Out of tragedy, some people create something good

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the August 2015 issue of The Rotarian

What's the worst that could happen? For most of us, that's a simple question. We might be late for a train. We might miss out on a promotion, or even lose a job. But for some, the worst is unimaginably worse. An unfortunate few endure what Ani Kalayjian calls "true trauma." War. Fire. Flood. A daughter disappears. A son contracts Ebola. When faced with such disasters, "people feel anger, guilt, sadness, frustration – feelings that can poison the body and spirit," says Kalayjian, a trauma specialist at Columbia University. "Trauma survivors may think they're going crazy."

Some retreat from the world. Many simply survive. And a few, by some sort of spiritual alchemy, turn their trauma into something good for the rest of the world.

"There are things we think we could never survive," says Harold Takooshian of Fordham University, who has studied what he calls homicide survivors. "A loved one is murdered – suddenly, terribly taken from us," he says. "Who could endure that? And yet we do endure. We pick ourselves up and go on, even after the worst happens. The question is, how?"

By now you are probably thinking that this is the most depressing magazine story ever. But hang on. It gets worse. And then it gets better.

One spring day in 1973, first grader Joan D'Alessandro was delivering Girl Scout cookies in suburban Hillsdale, N.J. A neighbor abducted and murdered her. Joan's mother was shattered, almost suicidal. "I lay in bed like a statue," recalls Rosemarie D'Alessandro. "I felt like I'd never get up. Why would I?" The answer: because she had two other children who needed her. First of all, they needed lunch. "That got me going. Looking at what was immediately in front of me. Making sandwiches. Doing the next thing after that."

In time, she found herself looking for other things that needed doing. "I didn't want to just leave my little girl in the cemetery. I wanted to honor her life and her spirit." Years of grassroots activism – gathering signatures, giving talks in schools and libraries – led to Joan's Law, which mandates life sentences for sex offenders who kill children. President Bill Clinton signed it in 1998. Since then, D'Alessandro has devoted herself to the Joan Angela D'Alessandro Memorial Foundation. "Our motto is 'Remember Joan today, so tomorrow's children will be safe,'" she says.

The modern trajectory from tragedy to social good began with legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose 20-month-old son was kidnapped and killed in 1932. He pressed for the Lindbergh Law, which allowed federal agents to pursue kidnappers across state lines. Richard and Maureen Kanka honored their daughter's memory by lobbying for Megan's Law, which requires police to publicize the names and addresses of sex offenders. Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving after a drunk driver ran over her daughter in 1980. Donna Norris helped establish the national Amber Alert program after her daughter disappeared in 1996. Dennis and Judy Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation after two men killed their son, a gay teenager, in Wyoming in 1998. Soon after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, his parents set up the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which funds fellowships for journalists, including many Muslim journalists. In Takooshian's words, "These families heeded the Biblical injunction, 'Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'"

Another parent, John Walsh, was a hotel executive in Florida in 1981, when his six-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped from a shopping mall. Two weeks later, the boy's remains were found in a drainage canal. Walsh and his wife, Revé, founded what would become the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and in 1988, Walsh became TV's most famous criminal-hunter, host of America's Most Wanted. The first "most-wanted" perp was captured within a week of the show's debut. Over the years, Walsh and his millions of viewers helped police catch more than 1,100 cop-killers, terrorists, rapists, and kidnappers – fugitives who were sometimes captured almost before the show's credits rolled.

There are many more examples of people who suffered the worst that fate could offer and somehow found a way forward. I could go on, but sometimes one good story is better than a dozen. So here's one:

In 2004, Antony Suthan was living in a village on the east coast of his native Sri Lanka. A member of his country's Tamil minority, Suthan, then 25, had already lived through Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war. Then, on 26 December 2004, the ocean reared up, triggered by a deep-sea earthquake, one of the most powerful ever recorded.

Many of the town's men were fishing offshore. The swelling sea passed harmlessly under their boats. But as the tsunami neared shore, it generated 30-foot waves. Suthan saw it coming. He climbed a concrete building and held on as the waves tore through his village. Moments later, he grabbed a canoe and went looking for survivors. He rescued five people.

"That was my turning point," Suthan says. "I lost all my belongings that day. I lost all my loved ones, but I developed a sense of responsibility to my people."

After the tsunami he served as a translator for Perry Prince, an American aid worker who calls Suthan "a special person. Here's a young man who lost everything. He responded by helping me help his people, and not only as a translator. He wanted to do anything to help. He learned to repair computers and fax machines while living in a refugee camp."

Last year, Prince contacted friends in the Rotary Club of Ashland, Ore., and recommended Suthan for a Rotary Peace Fellowship. In January, Suthan joined 21 other men and women from a dozen nations in the 18th class of the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "This work inspires us to be peace-builders," Suthan says. "We learn from our professors. We learn from each other. We visit our host Rotary clubs in Thailand. Through training, study, and practice, we become catalysts for peace and conflict resolution, working for international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank."

For now, at least, Suthan's ambitions are local. Five years ago, he began working to help his region. "Now I want to help rebuild my country," he says.

Everyone responds differently to trauma, Takooshian says. "But a few, a special few, find ways to turn their misfortune into something that can help the rest of us." He compares these few to saints: "To survive the worst that could happen, and to turn that trauma into something that helps thousands or millions of people – what could be more positive than that?"

The Rotarian