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For Victims' Kids, Pain and Growth

Some who lost a parent in the attacks will read aloud the names of the dead at ground zero. Support groups for the youths have expanded.

September 11, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was a moment no father would miss: On a bright, sunny afternoon at Shea Stadium, 15-year-old John Coppo took the mound and threw out the first pitch Wednesday before a Mets game. But his dad, Joe, was not there. He had perished in the World Trade Center attacks, leaving a gaping hole in his son's life.

"My father would have been so proud," said the shy, freckle-faced boy wearing a blue baseball jersey. "And it's tough for me.... I've had to learn to get on without him, like a lot of other kids. I guess it's been a pretty hard time."

For the thousands of children who lost parents on Sept. 11, 2001, life since has been an often traumatic jumble of loss, confusion and loneliness, experts say. But it's also been a time for growth and understanding. Today's second anniversary ceremonies at ground zero will feature 200 of these children, who will read out loud the names of the 2,792 people who died there.

To some youngsters, such as Coppo, the anniversary is a moment that must be endured; he said the Shea Stadium outing had helped dull the pain of his father's death. But other children, such as Jessica Waring, 16, are dealing with their grief more publicly. She will take the podium this morning and read the names of 15 who died -- including her father, James, a security manager who had four daughters.

"He'd want me to do this," Waring said softly. "I think he'd be so proud."

When the twin towers fell, thousands of parents had to wrestle with much more than the loss of their own partner. They also were confronted with what, in some ways, was an even more painful dilemma: How do you tell a child about the loss of a parent, especially under such public circumstances? And what can you possibly do to help them fill the void in their lives?

A multitude of government agencies and private charities offered short-term aid to these parents -- including food, shelter and counseling. Other groups have raised funds to provide college scholarships and run job-creation programs. And special victims' compensation programs have distributed millions of dollars in public and private funds.

But one support group, whose members were directly affected by the tragedy, has taken a unique and personal approach to meeting these families' needs.

"We've been trying to give these kids something to look forward to, because so many of them need a sense of hope," said Chris Burke, president and founder of Tuesday's Children, a nonprofit group that organized the baseball outing. "You can make them happy for three hours or so. But will it last forever? No way."

Burke and other employees at Cantor Fitzgerald helped form the support group when they realized that about 1,500 children had lost a parent from their firm alone in the attacks. The emotional losses were going to be staggering for them, said Burke, whose brother, Tom, also worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and perished in the north tower, leaving behind four young sons.

"For me, it's all about these kids," said Brian Kelly, a bond trader whose brother, Tim -- a father of four -- also died at the trade center. "We came up with the idea of doing something, anything, we could to try to fill the holes in their lives. We could never fill the shoes of a missing parent, but we could reach out."

At first, Burke, Kelly and others enlisted the help of corporate sponsors to bring the kids to baseball, football and hockey games; they got theater tickets and organized ice skating trips. Some volunteers took children on camping trips to the Catskills, while others scheduled outings to museums.

Although Tuesday's Children began with Cantor Fitzgerald families, it has since branched out. Burke said the organization has volunteers reaching from Boston to Virginia and has New York branches in Manhattan and on Long Island.

Members recently launched an effort to help parents cope with their psychological loss. But their core focus has been a mentoring program, in which adult volunteers spend at least two hours per week with a child.

"This is the kind of relationship that springs from helping a kid with homework, or showing up to take them away for a weekend," Burke said. "It's the simple things that can go the furthest, because that's how you really build trust."

Funded by the Bear Stearns Charitable Foundation, the mentoring program is assisting about 50 children in the New York area.

For Waring, the weekly meetings with her mentor are a chance to get her mind off school or personal problems. Sometimes she and Mary Butler go out to eat in Manhattan and talk; sometimes the Bear Stearns manager helps her with upcoming high school tests. Mostly, she's a person who's easy to talk to, Waring said.

"My friends support me, but sometimes they don't really understand what I'm feeling, things about missing my dad, and it's harder to talk to them," she explained.

"I love my mom more than ever. But before, when my mom said no, we'd all go over to my dad and he'd say yes. We don't have him to go to any more."

As the second anniversary dawns, parents and children alike are putting on brave faces.

Patricia Coppo watched proudly as her son threw out the first pitch, but then said quietly: "The loss of his dad has been like an amputation, something we knew we would all survive, but at a tremendous cost. Nobody's talking about closure."

Waring voiced similar thoughts, saying she would get through this morning's emotional ceremony because she has worked hard to keep her feelings in check.

"I want to let everybody know that I loved my dad," she said firmly. "I'll feel good doing it. And I'll cry later."

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