As we reflect on another anniversary of 9/11, who among us will not be sadly reminded of that day and of the firefighters who fought and earned the title of hero?
Following 9/11, Senior Citizen Dee Matthews, a New Yorker and former DuBois, Pennsylvania resident, visited her neighborhood firehouse where seven of its members had died that fateful day. Struck by the fact that the firehouse was shattered in more ways than one, Matthews prayed with the firefighters and later resolved to bring light back into NYC Engine Company 84 and Ladder 34.
Matthews called on two close friends in DuBois, Pennsylvania, Pat Stewart and Judy Hand to help her. With an anguished voice, Matthews said, “The firefighters are in mourning; they’re devastated. I know my hometown well enough to know they wouldn’t want those guys to suffer more than they already have.”
Her friends responded, “Let’s adopt them.”
On that day, via the telephone, bonded by three hundred miles of fiber optics and fueled with a commitment and love of country, three senior women gave birth to Operation: Adopted Heroes.
Coming up with a name for the project was easy, but could they find the support needed to make a difference? The three women would soon discover that their small community was as heartbroken as so many others throughout the country. The town jumped right in and became part of Operation: Adopted Heroes.
It takes a village.
Matthews’ two friends did not flinch when the opportunity to help was presented to them. Embracing the last audible words of Todd Beamer, 9/11 victim on board Flight 93, they adopted it as their mission statement. “Let’s roll,” they told the town, and the town heard them.
Pat and Judy knocked on doors asking for donations for the families of the firefighters who had lost their lives and they were rewarded by open-hearted generosity. Each of the seven families received sixteen hundred dollars raised by these two women.
It takes a village.
When she had visited the firehouse, Dee Matthews noted that chairs were past the point of comfort, so funds were solicited from individuals as well as local DuBois businesses to provide fourteen new solid oak chairs. Paint and other supplies were also bought to rehabilitate the firehouse in hopes of lifting the spirits of the men still grieving the loss of their co-workers.
A local grocery store was asked to contribute food. “The families,” said Pat, ” have children with big appetites. They need nourishment.” Enough groceries were donated to provide many nutritious meals for the families and firefighters.
High school band students boxed up the supplies to be delivered in a trailer packed with the new chairs and other items. “Operation Adopted Heroes: We will never forget” was painted on the side of that trailer.
It takes a village.
“We will never forget” were not empty words. Dubois, Pennsylvania folks support their commitment even today by remaining in close contact with their adopted heroes and the families of the fallen.
When the 2001 Christmas holiday approached, Matthews, Stewart and Hand discussed what they might do to fill in a few of the blanks for the families. “This will be such a sad Christmas for them,” Judy said. “We need to let them know we’re still thinking of them.”
They appealed once more to their friends and neighbors and again the response was, “Let’s roll!”
After phoning all of the widows to determine what the fifteen children liked, disliked, needed or wanted for Christmas, they gathered toys and clothes contributed by folks eager to help. Once again, local high school students wrapped the gifts to be taken to the families before Christmas.
A group of seniors in town made cotton throws for each of the widows, hand embroidered with the victim’s name on each one. Quilts, made by the Chat and Sew Quilters Club were donated for the firehouse cots; fruit baskets and hams were given by a local grocery store.
Stewart and Hand, accompanied by DuBois firefighters, were met by the FDNY group at the George Washington Bridge and upon arrival at the firehouse were met by Dee Matthews and her mother. Together they hand-delivered the gifts to the firehouse and to the families of their adopted heroes.
They could have sent them by UPS but they didn’t; they drove three hundred miles to present the gifts in person. They showed up because that’s what heroes deserve.
Twenty-four adopted heroes of NYC Engine Company 84 and Ladder 34 were later honored at a DuBois community parade complete with fire trucks (of course), banners, balloons and cheering crowds on both sides of the parade route streets. The senior women responsible for the project headed up the parade holding a huge banner.
It takes a village.
Captain Luongo and Captain Depew of Ladder Company No. 84 both spoke:
“It’s one thing to put stuff in a box and send it, but you people came to our little house and we had a day together. Family tradition is part of the reason firefighters go above and beyond,” Captain Depew said. “What you did helped us work through a difficult period. Knowing we had your support made it a little easier. You will always be welcome at our house.”
Three truly remarkable senior women found it intolerable to do nothing when faced with our national grief and sadness. Because of an ongoing commitment to a firehouse three hundred miles away, a small community was transformed from  a small community into the little town with a big heart making heroes of them all.
Sometimes it takes a village.
Author’s Note:
Dee Matthews died recently but she showed us all that even one person can make a difference.