When Life Forces You to Reinvent

Four women took the loss, grief and shock of September 11 and forged new paths for their families and themselves.

By Helen Zelon
Melodie Homer’s foundation has provided scholarships to 13 young people who want to become pilots.
Photograph: Ben Hoffman

Shari had been passionate about dancing since age two, when she first begged her mother for lessons. After college, her dream had carried her to New York, where she’d hoped to dance professionally. But a single, discouraging audition set her on a different course, toward becoming a teacher. “I got cut pretty quickly,” she says. “I had no idea why. I quit the business of ‘making it’ on Broadway right there.”

When classes at Hannah Senesh resumed on September 14, Shari stuck a flyer on the school’s bulletin board, asking for dance-company sign-ups. By the end of the week, she had 30 young students—but no studio, business plan or bank account. “All of a sudden, I’m getting checks,” she says. “I had to call my dad: ‘What do I do?’ ”

She found space in a Brooklyn warehouse and learned the business as she went. Other dance teachers told her where to find insurance for her company; one parent sewed costumes, and another became stage manager. Ten years later, Shari still works at the school—and UpBring Dance Company numbers about 60 children, in classes such as boys-only hip-hop, performance dance and musical theater. Parents plead for their kids to be put in the front of the chorus line, but Shari knows some thrive at the back, out of the spotlight. “I’m a really good children’s teacher and choreographer,” she says. “I don’t cook, I don’t sew, but I do this one thing really well. September 11 gave my life new meaning. At least there’s art being created out of this terrible day; there’s some beauty that exists.”

 

The grieving wife ~ On September 11, 2001, Patti Quigley was eight months pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Patrick, a frequent business traveler, was nearly late for the airport that Tuesday morning; he had to iron his pants. But he made the plane, Flight 175 from Boston’s Logan to Los Angeles—the second jetliner to tear into the World Trade Center.

In the weeks that followed, friends, family and strangers rallied with homemade suppers, gifts of money and letters of sympathy. The couple’s five-year-old, Rachel, went back to school when it reopened. Patti gave birth to a daughter, Leah, barely a month after Patrick died. Slowly, life began to reset. Patti held a memorial service for Patrick and moved her wedding ring from her left hand to her right, thinking, I’m a widow now.

Through friends, Patti met Susan Retik, whose husband was on the first hijacked flight, and the two decided to launch Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit that helps widows in Afghanistan return to school and find work. But by 2007, Patti, who’d had a banking career before starting her family, was rethinking her goals. “I didn’t want to be the face of 9/11 anymore,” she says.

Then, on a crisp spring day later that year, Patti drove from her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to visit an Afghan émigré she’d met at a fund raiser. Razia Jan owned a tailoring and dry-cleaning store in Duxbury and had sewn four quilts in honor of the 9/11 victims. That day, the two discussed the girls’ school that Razia had just finished building outside Kabul. She hoped to raise money to staff it and run it through her foundation, Razia’s Ray of Hope.

For Patti, this became a way to shed her widow’s mantle. When Razia returned to Afghanistan to launch the school, Patti became executive director of the foundation. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a $50,000 donation from Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. Today the Zabuli Education Center, a whitewashed building behind stone walls, has 316 students, all girls, who study there year-round for free. It was the first girls’ school in the region and remains the only free school.

First Published September 6, 2011

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