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Grief counselor helps New Yorkers cope with horrors



Published: Sun, September 30, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Youngstown native said she was able to make a difference for those grieving in New York City.

By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

The man slowly gazed upon each face in the ring of people. He looked into each set of eyes that watched back.

He was about 22 or 23. He had watched his two best friends -- the people he considered his only "family" -- die in the crumbling rubble of a nearby hotel during the Sept. 11 collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Now, he was trying to connect, somehow, with these others -- strangers who were his new family in grief.

His teary gaze is an image that will forever be etched on the memory of Youngstown native Lisa Robbins. "That will always stick with me," she said. "Because in New York, they don't always connect."

How she got there: As a grief counselor, Robbins was a member of the circle of people at whom the man had gazed. She had traveled to the city from her home in South Bend, Ind., as part of an Adventist Disaster Relief Association team.

At the beckoning of the American Red Cross, the group of four professors and 17 social work and psychology students from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., had traveled to New York by bus, arriving three days after the attack. The volunteers counseled individuals and groups at the Advent Hope Church on 87th Street on Manhattan's east side.

Robbins, 35, a psychology student, spent five days working with victims, their families and friends, witnesses, those who escaped collapsing buildings and others who felt loss after the crumbling of one of the city's most powerful icons.

"It was a life-changing experience," said Robbins, a married mother of two, in a telephone interview from her home.

"It was a growing experience. People are more important than anything, than financial things, than money. That's something our nation needs to realize."

New priorities: She called her time in the city a personal blessing through which she was able to make a difference.

"I walked away with a totally different view in life. My priorities changed instantly," she said. "Things that seemed important become dim when you talk to a father who lost a child and talk to a wife who lost a husband."

Robbins said the stories she holds inside are "endless." She's seen post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, fear, denial and panic disorder.

One woman now runs for cover whenever she hears a helicopter, airplane or sirens.

One New York man struggled to accept that his 8-year-old son, living in Atlanta, no longer wants to visit.

The boy had always recognized the World Trade Center towers in postcards and photographs. Now, he views the city as unsafe, Robbins said; the connection he's used to has changed.

Subway riders noticed that missing from their morning commutes were the strangers they used to see every day.

More fallout: Men who have been forced to leave homes in unstable buildings near the disaster site expressed a loss of control and an inability to share feelings. Marriages were suffering.

Mourners grieved over tourists caught in the attack, over business people who were to be in the city for just one day.

Family and friends of those lost, still hopeful, searched infirmaries for survivors. Thousands of photographs hung on a memorial wall.

Counselors themselves spent late night hours "debriefing" to uncloud their own emotions.

Robbins, a graduate of Youngstown's East High School, moved to Michigan in 1996 and Indiana last year. She has been married to husband, Jerry, for 17 years. They have a 14-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter.

Robbins' mother, Kathryn Hawks Haney, hosts the "Gospel Dimensions" show Sundays on Youngstown's WRBP-FM 102 JAMZ.

To volunteer in New York, Robbins took time off from her job as program assistant at the Madison Center Mental Health Hospital for Children in South Bend.

Foul air: Although she was never close enough to the Trade Center site to see the debris, she could smell it.

"The air is just foul," she said. "It's the smell of death. I can't describe it." She said she also saw scavenging birds circling the area and heard tales of rodents roaming through the refuse.

But from where she worked, she also saw a cohesiveness among New Yorkers.

Subway riders were trying to make eye contact. People stopped to talk on the street. They spent time in conversation. And she was a witness to crowds cheering for rescue workers.

New Yorkers were pulling together; they were trying to heal.

"Blacks and whites and Hispanics, everyone was hugging," Robbins said. "There was no color. It was just a need. ... My tears were on them, their tears were on me.

"It is bringing healing to our nation," she continued. "It's an experience that is going to change our world."

viviano@vindy.com




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