Wednesday, October 31, 2001

In memory

Outpouring for victims overwhelms

        I know I should be cheered by the stories of Americans reaching out to victims of Sept. 11.

        All the shipments to New York — the teddy bears, the cards, the handmade flags — these should be bright spots in dark days.

        Instead, I find myself wonder what happens to it all. The situation brings to mind a bittersweet irony: When Americans are moved, they sometimes give so much that they overwhelm the ability of others to receive.

        I have seen this happen before, at the scene of other disasters. I can't help worrying that it might happen again.

        When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, Americans responded with a similar, if smaller-scale, outpouring of donations and concern. Relief agencies were inundated with items they couldn't use and had no time to organize.

        I covered the aftermath of the hurricane for a Florida newspaper, and I remember sidewalks piled with donated clothes turning moldy in the rain and heat.

        “That was so sad. The Red Cross was trying to stem that,” says Mindy Hammer, director of fund development for the American Red Cross in Cincinnati.

Too much of good thing

        This time around, in New York, the agency has been emphatic about not accepting random donations of goods.

        Still, the city itself has been flooded with items. Just to store it all, New York officials had to rent warehouses in New Jersey, Connecticut and even Rotterdam, N.Y., about 160 miles away.

        City employees are still trying to inventory all the donations. “Banners and flags, we have those all over the place,” said Jim Ryan, who has been helping at the city's Emergency Operations Center.

        Donated teddy bears have been handed to children at the family assistance center, and the Red Cross is posting cards around the city or leaving them on the cots of relief workers.

        “It's honestly been a joy to see that people all over the world are praying for us,” said Nancy Retherford, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross' New York City office.

        Now, though, even that is becoming problematic.

        The U.S. Postal Service has had to deal with packages marked “New York firefighters” or “relief workers.” And with the anthrax threat, the Red Cross no longer can ask volunteers to help sort the mail, Ms. Retherford says.

Even too much cash

        Her agency has even stopped soliciting donations of cash for the relief effort.

        In Greater Cincinnati, people have donated about $5 million to the Red Cross' Sept. 11 relief fund, Ms. Hammer says. With other organizations also collecting millions, the Red Cross has decided it has enough to take care of all the victims for many years.

        The truth is that at a certain point, generosity becomes more of a salve for the giver than the recipient.

        The gifts from schoolchildren are truly heartwarming, and during times of war, everyone should feel a part of the country's experience.

        But now may be the time to expand our definition of disaster-related charity. At a recent memorial service, a rabbi suggested people could honor victims by naming their children for them.

        We also can volunteer or donate to one of our local agencies in the name of those who perished. That would be the ultimate memorial — to make their sacrifice the inspiration for a more permanent spirit of giving.


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