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by Kate McMahon

This is a story of following the footsteps of a hero to give back to those in need.

Unloading cartons at a vacant supermarket-turned-relief center in storm ravaged Staten Island last Sunday, I was fortunate to count myself among the 10,000 volunteers who have done just that since Hurricane Sandy hit. Thousands more individuals and companies from across the country – through donations large and small – have also followed and reminded us all what the season of giving truly means.

The footsteps belong to Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter and father of five who was heading home from the late shift when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He turned around. When told the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was closed to traffic, he strapped his 60 pounds of gear to his back and ran through the tunnel to meet up with his fire company, Squad 1. Stephen Siller was one of 343 firefighters who perished in the terror attack, and his family and friends chose to honor him with a fundraiser the following September called the Tunnel to Towers Run.

This is also a story of how that one run launched a national foundation to support first responders and our nation’s military wounded in the fight against terrorism, and then “turned on a dime” to become a relief agency after Sandy struck so close to home on Oct. 29th.

Since then, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation effort has:

• Opened relief centers in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Long Island.

• Enlisted the help of 10,000 volunteers.

• Distributed $7 million dollars in goods -- from baby food, toothpaste and canned goods, and blankets and socks, to gallons of bleach, shovels, appliances and sheets of drywall -- to storm victims in the New York area.

• Gutted 1,000 damaged homes.

• Raised $3 million in donations.

T2T began accepting donations in a parking lot near the Staten Island Ferry four days after the storm, and moved into the vacated supermarket when the daily truckloads of supplies started rolling in. Squads of volunteers turned the space into a relief center, with sections of clothing, baby needs, food, toiletries, paper goods, cleaning and construction supplies, small and large appliances, and even dog and cat food.

One such volunteer was Randy Payne, who works in corporate brand sales merchandising and planning at Kroger’s Cincinnati headquarters. He participated in the first T2T run in 2002, and has since helped launch a satellite run in Cincinnati to fund construction of a handicap-accessible “smart home” for a local serviceman severely wounded in Afghanistan. He lauds the support of Kroger, its associates and suppliers for T2T at home and in New York.

“It’s an incredible thing to be part of this effort,” he said, working in the center before driving back to Ohio.

For the families who came through the former Cangiano’s Pork Store that rainy Sunday afternoon, with their FEMA certificates and ID numbers in hand, the supplies were indeed a lifeline. For those still “camping out” in dark chilly homes, the ceramic heaters were a lifesaver. I was but a one-day (thus far) volunteer, unloading cartons and assembling family food cartons, struck by the commitment of those who made this organization run.

Support from the foundation’s long-time “run” partners – including Walgreen and its Duane Reade division, Dunkin Donuts and UPS – remains steadfast during this post-Sandy effort for T2T. Much-needed shipments of new clothing were rolling in from The Gap and a charitable organization called Fashion Delivers, and countless others.

A stellar example of quiet generosity came from the partnership of Welch’s, Giant Eagle of Harborcreek, PA, and Roberts Warehouse of North East, PA, which shipped a full truckload of juice and PB&J sandwich ingredients to the Staten Island center. The shipment included 8,964 jars of Welch’s Natural Concord Grape Spreads, 8,964 jars of BAMA Peanut Butter, 24,984 bottles of 10 ounce 100% grape juice, and two pallets of Giant Eagle bread.

But so much more is needed, as T2T works tirelessly to help the families hoping to rebuild their homes, and lives, and to share the holidays with loved ones. As the folks in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast know only too well, recovery takes years. Organizations such as T2T, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and more continue their efforts and need our support, during this holiday season and beyond.

For more information on the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, click here.

It’s an honor to follow in his footsteps.
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