Spirit of kindness lives on long after 9/11

Mark Di Ionno  The Star-Ledger 

Megan McDowell is of two minds.

There’s a part of her that wants to create a peaceful, “sacred space” for spiritual reflection.

And there’s a part that says, “Let’s just get this (expletive) done.”

Megan McDowell, founder of Heartworks photo Alexandra Pais NJ Advance Media

Megan McDowell, founder of Heartworks photo Alexandra Pais NJ Advance Media

There’s a side that says people must “own their grief” and make time to “sit quietly” with it.  And there’s a side that demands friends should rush in to help.

But she is not in conflict. She has found a happy marriage between her serene side and her energetic side.

It is an organization called Heartworks; an all-women “acts of kindness group” McDowell started after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that is still going strong.

What started as a group of eight women in McDowell’s in Bernardsville living room has grown to a group of 400 with a website, an annual gala and several public fundraisers a year, including a yard sale on April 24 and 25 at their headquarters on Route 202 in Basking Ridge.

The group has general meetings on first Tuesday of every month, where their “acts of kindness” are gathered and organized, with time built in for spiritual reflection. But its office is open every day for women who want to help, or take a break from their day and enjoy a meditative space.

“We’re not a charity,” McDowell said. “I want to make clear there’s no money here. We’re not giving money away. What we give people is support, and the little things that make them realize that somebody cares.”

Last Tuesday, on a cold, rainy night, about 70 women showed up, lining their cars for a quarter-mile along the street. In that group were six newcomers, and the girls’ JV lacrosse coach from Ridge High, who was there to pledge some volunteer hours from the full team — freshman to varsity. Not just a few hours. For the foreseeable future.

“We want to make the girls get out of their bubble,” said coach Jen Hauser, “and show appreciation for all they’ve been given by getting involved. We want this (involvement with Heartworks) to be part of the team legacy.”

Legacy, that connective tissue between generations, is powerful word in the Heartworks world. Some of the members were beneficiaries of the kindness acts, which explains the growing number.

“What we do here is deal with all the things that scare us,” McDowell said. “Bad things happen in people’s lives; your life can change just like that. We try to be there. We show up.”

The lives of McDowell’s large family changed on September 11, 2001. Her sister’s husband, John William Farrell, was in the South Tower when the planes hit. He is survived by his wife, Maryann, and four children.

At that time, McDowell had moved to Colorado but had “a visceral feeling in my gut to get back,” she said. “I also knew that life as I knew it was done.”

The outpouring directed at her family left her humbled, touched and changed.

“People did so much for us,” said McDowell, who has master’s degrees in counseling and social work. “I remember lying there in my nephew’s room thinking, ‘How are we going to get through the day?’ Then, someone showed up with coffee and we got through the morning. Then, someone showed up to rake the leaves and we got through the afternoon. Then, someone showed up with lasagna and we got through dinner. And it went on like that. All those people showing up got us through those days.

“They were witnesses to our grief. They helped share the burden of it,” she said. “I wanted to repay that and never forget it, so I thought, ‘Why not makes this a lifestyle?’ ”

And just as she cautions Heartworks is not a charity, she is careful to say it is not a “ladies who lunch” volunteer group either.

“We don’t care how you dress, what your hair looks likes, if you’re wearing the right shoes,” she said. “When people come here, we tell them ‘Leave your (expletive) at the door.’ There’s no gossip. Never. I’ve never heard a word of gossip in this space.

“We try to create a sacred, spiritual space where we pray and remember the higher parts of ourselves, and it’s those higher parts that get us through the heartaches, heartbreaks and grief.”

And their work is to help others get through those things.

At each meeting, the women come into a room ringed by tables, with cards, letters and small gifts to be given out. On each table are about 20 current situations for which their help and prayers are needed.

“These aren’t just errands,” McDowell said. “This gives us a chance to do work with God.”

During last week’s meeting, there was a comfort blanket to be prayed over and given to a woman whose son died in a skiing accident, and gift certificates and notes of support to his friends.

There was a cluster of lunchtime snacks for a boy whose father has cancer. “Please attach a note to (the boy’s name).”

There were cards to fill out for the family of Marine Capt. Stanford Shaw, of Basking Ridge, who was killed last month in a helicopter crash during a training exercise in Florida.

The group was sending a necklace to a young woman in rehab. “Please pray over this necklace for (the girl’s name).”

An ongoing situation is that of a local 3-year-old boy with a brain tumor, now deemed inoperable. He and his twin sister are constant recipients of prayers, letters and other small gifts.

“They’ve done so much for us,” said the boy’s father, Casey Crooks. “They have been so incredibly understanding. Any time we feel down, we get another care package from them. They came and decorated our house for Valentine’s Day.”

Crooks said his wife, Erin, is now active in the group.

“Something good always comes of the bad,” said Fran Frigerio, a member whose daughter’s house was damaged in a fire a few weeks ago.

The women of Heartworks sent food and other household goods as the family relocated, and placed inspirational signs on the burned property for the family to see when they drove by.

One said, “Hope Shines Brightest in Darkest Moments.”

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