time we stepped into that role. Since 1924, we have continuously been helping individuals, families and communities in crisis. And while we have never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, 9/11 provided valuable lessons for this latest crisis.

The Survivors’ Fund was intentionally set up to be flexible and inclusive. While we provided support to numerous people injured in the Pentagon attack, we also helped, among others, a flight attendant who lost colleagues on the plane that flew into the Pentagon, a taxi driver whose car was damaged by flying debris from the crash and a fire fighter who saw unimaginable things and decided to change professions. In all, we helped 1,051 people.

Six months into this pandemic, we understand that – unlike with the terrorist attacks – every single person in this country is directly affected in some way: people who have lost loved ones or become ill, frontline healthcare and service workers, parents overseeing virtual learning, people in countless industries who have lost their jobs, and on and on – with Black, Indigenous and People of Color affected disproportionately. The majority of clients seeking help at our Multicultural Center are immigrant families who have experienced trauma in their home country, trauma during their journey to this country, trauma once they relocated here and are now experiencing trauma from challenges relating to the pandemic. Over the past two decades, we have learned that targeted outreach efforts in multiple languages is the most effective way to reach our most vulnerable neighbors.

Acknowledging that we needed to expand our outreach efforts this time around, we immediately set up a COVID-19 emergency response program. Since March, we have received over 2,000 requests from people looking for mental health support, financial assistance and other resources. In response, NVFS has distributed more than $1 million in financial assistance and has provided families with hundreds of connections to local resources. After 9/11, our work was supported by everyone from children who held lemonade stands to major foundations and corporations who contributed millions of dollars. Today, we are seeing that same spirit of generosity, only the need is so much greater. Even companies who have taken a direct hit by the virus are stepping up to help because they recognize how many individuals and families in our region are living on the edge financially and emotionally.

We were clear that the Survivors Fund should be a long-term recovery effort because we knew that people would come forward on their own schedules. Several years into that project, we began hearing from some first responders such as fire fighters, who were not accustomed to asking for help. Once again, we are hearing from people who have never before sought out mental health support. Many of them are non-traditional first responders: essential workers showing up for work, day after day, at grocery and drug stores, in hospitals and doctors’ offices, driving buses and delivering mail.

The Survivors’ Fund was hard work, so we made a point to build in support systems for our staff. In this crisis, our mental health professionals have an added challenge: every one of them is dealing with the pandemic at the same time as their clients. We have had staff who lost family members to COVID, whose spouse lost a job or are caring for kids at home while working virtually with clients. They are heroes who can’t imagine not doing this work even in the face of such hardships.

With COVID, the needs in our community will come in waves and the challenges will continue well into the future. It will take much more than a vaccine for us to recover as individuals and as a country. It will take individual acts of kindness, unprecedented financial investments in mental health and other services and a commitment to racial justice that is as large as the virus itself. Only then will we be able to heal as a community.

Stephanie Berkowitz, President and CEO of Northern Virginia Family Service, led the organization’s response to 9/11.