Within 24 hours, the University was operating a drop-in support center for persons trying to locate family members and friends missing in the Sept. 11 disaster.
Staffed by administrators, faculty and staff of the Graduate School of Social Work, the center assisted some 60-70 callers during its first week of operation, as well as representatives from several families who visited campus. The BC volunteers made phone calls, tracked down photographs or useful information, provided referrals and, above all, sought to offer a haven for those living with fear and uncertainty.
GSSW organizers are quick to credit other departments and offices, ranging from Information Technology to Burns Library, who helped to pull University resources together at a time of widespread anxiety and confusion - with events affecting both care-givers as well as those needing care.
"This was an occasion when people in BC showed their best," said GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi. "Everyone demonstrated a firm commitment to this initiative, and it was very heartening to see.
"One of the most important roles of social work is to serve those who are not included in the mainstream," he added. "Here were people still hoping, against all evidence to the contrary, that their loved ones might be alive and therefore unsure how, or if, they should grieve. It's a very difficult position to be in. We thought that one of the best ways to help would be to connect these families and individuals with each other, so they wouldn't feel so isolated."
Following conversations between Fr. Leahy and Godenzi, GSSW Acting Associate Dean Thomas Walsh and Director of Academic and Student Services Regina O'Grady-Leshane set about to organizing the center.
"We talked with the family who had made the suggestion," Walsh said, "and what came out was the need for a place where people could meet, where there was a professional social work staff and a spiritual component as well."
IT personnel installed two computers with Internet access, three phone lines and a television in the center's location, the GSSW faculty lounge on the first floor of McGuinn Hall. O'Grady-Leshane and Walsh also contacted Campus Ministry and Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ, to secure their assistance.
The center officially opened at 9 a.m. on Sept. 14. GSSW faculty worked in three to four-hour shifts, while students answered or made phone calls and updated resource guides. Several families came to campus that day, and attended a private Mass in Cushing Chapel celebrated by Fr. Appleyard, in addition to talking with GSSW faculty.
"We didn't offer therapy," said Walsh. "Instead, we tried to explain to them as best as possible what they were experiencing emotionally and psychologically, and to give them some possible avenues to follow in the difficult days and weeks ahead. They seemed to find this very helpful."
O'Grady-Leshane said, "Through the center, the families and individuals were able to exchange information and photographs to help them in their searches. It was a way to take some action, and they appreciated having a means by which they could do so."
Some requests for help required more than words. One young woman whose friend, a BC alumnus, was missing explained that his family was in the process of moving and had no photos available. Fortunately, O'Grady-Leshane said, the center was able to obtain a yearbook and have the alumnus' picture scanned at Burns Library.
Another caller was concerned about his mother-in-law, who lived near the World Trade Center and had not been heard from since the attack. O'Grady-Leshane was able to reach a hospital located across from the woman's address, learned her building had not been evacuated and passed the news on to the relieved family.
Recent days have seen a sobering transition period for the center. With hope all but gone that additional survivors will be found, families and friends of those still missing have begun the process of accepting and mourning their loss. Last week, the center cut back its hours from 10 a day to seven, and is now handling any inquiries by phone.
In the days and weeks to come, O'Grady-Leshane said, "it will be useful for us to reflect on what we've learned by the experience of setting up and running this center, and what it says about the University and its ability to reach out in a variety of ways."
Walsh said, "BC's commitment to its ideals comes from the top down. When Fr. Leahy got that call, he could have said, 'I'm sorry, we can't do that.' Instead, he turned to Alberto and GSSW, and we were able to turn to others across the University so as to provide a very important service."
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