9/11: 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

As part of Razia’s Ray of Hope outreach in the United States, Patti holds show-and-tell talks with American teenagers at schools and community centers. At each session, she asks a girl in the audience to walk around in a burka. “If you were 15 in Afghanistan, this is what you would wear when you went to the market or when you were out with your friends,” she tells them. “It’s not easy to walk around in it. You can get headaches. They go, ‘Wow.’ Watching a teenager look outside herself and see that she can help a girl halfway around the world have a better life—that’s rewarding.” Patti loves to hear Razia’s stories about the Zabuli students who help their fathers read the newspaper. The next generation, she says, “will help Afghanistan become its own country again.”

The refocused executive ~ The first inkling Allison Davis had that something was wrong came when a cop stopped her two blocks from the World Trade Center, just before 9 AM on September 11. “Let the fire engines go first,” the officer said; a small plane had crashed into one of the towers, but everything was fine. Allison, a vice president at CBS-TV, headed to an ATM to withdraw cash. Suddenly, big white mailing envelopes began falling from the sky, trailing their red waxed-cotton ties like kite tails. Black three-ring notebooks filled with documents began to strike the pavement, bursting as they hit. Still unaware of the unfolding tragedy, New Yorkers stepped over and through the raining debris, continuing their walk to work. “That’s when we heard the roar,” Allison says. “I looked up and saw the ball of fire above me as the second plane went into the building.” Instinctively, she hit the ground. Lying there, -Allison—who had been a journalist for more than 25 years—fished a camera from her shoulder bag and began shooting blindly, until the screaming sirens and the panic of the crowd brought her to her feet. We could be at war, she thought. Do I run toward the story or toward my children, my family?

For the first time in her life, Allison chose home. Until that point, she had been entirely dedicated to her career, rising through the ranks at NBC-TV and then at CBS-TV. Her husband, a video editor with a flexible work schedule, had always filled the -primary-caregiver role. “I got both sons off the breast early,” she says. “I put them in their dad’s arms and said, ‘OK, see you.’ ” When her first son was nine months old, she spent a month in Australia for the Today show. She worked in Zimbabwe for a month before her second boy turned six months old.

On 9/11, Allison’s priorities began shifting away from “landing the big story,” as she puts it, to finding meaning in her life. “I became much more involved in the lives of my children,” she says. “I needed to know that I could succeed at being a good mom. And I needed their strength.” She started spending more time with her kids, attending lacrosse and baseball games and helping to run a youth-group basketball team in her hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.

Allison wanted to use her media skills to support the work of non-profits but didn’t see a way to transition into that field until a 2003 restructuring at CBS gave her the chance to leave with a small financial cushion. That year she launched her own company, Coopty, producing promotional films for nonprofits and minority-owned firms, and she became COO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships for minority students. Finally, in 2009, she found the balance she’d yearned for with a unique mix of paid and volunteer work: as director of communications for Riverside Church in New York, mentor to young journalists of color, professor of journalism at the City University of New York and board member of several nonprofits. “All that I took for granted—my family and my talents, my health—I no longer take for granted,” she says. “What gives me joy is the ability to impact the lives of young people.”

HELEN ZELON is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in New York, City Limits, Scientific American and Ms.

First Published September 6, 2011

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