Officially known as the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, this 501(c)3 organization was founded in memory of FDNY firefighter Stephen Gerard Siller. Siller, who was the youngest of seven children, was eight years old when his father died. Eighteen months later, he also lost his mother. Orphaned, Stephen was raised in Staten Island by his older siblings.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Stephen had just completed his shift at Squad 1 in Brooklyn, New York and was on his way to play golf with his three brothers when he heard the news of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers. With that, Stephen called his wife to ask that she tell his brothers he would catch up with them later. He returned to Squad 1, grabbed his gear and headed over to the World Trade Center to meet his squad. When he arrived at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, it was closed for security purposes, so he left his keys on the front seat, and raced on foot through the tunnel to the towers with 60 pounds of gear on his back.
At 9:59 am, Stephen Siller was killed when the South Tower collapsed.
Stephen was an extraordinary man, a loving husband, and a father of five beautiful children, with everything to live for. Yet it came as no surprise to those who knew him that he heroically gave up his life to save others on 9/11. In his memory, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation was established in 2001 to follow in his footsteps and “do good” by making a positive and lasting impact in the lives of others.
FFL was excited to have the opportunity to conduct an interview with Susan Starr, an Administrative Coordinator who has been with Tunnel to Towers since May 2015 to learn more about this fantastic organization.
Q: How did Tunnel to Towers develop Building for America’s Bravest, an offshoot of the program dedicated to building accessible homes for handicapped service members?
The mission of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is to honor the sacrifice of New York City firefighter Stephen Siller. We do so primarily by providing support to our catastrophically injured veterans returning home from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to the families of first responders killed in the line of duty.
Building for America’s Bravest (BFAB) is a program of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation that builds accessible smart homes for, at this time, primarily triple and quadruple amputee service members; most of whom have been disabled as the result of IED explosions during tours overseas in service to our great nation.
The impetus for our BFAB program was a visit that Tunnel to Towers Chairman, Frank Siller, made to former Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco at Walter Reed Medical Center. Marrocco, a native of Staten Island, where Tunnel to Towers is headquartered, was the first U.S. veteran to lose all four limbs in combat and survive.
22-year-old Brendan Marrocco arrived in Iraq on Halloween of 2008. Not quite six months into his tour, he was catastrophically injured when a roadside bomb exploded under the armored vehicle he was driving.
Tunnel to Towers promised this hometown hero a custom built, high-tech home, designed to restore his independence, and delivered on that promise when the keys to this home were handed over to him in a ceremony on June 11, 2011. “I feel it’s our duty to take care of our men and women who are coming back and are injured. And who is more important to help than the first-ever surviving quadruple amputee? How much more can you give? Brendan deserves it,” said Frank Siller.
While Brendan Marrocco was at Walter Reed [Medical Center], two more quadruple amputees arrived and were promised homes by Tunnel to Towers. And on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Foundation pledged to build homes for all triple and quadruple amputees returning home from war who wanted a home. I am proud to share with you that by the end of 2017, the Foundation will have delivered, broken ground on, or will have in the design stages a total of 56 homes that are custom built to accommodate the specific needs of each of our brave heroes. However, we currently have 200 veterans in need on our waiting list.
Q: What is the biggest thing you have learned from your job?
Mahatma Gandhi advised, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The rewards of making a significant difference in the life of another human being far exceeds any monetary payment.
Q: I am sure all service members and their families are strong and incredible people, but is there any family that has specially touched you or stayed with you?
Each service member and family that we work with is indeed special; and having the opportunity to get to know them personally is truly a privilege. However, the first family that came to mind upon thinking about this question is the Eberles, who we recently built a smart home for in Alpena, Michigan. Army SSG Ben Eberle was serving in Afghanistan when he lost both legs and his right arm in an IED explosion in 2011. Ben and his beautiful, bubbly wife Ashley are such a positive force, that I can’t help but be inspired. What I see in their presence is the embodiment of strength, love, optimism, hope and joy.
