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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sallie Lynch of Tuesday’s Children Is Helping To Change Our World

It’s professional to ask for help. I used to feel like I needed to prove that I was capable by doing it all, but I’ve learned that it is so much better to ask for help. I used to think it was selfish to expect help from others, but people generally like to be asked because it also validates their expertise and abilities

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sallie Lynch.

Sallie Lynch has more than two decades of experience serving families of 9/11 victims, responders and survivors, post-9/11 military families of the fallen, global victims of terrorism and communities impacted by mass violence and wide-scale trauma and loss. She is the principal researcher and author of Tuesday’s Children’s evidence-based Long-Term Healing Model, a five-module training curriculum, online toolkit and compilation of lessons learned in community healing and resilience. Sallie has provided customized guidance and capacity building support in the aftermath of terrorism, mass violence and wide-scale trauma and loss to frontline service providers, community leaders and survivors in U.S. and international communities. She has facilitated cross-cultural resource and idea sharing sessions and trainings with international victim service providers from 34 countries engaged in Tuesday’s Children’s peacebuilding initiative Project COMMON BOND. She has secured significant institutional funding for expansive projects to address traumatic loss and build community resilience, including recent multiyear grants from the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Life Foundation and the Brave of Heart Fund in response to terrorism and targeted violence and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sallie has represented Tuesday’s Children in interviews and speaking engagements to high-profile audiences, including at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice and the United Nations. She has published in U.S. and international journals on long-term healing, community resilience and peer-to-peer support and is a co-author of the book FDNY Crisis Counseling: Innovative Responses to 9/11 Firefighters, Families and Communities (Wiley, 2006). Sallie previously coordinated a longitudinal research and intervention program with Columbia University School of Social Work and the FDNY Counseling Service Unit for 9/11 widows and children who lost a firefighter parent. Sallie has served on the Training Subcommittee for Vibrant Emotional Health’s Crisis Emotional Care Team (CECT) and was a founding member of the Advisory Board for Peace of Mind Afghanistan (PoMA), a national campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in Afghanistan. She holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University and a BA in Cultural Studies from Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Sallie is certified as a Grief Educator and in Psychological First Aid and is co-founder of Tuesday’s Children’s Survivors of Tragedy Outreach Program (STOP).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you. I’m happy to draw attention to our work and the needs of the families we serve. When I moved to New York for grad school, I planned on studying anthropology and Slavic languages, but during my first semester my father died, and it was a loss that stayed with me and opened my eyes to the impact of grief and the finality of death. I took a semester off, planning to process it all, but then 9/11 happened. I felt compelled to do something to help grieving families, especially the children who lost parents. I was already a young adult when my dad died, but I could only imagine the pain of losing a parent earlier in childhood and not getting to say or do the things they wanted to with them. I started working with Columbia University School of Social Work and the FDNY Counseling Service Unit on a project with widows and kids of the 343 FDNY members who died on 9/11. Later I joined Tuesday’s Children, which serves all the families impacted by 9/11 and now has a broader mission of serving military families of the fallen, and global victims of terrorism and mass violence. Working for Tuesday’s Children meant continuity for me, especially because some of the FDNY family members I worked with early on were leading innovative efforts and new programs within Tuesday’s Children. The peer support I witnessed with serving our various populations, and in connecting with other communities impacted by tragedies, led to the formation of the Survivors of Tragedy Outreach Program (STOP).