This past week there were many ways to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11. I felt fortunate to have been part of a quiet gathering in New York City, hosted by the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, that drove home both the enormous sense of loss and grief from that terrible day but also the remarkable resilience of those who have suffered through it.

I met a handsome young man who just graduated from Ohio State, having earned a degree in business and a few bruises from his years on the varsity lacrosse team. TJ remembered passing his middle school art classroom ten years ago and not understanding why everyone was looking at the ghostly images of falling buildings on the TV. A few minutes later, he received a phone call from his mother. TJ admits he still feels a lot of anger at having to grow up without a father. “I struggled with my faith in God back then, and kept asking myself, who would allow this to happen?” But now, he’s far more focused on what lies ahead. He’s grateful that he just recently got a job in a small sports business, and told me: “I just keep living life every day.” TJ talked about how grateful he is to be a recipient of the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, whose support enabled him to earn his college degree. “College is so expensive, and I have four siblings,” he said. “Because of this Fund, all of us will get this extraordinary opportunity that otherwise we would never have had.” 

he day after the 9/11 disaster, 10 years ago, top executives at the Nokia corporation and IYF held a long-scheduled meeting in Dallas, Texas. It was to be a normal quarterly review of our ongoing work together. But in light of the horrific events of the previous day, they kept asking each other, what can we do? Within 24 hours, they made a decision to create a new fund that would help pay for the schooling of young people who had lost a parent in the attack. Nokia immediately donated $1 million to the cause—much of which came from the company’s employees—and began to solicit support from other corporations and individuals. The Sylvan/Laureate Foundation also made an important contribution to the Nokia/IYF fund. These and other donations were eventually joined together with many similar efforts under the umbrella of the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund.

Since its inception, more than $74 million has been raised, benefiting some 2,000 students who have demonstrated financial need. TJ was one of them. Another was a young woman, Dana, who recently graduated from college and is now in graduate school. “To be able to go to the university where both of my parents were alumni meant so much to me,” she said, “and now the Fund is paying for my younger brother to go to college.” Dana, to be honest, didn’t want to be at this event. “I think about my father every day,” she says with tears in her eyes, “but I don’t want to be seen as a victim of 9/11. I refuse to allow that event to define my life or who I become.”  She then adds, “But I’m here this evening because I wanted to thank the people who created this fund and helped so many of us.”

Dana talked about having to grow up too quickly after her father died, and how she tried to shut off all her feelings. “As a student in middle school, I wasn’t old enough to understand,” she said.  But she has willed herself to look forward, not backward, and has found much to inspire her.  She’s a zumba dancer, an activity that has brought confidence and joy into her life. Dana was thrilled to visit Europe this past summer with friends. And she’s excited about the internship she just started in a company that she loves. “I’m a force to be reckoned with now,” she says, “and no one will ever take me down!”

I left the reception moved by the generosity of the more than 20,000 individuals and corporations who have supported the Scholarship Fund over the years so that young people like TJ and Dana can find new possibilities in their lives. But even more powerful for me was to catch even a small glimpse of the breathtaking courage that it takes for these two young people, and so many like them, to keep looking every day toward the future, even while unable to forget the past.