In addition, I was honored to attend the home dedication ceremony on September 11th, 2016 for Army SGT Corey Kent and his new bride, Brandy. Corey and Brandy just tied the knot on his “alive day” – July 12th – six years after the IED explosion that took both his legs and the fingers on his left hand. Corey Kent joined the Army, not only out of a strong sense of duty to serve his country, but in support of our troops who are frequently re-deployed and, as a result, remain far from home and their families. That sense of duty, love of country, bravery, and compassionate support of our service members is extraordinary. Although we expected between 100 and 200 people to attend Corey’s home dedication ceremony, well over 400 people showed up in celebration of this truly remarkable young man.
Q: When attacks on law enforcement, like the one in Dallas, happen, how does Tunnel to Towers help the men and women stateside?
On December 20, 2014, NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were assassinated while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Our Foundation felt, once again, that New York and the nation needed healing and a way to transcend the evil of their murders. Together with New Yorkers and people from across the nation, we were able to raise a million dollars to pay off the mortgages for these two devastated families, and to help renovate their homes.
More recently, in the wake of the July 7th, 2016 murders of five Dallas police officers, the Foundation raised a total of $500,000 that has been pledged to support the families. We are currently in the process of working with the families to determine how best to support their specific needs. Where it makes sense, for instance, in some cases we are working with financial institutions to pay off mortgages. Support will be tailored to meet the needs of loved ones left behind, and to provide some measure of comfort during an unfathomable time.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I have been given so much great advice, and am happy to share some of the very best of it with you! (1) Always look for the silver lining. Regardless of what happens in your life – how awful, painful, frustrating, disappointing, or even devastating – I have found there is always a positive I can take away from every situation. I ask myself, “What have I learned from this that will make me a better person, my relationships richer, my life more rewarding?” (2) The mantra at the Foundation is, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” We live it every day at Tunnel to Towers; lifting people up during times of devastating crises. As a result my days are brighter, my “family” has grown, and I have developed a strong sense of purpose that energizes me.
Q: What advice would you give to young millennials who want to become involved in non-profit organizations?
Excellent choice! After a career in sports marketing and advertising, I spent the next ten years as a stay-at-home mom. At this point in my life the only thing that could take me out of town and away from my children is the incredibly rewarding experience of working for Tunnel to Towers.
There is much to be said about doing good and finding purpose in your work. The best part of my job is working with a team whose goal is to positively impact the lives of others who are so deserving of our assistance because of all they have given for us!
I wear many hats at the Foundation, have a multitude of opportunities to grow and broaden my skill set, and no two days are ever the same. The positive vibe from being surrounded by people who bring such passion and energy to everything we do is extremely uplifting. I am incredibly proud of our accomplishments and tremendously grateful for the positive impact this experience has had on my life.
If you want more than a paycheck, more than recognition, more than a nine to five job, then I enthusiastically encourage you to check out the world of nonprofits.
Q: What are ways to give back and help you at the Tunnel to Towers Foundation?
There are so many ways in which people can give back and support the Foundation. In the days leading up to the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks the Tunnel to Towers Foundation unveiled our Stand Tall campaign. We have challenged 1 million people to donate $11 each to the Foundation. “America stood tall with us during 9/11, but we want to stand tall for our men and women in uniform and for our first responders,” explained foundation CEO Frank Siller. The money goes toward building homes across America for our injured service members, as well as toward aiding first responders and making a donation is as easy as spending a few moments at www.tunnel2towers.org.
In addition, you can participate in Tunnel to Towers Runs and Stair Climbs across the country. Our annual 5K in New York City, that retraces the footsteps of firefighter Stephen Siller, is held the last Sunday of every September. It ends in a street fair by the World Trade Center, and over 30,000 people participated in 2016. In addition, we expect to announce a date for our third annual Stair Climb at One World Observatory in the coming weeks.
Image Credits: Tunnel To Towers / Stephen Siller