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Tuesday’s Children’s Survivors of Tragedy Outreach Program (STOP) is led by survivors and service providers representing over a dozen communities in the U.S. and Canada. Tuesday’s Children provides the venue — the monthly groups and online platform — to bring them all together. I think the most tremendous thing I’ve experienced with STOP is witnessing how our members come together with caring, compassionate hearts and such a unified voice. Since we’ve founded the group, whenever another act of mass violence or tragedy happens in the U.S., sadly this is a constant occurrence, or even when upsetting events happen overseas, including the tumultuous humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and the ongoing war in Ukraine, our members reach out to each other and to communities to offer collaborative resources and support in a way that I haven’t witnessed before. Because they are predominantly survivors, they are credible voices offering this support, and this cuts through the usual hesitancy organizations and newly impacted communities might have to accept outside help. This helps us to triage support to communities in ways we couldn’t before. The joint statement our members issued in response to the tragedies in Buffalo, Uvalde and mass shootings happening at a horrendously furious pace around the country, sends a strong message calling for action, improved prevention protocols, increased focus on mental health and long-term support. Being part of that process, helping to compose that powerful statement and get their voices out there, is one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I tend to resort to humor in awkward moments or when meeting new people. At first, I thought that it would be a mistake to use humor in my interactions with family members impacted by such traumatic events, but defaulting to humor has actually proven to be an icebreaker and has often led to more authentic interactions and bonding. I think many people tend to put on kid gloves with surviving family members or see them through a lens of trauma and grief, and I think that can make them feel labeled and observed. Getting to know our families and the survivors I work with has taught me to drop any preconceived notions, listen actively and with an open heart, and be myself. I also used to avoid speaking about my own experiences with grief or showing my emotions too much because I felt that, in the hierarchy of things, my experience paled in comparison to what our 9/11 families and others have gone through, but I’ve learned that showing that side of myself, my own vulnerability, actually makes me more relatable. Being real and being honest usually helps facilitate communication and build connections — it’s validating and lets people feel safe and seen by a peer, not observed by an outsider.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I think Tuesday’s Children in general, and especially our Survivors of Tragedy Outreach Program (STOP), is about connection. We bring people together to form meaningful and lasting bonds, and we connect them to resources and services that meet their evolving needs. One thing that sets us apart from other organizations, and I think keeps the trust of those we serve, is our commitment to long-term healing. We know that families and children experience grief and trauma differently as time goes by and as life milestones and other circumstances present challenges and sometimes painful reminders. Our adaptive approach allows families to access the supports they need when they need them, and to find opportunities for peer support, mentoring, family engagement, career support, even ways to give back to others in need and turn their pain into purpose. If our work and the work of STOP can raise awareness for the long-term needs of those impacted by terrorism, mass violence and military conflict, and if we can walk alongside them, I know that makes a difference for individuals, and it shows other communities in need that they are not alone.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I think of STOP, Heather Dearman immediately comes to mind. She is a surviving family member impacted by the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, and when I first met her, she was one of the strongest voices calling for survivors to form a coalition. After learning more about Tuesday’s Children, she turned to us to help make this vision a reality. By forming STOP, I believe we have achieved many of the things she envisioned, convening not just survivors but professionals representing agencies and organizations that strive to support them. Tuesday’s Children provides the forum, convenes the group and offers a platform for dialogue and collaboration, but what we really did was lift her voice and her vision, and the voices and goals of all our STOP members, highlighting the tremendous ways that they provide peer support to each other and to other communities. I feel like STOP provides our survivors with a safe place where they know collaboration is possible and where they feel heard and supported. It’s slow going to build on some of the goals of STOP, and we continually are identifying new challenges and needs, but Heather’s enthusiasm and gratitude for where STOP is headed is a continual reminder to me that we have landed on something unique, special and which holds tremendous potential.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to commit more funding and resources to addressing long-term needs. So much focus, from the media, the well-meaning public, and the federal government, goes to communities in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, but we so quickly move on and forget about the long-term needs of families living with the pain, trauma and grief. It is an uphill battle to get support and resources to address the ripple effects of terrorism, mass violence, military losses and even the pandemic.

