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The Nation

Sept. 11 Charity Offers Gifts That Give

A victim's family wants to fight terrorism with kindness, and holiday shoppers can help.

December 23, 2005|Ryan G. Murphy | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On Sept. 11, 2001, family therapist Norma Steuerle was among the 59 victims aboard a plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon. But rather than seek revenge, her husband and daughters chose to create a charity to combat the conditions in which terrorism can thrive.

Our Voices Together, which was started on the fourth anniversary of the attacks, supports programs to promote tolerance, social justice, education and economic development around the world. For this holiday season, it is offering an altruistic alternative to traditional gifts.

Instead of giving a tie or sweater that may end up at the bottom of a drawer, people can donate in the name of a friend or relative to programs that provide school supplies in Pakistan, conflict resolution training in the Middle East, and midwife training and supplies in Afghanistan, among others.

A goal of Our Voices Together is to spread compassion and understanding.

"Being kind to other people will allow everyone to see that we're all not very different," said Lynne Steuerle Schofield, who serves on the group's advisory board, as does her sister, Kristin Steuerle Swanson. "We all want safety for our families."

"We are trying to promote activities that are creating a better world," said their father, C. Eugene Steuerle, who is on the group's board of directors. "In many ways, the terrorists are devoting resources to promote their vision of the world, and our country is making sacrifices to defend against them. We decided we needed to put a positive image on all of this."

Seed money for Our Voices Together came out of the $2 million or so that the Steuerle family received from the federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

"My children and I essentially did not want the money," said Steuerle, a tax expert and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington public policy center. He was a Treasury Department official under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "We don't need the compensation.

"We thought we could do more good with it in some other way. We asked ourselves: 'Should we give it away in a lump sum to a charity, or is there something better we could do with it?' "

They used $1 million to establish the Alexandria Community Trust, which supports charitable projects in the northern Virginia city where Steuerle lives. With the rest, they started Our Voices Together, recruiting friends and family of other Sept. 11 victims.

"We had the sense that the whole would be greater than the sum of all the parts," Steuerle said. "A unified voice is greater than an individual voice. Now we are trying to make contact with as many family members and friends as we can to make that voice stronger."

One of those he reached was David Stapleton, director of the Cornell University Institute for Policy Research in Washington. Stapleton had friends on the same flight as Norma Steuerle; now he is on Our Voices Together's board.

"We felt that the threat of terrorism couldn't be addressed alone through homeland security," Stapleton said. "Terrorism is caused by social inequality and various injustices. We felt the country wasn't doing a lot to address these issues."

Our Voices Together partners with the Central Asia Institute, Grassroots International, GlobalGiving, Save the Children, Seeds of Peace and Women for Women International to offer "Gifts That Count" online at www.ourvoicestogether.org.

A giver can, for example, pay for job skills training for an Afghan woman through Women for Women International for $80. For $5,000, a donor can cover 4 1/2 years of expenses for a school for Indian children who live around railway platforms; the donation includes nutrition and medical checkups for all students. Gifts That Count are tax-deductible and include customized certificates notifying recipients of gifts made in their name.

Other Gifts That Count -- which range in price from $20 to $50,000 -- support programs in Haiti, Thailand, Peru and elsewhere, as well as Our Voices Together itself. Nearly all donations go entirely to the designated charity. (The exception is donations to GlobalGiving that are subject to a credit card transaction fee of up to 3%.)

"The gift shop is a very easy tool to use," Steuerle said. "Choice is in the great American spirit. We're trying to give people a variety of choices to go along with Americans' giving and individualistic spirit."

An anonymous family, inspired by the Central Asian earthquake that killed tens of thousands, recently declared that it would match up to $40,000 in donations made before the end of the year to projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So Our Voices Together is conducting a "sale," offering some gifts at 50% off or two-for-one.

"For a lot of people who are concerned with the materialism of the holiday season, this is a good way to give gifts that are very meaningful," Steuerle said.

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