What Hope Looks Like

 

By: Vanessa Martinez, Service Events Manager, Jersey Cares

Bag pipes, names, fathers, daughters, planes. Towers, sons, mothers, pain. If you ask me what I recall during the attacks of 9/11, I’d respond this way. As if recalling a memory, I intend on forgetting, but keep recalling anyway – a nightmare. I grew up in a small town – West New York – where people bustle about their lives the same way people did on that Tuesday morning on September 11th, 2001.  If you walk west towards the Hudson River, you could see the silent beauty that is the New York City skyline – all of it. Uptown cathedrals, the bright “New Yorker” sign, the Empire, West Side Highway, downtown skyscrapers towering above clouds.  Living here, one gets used to having such magic so close – you forget to look as you ride along the boulevard. That Tuesday morning, that quiet, unseasonably warm morning, everyone noticed it. Everyone heard it. Everyone stopped and stared at a different sort of magic– the black smoke that billowed, the ferries stopped in their waved paths, the sirens from every direction, the fire and smoke reflected on the river—it was as if everyone felt everyone elses lives turn into dust.

Some covered their mouths in horror, some looked away. Some jumped on the nearest City bound bus, maybe they knew someone. Maybe they wanted to help. As for me? I was 12 and late to my Science class as I walked into the 5th story corner classroom of P.S. #5. Incomprehension as the second plane impacts the South Tower.

Teachers begin to cry as I stare fixated on burning buildings in the distance. A thought interrupts the moment as I reflect on the fact that I was just there on Sunday with my cousins and we gazed straight up between the two pinstriped columns and got dizzy at the scale. My twelve-year-old brain skipped to the thought of “what if they fall?” and instantly was replaced with “they’re massive, it’s impossible.”

They did fall. And with their descent they took so much with them.

We went home early that day and my sister and I walked the three blocks home in silence. My dad’s voice cracked when I called him at work. “I’m glad you two…. are home safe” Those are the things I remember. Not a whole lot compared to the lessons I learned in the aftermath of 9/11.

I learned that our beloved skyline would never be the same. I learned what a declaration of war is. I learned that if you “see something, say something”, but most of all, I learned what hope looks like…

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Today, hope looks like 500 volunteers from across New Jersey coming together on 9/11 Day of Service for one purpose: to serve alongside one another to transform a Jersey City 9-11 Day of Service 2017 (8)high school deeply impacted by the tragic events of the day and create meaningful kits to be donated to hurricane victims, local first responders, seniors, and refugees.9113

Families and teams from schools, corporate groups, churches, and service organizations joined Jersey Cares at Dickinson High School on Saturday, September 9th. Half of the volunteers worked on revitalization projects including landscaping the school’s 9/11 memorial, brightening doors and railings with a fresh coat of paint, painting inspirational murals in school hallways to foster pride and school spirit, and911 day 1 creating decorative rock mosaics for the front entrance.

Simultaneously, families and several student organizations created hygiene kits for hurricane victims, Senior Care Packages with comfort items and 911day2thoughtful notes for Jersey City seniors, indoor hopscotch mats and activity kits for refugee children, and First Responder Thank You Kits for firefighters in Jersey City.

The morning of 9/11, I left Dickinson High School with a mission of delivering our First Responder Thank You Kits.  I drove by several firehouses on the way to Engine 14 – all with their garage doors closed – eerily reminiscent of the stations downtown on that fateful day. As I was sitting at a red light at the intersection of Palisades and Congress, I noticed it. A bright red fire truck poking its head out, followed by a line of solemn fire fighters. They followed their captain and lined up facing the spot where our beloved towers would have stood. They stood there in silence and saluted. It was 9:59am – the time the South Tower fell.

Palisade Avenue is typically a busy intersection. People walking, buses transporting commuters, but not at 9:59am. Traffic was paralyzed and people froze the same way as so many years ago.

Suddenly it did not matter how long I had been driving around or how far I had traveled to get these kits donated because in that moment, I realized what hope looks like and how far we have come. There are memorials scattered along the water, and countless lives that have been lost, but hope is everywhere and we must never lose sight of that.

Thank you to all of our incredible volunteers who came together to transform 9/11 into a day of empathy, unity, and service. Your time and hard work mean more than you could possibly imagine.  Thank you for keeping hope alive.