We also need to do better at raising awareness for the needs of families and communities impacted by these traumatic events. There is so much knowledge we can draw on from disaster response efforts over the last several decades and from the direct experiences of survivors. These lessons need to make it into future protocols for both prevention and support services. We need to not become complacent and simply move on to the next thing, thinking that we’ve solved the problem or that there’s nothing we can do. It’s more complex than that, and these experiences need to be witnessed.

Listen to survivors and incorporate their feedback in policy decisions. Give these credible voices, family members who have directly experienced terrorism, mass violence, military conflict, trauma and loss, a seat at the table in decisions that most impact them. We cannot prescribe solutions without first hearing their needs and ideas.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think leadership in my mind is the ability to be a resource to others, to work with others to find solutions, and to shine a light on the strengths of others. I believe that leadership is not unilateral decision making or keeping up with productivity, but it is the ability to see the big picture, understand the efforts, strengths and knowledge of your team, and make informed decisions. I feel that a truly strong organization is made up of many leaders working in tandem. Sometimes it takes more effort to collaborate than to go it alone, but the impact is so much greater.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It’s professional to ask for help. I used to feel like I needed to prove that I was capable by doing it all, but I’ve learned that it is so much better to ask for help. I used to think it was selfish to expect help from others, but people generally like to be asked because it also validates their expertise and abilities
  2. Be yourself. I have grown more confident in myself over time, either that or I have stopped seeking validation and am no longer as concerned about what others think of me.
  3. Purpose is the ultimate career. I have felt most accomplished when I feel a clear sense of purpose and know that I’m making a difference in the lives of others, perhaps even having a lasting impact. I don’t like spinning my wheels.
  4. It can wait. I have always felt a sense of urgency about work, and sometimes that has taken precedence over things that I should prioritize in my personal life instead of procrastinating. Obviously, there are times when I still default to urgency, particularly when someone needs immediate support, but I’d like to think I’m getting better about taking breaks and knowing when I need to hit the pause button.
  5. Family will become the most important thing in your life. Now that I am a parent, I see things differently than I used to, and my family is my world. I now fully understand the protective instincts a parent feels toward their child, and I value the community networks that organically form to support families. I also now have finally learned it’s okay to ask for help.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I do not have enormous influence, but I do believe that our work does, and I know the unified voices of our survivors and families can be a powerful force. I wish there was a way to end human-caused violence. I am continually baffled by the depths of the dark side of human nature that causes us to destroy each other. Yet I will never stop being impressed by the community spirit, compassion and forces for good that emerge in the wake of these events — this kindness and love truly overpowers hate. No one should have to endure those kinds of traumas or loss of life. I often say that I wish Tuesday’s Children was no longer needed. I would dig ditches for a living if it would mean that people would stop killing each other. In the meantime, I will do all I can for those who are living with the pain and hurt that these tragedies cause, and wherever possible I will elevate their voices to inspire others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Many quotes come to mind, but I often use the Mr. Rogers quote, “Look for the helpers.” Fred Rogers attributes this to his mother…

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

This quote gives me so much comfort, in my personal life and in work. This is what we do at Tuesday’s Children in the aftermath of any tragedy — we don’t assume that we can come in and solve a community’s needs, but we look for the helpers and we seek ways to help them. Our STOP members are all helpers in this regard too.

I also have a few quotes that I’ve taken from my own parents. “Lighten up” was something my Dad always said, and that sticks with me at times when I feel like things are just getting too serious. He was a cartoonist, a clown, a carpenter, a self-proclaimed “Tom of all foolery.” He used to say that you could take any situation, no matter how sad or serious, put a banana peel in the picture and it automatically becomes funny. I wholeheartedly wish that were true, but even in the darkest of times we can always find levity.

“You can’t always get what you want” is another quote that lives with me. When we were little, my brother and I would say “I want, I want,” as kids do, and our Mom would say, “You know what Mick Jagger says about that? You can’t always get what you want.” We heard it so many times that we would respond in exasperated voices, “If you try sometimes you might get what you need.” Now I find myself saying the same thing to my own daughter. Like me, she will be able to claim she was raised by Mick Jagger.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

That’s a tough question. Maybe Mark Hamill. I’m a big Star Wars fan and he seems to have a tremendous sense of humor and a big heart, so maybe I could convince him to be a celebrity ambassador for Tuesday’s Children, especially because Luke Skywalker’s character narrative actually aligns pretty closely with our mission.

I also have to confess that the time I felt most star struck by a celebrity was when I saw Kermit the Frog filming something in Central Park. I know he’s a Muppet operated by an actor, but the magic still holds true for me, and Kermit just exudes kindness, innocence and humor. Honestly, breakfast or lunch with Kermit or the Muppets sounds pretty awesome.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow Tuesday’s Children on social media or sign up for our newsletters at our website www.TuesdaysChildren.org. In addition to our community programs for families, we host a number of public-facing virtual events, including an annual Lessons in Recovery and Resilience Forum and quarterly Speaker Series. You will often see me moderating panels or introducing our featured speakers at these events, which are further opportunities for us to elevate the voices of survivors and the families we serve. The joint statement from STOP can be found here: https://www.tuesdayschildren.org/our-programs/community-resilience/, along with other resources and family-focused tip sheets on coping with tragedies and trauma and grief reactions by ages and stages.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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