MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- As the executive director of Project Rebirth, Helen Rafferty of Mamaroneck helps people discover methods that facilitate healing, foster hope and build resilience. Lessons learned from 9/11, along with people who experienced physical and emotional distress in the catastrophe, provide the forum for learning.
As the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the country approach, Rafferty feels blessed to be able to provide models to first responders, military, veterans and educators for coping with grief, loss and trauma, and for building resilience. Project Rebirth’s main tools are a series of time lapse footage and recorded interviews from people impacted by 9/11. Its centerpiece work is a movie at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, “Rebirth at Ground Zero.”
“It’s the longest and most complete record of people recovering from trauma, grief and serious injury,’’ Rafferty said. “We thought we’re going to have all these films, but what are we going to do with them. We wanted to do something that would do good in the world. We thought we could form amazing programs, teaching tools and curricula around this project, and that it could be really be transformative work. We work with communities going through some of life’s greatest challenges and help them get to the next chapter that is a healthy alternative.”
Project Rebirth also produced a suite of short films portraying the journeys of nine New Yorkers, which are also shown at the Memorial. Audiences gain insight into how individuals’ lives were changed and how they grew despite the pain and loss.
The organization now shares its educational material with schools. Institutions in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have shared Project Rebirth’s award-winning work with students to demonstrate the impact of emotional trauma.
“We’re attempting to start a thought process in human minds,’’ Rafferty said. “It’s taking an historic event, and seeing it in human terms. Once you have learned to appreciate the impact of a human event, you don’t unlearn it. It’s an amazing difference between reading it in a book and having people in front of you tell you what they’re feeling.”
Building on its work after 9/11, Project Rebirth has developed programs for First Responders, military and veterans, and education and community leaders. Project Rebirth even has a developed a resilience program for women in the military, where they learn practical self-assessment and self-care in the company of fellow women veterans.
Rafferty and her husband, Brian, have been involved with Project Rebirth since 2002. Perhaps the most important lesson she has learned through her volunteer work with the group is the length of the recovery arc.
“The films show how long it takes to recover from brief, loss and serious trauma,’’ Rafferty said. “It’s hard to people to acknowledge. Everybody expects them to be OK six months later. Two years later, they’re still traumatized. One of the lessons shows how long it takes to journey through grief, loss and trauma. That’s a message many people have to hear.”
The attacks of Sept. 11 profoundly impacted Rafferty, a native of New York City native and the daughter of a retired New York City firefighter. When the attacks on New York occurred, her father rushed to the firehouse and reported for duty. She recalled her own vivid memories of the day.
“I dropped the kids off at Mamaroneck Avenue School, and Brian called me and said turn on the TV a couple of times,’’ she remembered. “Instantly my mind started racing. Who do I know that might be there. I knew what was coming was going to be terrible grief my city, and my father. All I could do was race through my mental Rolodex of people that I love. It was just confusion and holding back hysteria.”
While the memory still burns, Rafferty finds purpose in her work with Project Rebirth rewarding, invigorating and necessary. “It gives me purpose beyond my everyday little things,’’ she said. “I can pour my resources into this work and I’m grateful I can do it. I’ve been around the world, and people feel compelled to tell you where they were. It means that much to them. People telling their story is one of the most powerful things people can do.”
For more information about Project Rebirth, click here to visit its website.