A Sheroes Story

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Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Coordinator, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Coordinator, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member. 

In honor of Women’s History Month and all sheroism, I have recently reached out to a former college professor of mine, the now retired, Det. Sgt. Toni Latario. While I was completing my B.A. in Criminal Justice, I was lucky enough to have Toni as my Criminology professor. Although a 6:30pm to 9:45pm, college night class can seem rather tedious, having Toni share her real life experiences with us really inspired me, and fueled my passion of helping others that much more. This is why I want to share her story.

Toni began her career in law enforcement in the early 1990s as a patrol officer for Plainfield Police Department, although she had aspirations of becoming a FBI Agent. In fact, in 1991 she passed the FBI entrance exam, right as they underwent a hiring freeze. While Toni was waiting for the hiring freeze to be over, she took the Police Officer Civil Service tests and chose Plainfield PD. Having grown up with a sense of pride in her city, she chose to serve her community as an officer. The goal was to gain experience as a patrol officer, and ultimately give the FBI reason to admire her for her tenacity to work in a rugged town. Little did she know, two years later to the day, she would be accepting a job with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office, right before receiving a call from the FBI New York Field Office inquiring if she was still interested. It was at that moment that she made the best possible decision for her career, and opted out of the FBI.

After gaining two years of patrol experience, Toni left Plainfield PD to begin her career with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office. Toni’s first assignment was in undercover narcotics, and less than a year later she was assigned to the Special Victim’s Unit, where she remained for over 15 years. Throughout Toni’s career with Warren County, she worked in every unit, including Major Crimes, Special Victims Unit, Domestic Violence, and Juvenile and Community Policing Units. Prior to retiring, Toni was the supervising detective of the Domestic Violence, Juvenile and Community Policing Units; the Human Trafficking Liaison for Warren County; and served as the Bias Crime Officer for Warren County. Toni assigned cases to detectives and still conducted investigations on her own in addition to training and supervising office detectives and college interns. Toni also represented the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office for six years when she worked as a facilitator for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Advanced Investigation and Prosecution of Domestic Violence Cases. Trainings were held twice a year across New Jersey, and these trainings allowed Toni to build some of her most cherished relationships with others, especially law enforcement agencies, should she have ever needed their assistance.

When asked about how it feels to now be retired, Toni explained that at first she felt like a fish out of water, but now she’s actually busier than before. Not only is she a professor at two colleges, but she is also the Vice President of an organization known as the New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement (NJWLE). However, Toni has additional plans for her retirement. She’s interested in being a security guard, or perhaps even becoming a private investigator.

It’s important for people to know that Toni didn’t come from the ideal family background. When she was in high school her parents got divorced, and she actually dropped out after her school shut down when she was a junior. At that point, it made the most sense for Toni to work and help her mother support her and her two younger siblings. Toni did obtain her GED while working, but unfortunately her family lost their home and they were homeless for a while, at least until other family members gave them a helping hand. Toni does admit that there was a certain amount of shame growing up in such difficult circumstances, however, she is aware that those experiences have made her into the astounding officer that she was, as well as the inspiring woman that she is today.

After all these years, Toni still carries what she’s learned at the Police Academy with her. Her training taught her to over prepare and never allow mediocrity, but only excellence. Early on in Toni’s career, random inspections would take place in their patrol cars to see if they had their extra kits which consisted of additional supplies and clothes in case of a disaster; to this day Toni is proud to say she still keeps a kit in her personal vehicle. Being an officer and training future officers has also shown Toni how aware or unaware local agencies may be of the special needs and disabled population in their communities. Toni made it a point to say that everyone should be aware of the communities they reside in and their neighbors, as communities thrive when they are closely knit. It’s also a great idea to inform first responders of any special needs or disabled people in your home; you can register all those needed through your local 911 center. Communication is key when working with your neighbors and first responders regarding emergency preparedness.

Retired Det. Sgt. Toni Lattario is the epitome of a shero, and I am honored that she allowed me to share her story. May she inspire you to be the change, as she is the change she hoped to see in the world. May she remind you that your past does not determine your future. May she be an idol for those in need of a shero, or for those who hope to become a shero, as sheroes come in all shapes, sizes, and professions. To sheroes!

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“The greatest feeling for me is knowing that I have made a difference in someone’s life.” – Det. Sgt. Toni Lattario