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“Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became the Leader of a Nonprofit”: With Sarri Singer, Founder and Director, Strength to Strength

”My story is really the story of survival not success. For me, success is when my organization brings goodness to the world by connecting victims of terrorism, both survivors and bereaved family members from around the world together to empower each other to move forward and not let the evil that terrorism perpetuates destroy us. We fight hate with love and fight darkness by shining the light on our common humanity.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarri Singer, Founder and Director, Strength to Strength, a leading nonprofit supporting victim of terrorism around the world with long-term psychological needs through regular meetings, provision of information and advice, and raising awareness of the unmet needs of victims and their families. Her organization enables victims of terrorism to share experiences and empower them to live life to their best potential.

What is your backstory?

14 years ago, on June 11, 2003, I was on bus #14 in Jerusalem, Israel when an 18-year-old terrorist strapped with explosives boarded my bus and detonated his bomb, injuring over 100 of us and murdering 17 innocent people including all those seated and standing around me. I was categorized as seriously wounded and taken into surgery at Hadassah Hospital. Unfortunately, this isn’t such an unusual story for many Israelis but as I am the daughter of NJ State Senator Robert Singer(who was the majority leader of the NJ State Senate at the time) there was a lot of attention from the government and media about my being injured in the attack. Once I was cleared to be released from the hospital and fly back to the United States to recover, I realized how lucky I was that despite the trauma I had been through, I made it out alive. I was blessed to have an incredible support system around me and realized how fortunate I was to have advocates for me when I wasn’t able to fully advocate for myself.

While back in New Jersey recovering, I was invited to speak at a Congressional hearing in Washington D.C. and to politicians in New York and New Jersey about my personal experience in order to assist in the safety and security of the United States. A couple of months later in September, I returned to Israel determined not to be terrorized by what had happened. In the years that followed, I’ve been invited to speak all over the world — throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Amsterdam, Ireland, Paris, Colombia, Israel and Madrid — about my personal experience. I’ve been humbled to meet other victims of terrorism and surprised to learn that there wasn’t a larger community for victims to connect with each other. Most people don’t realize the lasting impact a terror attack has on a survivor. It isn’t just that day, month or even the year after an attack that a survivor goes through post trauma stress, it becomes something they live with every day in their life.

I founded Strength to Strength with the idea of bringing victims of terrorism together globally to heal together and move forward with their lives. We’ve created a community where victims — both the survivors and the bereaved — can come together and feel they have a community that understands what they have been through and help them long after the media fades and the next event happens and they feel forgotten. It’s very hard for people to understand the long-term impact on victims and their families so bringing together people who can understand each other, brings about a healing like no other. I had no control over what happened to me that day but I do have control over how I live my life going forward and I want to live that life showing the opposite of what that day was all about — showing love and kindness instead of hate. That is what Strength to Strength is ALL about and we are building a community of love and peace, connecting people together from around the world.

Sarri Singer speaking at the UN for International Peace Day.

What is the most poignant story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?

If there is one story that really brings together why Strength to Strength began, it would have to be connecting with Autumn Gilles, an American who survived the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008. I had been in touch with the State Department and offered that if there were any Americans in attacks anywhere in the world who would want to talk, they could feel free to give out my information for people to reach me. In December 2008, I received a call saying that there was an American who survived the Mumbai attacks living in Amsterdam who was very traumatized and asking to speak to a survivor and would I be interested. I immediately said yes and our first conversation took place in January 2009 which lasted well over 2 hours. We began speaking weekly and not only was I there for her but she was there for me to talk about things. In June 2009, I was invited to speak at a victims conference in Amsterdam bringing together organizations in Europe that work directly with victims of terror and survivors and bereaved family members. I was not only excited to speak at the conference as this was not my first time speaking in Europe at a victim’s conference but I was more excited that Autumn I would finally meet in person. We not only met for dinner but she ended up joining me for a day at the conference where she could meet others and connect. Since that time, I would say that Autumn has become one of my closest friends in the world. We come from different places, different backgrounds and we would have never even known each other except that we both experienced something that bonds us for life. Autumn knows that if she ever needs anything she can reach out and I know the same. This is the essence of Strength to Strength, as our motto states “survivors healing survivors.”

