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Windows of Hope.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, chef Tom Valenti (Ouest Restaurant) began making phone calls to see what could be done for the families of victims within the hospitality industry. Others soon joined him, understanding that these families--many of whom were relative newcomers to the U.S.--had a unique set of needs in the wake of the tragedy. From this small beginning, Windows of Hope quickly grew into a source of strength and support for almost 400 people.

In February 2007, the Windows of Hope Family Relief Food published a five-year report on its extraordinary success, With $22 million in donations, the fund has been able to offer direct financial assistance to all who needed it, distributing over $10 million in grants and assistance, Today, enough remains for the fund to honor its commitment to the families' children as they persue their educational goals. Once the youngest children born after 9/11 complete their education--estimated to be 2024-the find will cause to exist. Art Culinuire spoke to the food's Executive Director. Darlene Dwyer, about the past five years.

AC: In less than a month after 9/11, Windows of Hope managed to organize the international Dine Out fundraiser, in which participating restaurants around the world donated a percentage of their profits from October 11, 2001. How did that happen so quickly?

DD:(laughs) That's a good question. We were feeling the effects of 9/11 and basically starting a new business in the midst of it all. We got together and thought we'd do a fundraiser. That day--it was actually the Friday after 9/11-we came up with the Dine Out, so that everyone would feel good. We wanted to say, "It's okay to go out, and it's a good reason, you're helping families that need help." Everybody was in such a state of shock, not only here but everywhere. We met at Ouest with industry leaders and everybody just chipped in. PR people chipped in and got the word out about the Dine Out, and that's how we started, that's how it was the kick-off on October 11th In the meantime we were doing behind-the-scenes stuff, like getting everything in order our 501(c)3, which our accountants helped us with. At that point the government was issuing them much, much faster than normal, kind of like what they did after Katrina as well. Because of that we were able to take donations and have the donations recognized by the government. Then Mike Bloomberg called and said, "Would you like office space for the fund?" We've been [at Bloomberg LP] ever since. That was a big savings for the fund.

AC: How successful was the Dine Out?

DD: In that one night we raised six million dollars, from around the country and then around the world. Everyone ended up doing their own thing--which was really kind of neat--like what worked best for them. In Scottsdale it was better to have a walk-around tasting where all the restaurants came under one roof, because they don't have enough people to go out to all these single restaurants. So all kinds of things happened, and it was just amazing. Everyone got really creative on the best ways to raise money for the families.

AC: What was done after Dine Out to raise money?

DD: The guys (Tom Valenti, Waldy Malouf and Michael Lomonaco) would go on TV and talk about what we were doing, where the money was going, how it was being used. They were doing all the Today shows, all the morning shows and things, magazines--just PR. I got calls from everywhere around the world about interviews with Tom and Waldy and Michael. It was just amazing, the interest in the fund, and the website, too. It was always kept up to date with the latest on what the fund was doing, and if you wanted to donate, how to make it easy, all those sorts of things. And I think that because we were running a fund on such a low percentage with the monies going direct to the families--that was actually how we wanted it, and how we would have wanted to donate to something--people saw that as a good thing.

AC: What were the original goals of the fund and how have they changed?

DD: The initial goal was to raise money and help the families. We thought we'd raise a little bit of money. And then when all this money--: We were shocked by the generosity. So we sat down and said, "Okay, this is an ongoing fund." The original goals haven't changed, it was always meant to be for direct distribution, which we did in the beginning to help the families feel secure. At that initial time, they didn't know what was going to happen, you know there was a language barrier and all kinds of things. Then we enlisted the help of case managers, and their salaries were all underwritten between New York Times Foundation, The United Way and the American Red Cross. The case managers worked directly with the families, and it was all about healthcare and education and direct distribution. They realized that not everyone had bank accounts. So they were taking some families that didn't feel comfortable to the bank and actually signing them up and giving them a list of financial planners, a list of people who were doing it pro bono for them, just so that everyone had a rock-solid base moving forward. Ultimately, we did have a five-year goal of helping everyone feel like there was light at the end of the tunnel and that they could move on from this tragedy.

AC: How has the fund managed the money and distributed it?

DD: I think the success of the fund--and we always say this too--is that this is not about us, it's about the families and what's best for the families. And I think all the decisions were made to be fair and to make them more at peace. We had the Community Service Society also with us giving advice on the advisory board. I worked really closely with the CSS and the families. We had an understanding of who the families were and what their needs were and just tried to help. It was really looking at them to see what would get them to that seeing the light

at the end of the tunnel.

AC: How many families benefit from the fund?

DD: We have 120 families, and just under 400 people, because it includes extended family members. A lot of victims were sending money home. They had people who were dependent--their mother and father back home, or brother or sister they were living with here, they shared an apartment with, different things like that.

AC: The fund remains committed to education until 2024. Is that an unusually long time for a relief fund?

DD: Yes, it's very long. The commitment was there about education, and we had babies born post-9/11. What we're going to do now is find an administrator because it's really just about education now. We need someone that will just be able to look after writing checks and administering the fund for education. The board thought it wasn't fair that babies born post-9/11 might not have the same opportunities as the kids that were here now. So that was their goal. One great thing about the education money was the women that participated, and are still participating in the ESL classes. I think that it was very important for them to feel comfortable with English because they had relied on their husbands for that. Then they realized they couldn't talk to their kids' teachers. Things that they never even thought about before that all of a sudden came to light. It was really about them not being afraid, if they were feeling ill-equipped to move forward.

AC: Is there any plan to continue raising money for education?

DD: No, I don't think so. As it stands now, I think we'll be okay. Some children are taking 9/11 scholarships that Governor George Pataki enacted for New York state schools, but then we pay for everything else that goes along with it, housing, books, all those sorts of things. That's university. For the others, we pay for everything education related, whether it's a school trip, or uniforms for parochial school, or books. It's for trade school as well, so if some of the children want to go to trade school, they'll be able to.

AC: As it stands now the fund has collected $22 million. Was that more than you expected?

DD: Yes. The initial fundraiser was really when we were shocked, when we raised that $6 million. We were thinking, "Okay, we'll get whatever," you know. And it came from everywhere--it came from children and their lemonade stands, and from corporations. And it was in the industry and outside the industry, people trying to fill our needs when they saw that the restaurant families needed help. It was amazing generosity.
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Publication:Art Culinaire
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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