So, what exactly does your organization focus on?

We support victims of terrorism around the world with long-term psychological needs through regular meetings, provision of information and advice, and raising awareness of the unmet needs of victims and their families. We enable victims of terrorism to share experiences and empower them to live life to their best potential. We remain committed to each victim through our global network. Strength to Strength partners with existing organizations in 12 different countries around the world that are on the ground working with victims of terrorism and their families. We connect and bring together those who are impacted, support each other to move forward with our lives, share our experiences publicly to be a voice for victims of terrorism everywhere and build a global community of peace. We do this through various programs we run throughout the year and other programs and conferences we participate in around the world. Few understand how a single terror attack can affect so many families on such a deep level physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually. We have taken it as our motto ‘survivors healing survivors,’ recognizing that we are all responsible for each other and that those directly impacted by terrorism by injury or the loss of a loved one deserve no less than our very best.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My story is really the story of survival not success. For me, success is when my organization brings goodness to the world by connecting victims of terrorism, both survivors and bereaved family members from around the world together to empower each other to move forward and not let the evil that terrorism perpetuates destroy us. We fight hate with love and fight darkness by shining the light on our common humanity.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Leader of a Nonprofit” and why.

  1. How much value it would bring to my life and my personal healing — I didn’t realize how much my work would enrich my life connecting with other survivors in a way no one else can understand, and bringing a renewed sense of belonging into their lives is priceless to me. The smiles I see on their faces and the joy in their voices is worth more to me than anything.
  2. The best way to balance nonprofit work and my full-time job — Professionally, I am the Director of Career Services at the Lander College for Women which is a division of Touro College. I find my work so rewarding that it can be very hard to find the balance between my job and my nonprofit work. There is no question that I could spend all of my time working on behalf of victims, but my job is also a priority. My nonprofit work allows me to focus on empowering victims to take control and live fulfilling lives. Fortunately, I work in a job that allows me to do that same thing in the lives of college students.
  3. Fundraising is hard no matter what the cause — You can have the best mission and programs but fundraising is always a challenge. Passion for my mission and even the skills to help victims does not translate itself into the ability to raise money for my organization. I did realize, however, that my role of providing a voice for victims goes beyond the halls of congress and the seats of power. That same voice raises the money necessary to continue our work and provide even more support for victims.
  4. As involved and passionate as you are about your organization, the mission is always so much bigger than you — I see myself as a conduit for the voice of the global community impacted by terrorism. My passion for this work comes with incredible responsibility for victim and their families. I have been fortunate enough to speak around the globe, but my work is always about how I can help victims and their families, whether I am speaking to members of parliament in the UK or members of Congress in Washington DC, speaking at a victims conference or at the United Nations, I am merely reflecting the voice of those that cannot share their story.
  5. There are benefits of having a diverse board but every benefit comes with its challenges — There is a misconception that a nonprofit board is about fundraising. That is true, but a diverse and talented board is worth so much more. Sometimes, as a survivor, I can be a little bit too close to my work which can be the challenge. My board is always there if I need something or to give me constructive feedback and guidance that allows us to accomplish our important mission.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would like to meet Malala Yousafzai — she is a heroic example of the power for anyone to change the world for the better. Malala is the perfect example of what I strive to accomplish with Strength to Strength by using our personal experiences as a platform to advocate for victims of terrorism around the world. We provide a voice for those that do not have a voice either because they were murdered or they cannot have a voice because they are unable to speak out. She is living proof that any person can really change the world for the better and as someone so young she brings so much hope for the next generations of leaders around the world.