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Post-9/11 needs surfacing

For Aaron Edelman, the effects of helping at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 were felt immediately - but it wasn't until this past September that he finally asked for help.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK, N.Y. | February 17, 2006

"There are still so many people out there who don't know about the available help."

—Carmen Calderon

For Aaron Edelman, the effects of helping at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 were felt immediately - but it wasn't until this past September that he finally asked for help.

Edelman, who was a union carpenter and volunteer rescue worker at Ground Zero, said he finally came forward because life was becoming unbearable. "I've worked quite a bit since Sept. 11, but it was less and less each year," he explained. "For the first year I didn't miss any work, I was a workaholic. But then it got worse. I only worked for six months last year. I didn't deal with my problems."

He was suffering from mental and physical ailments - including post-traumatic stress disorder and severe respiratory issues. Besides not being able to work, Edelman said his problems also contributed to the end of a long relationship with his fiancee. Leading a regular life was becoming more and more challenging. In September, he knew it was time to get help.

"I wasn't getting any better because I wasn't trying to get help," he said. Edelman went to the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

"Right now I'm getting everything diagnosed officially. I have a very severe case of asthma. I get out of breath after only walking one or two blocks. I have chronic sinus problems." He added that his PTSD was also officially diagnosed.

Edelman was also connected to a social worker to help him with job training and financial help. Due to his medical problems, he is unable to continue with carpentry jobs due to the heavy workload required and due to being around any types of dust - something his doctor told him would kill him if he remained exposed. "My problem is that I can't breathe at all when I'm around dust - sheetrock dust, wood dust, anything," said Edelman. "It's just doing more damage to my body."

He has powerful words about those who have helped him since September, noting that they've brought him back from the edge. The involved agencies - including New York Disaster Interfaith Services' Sept. 11 Unmet Needs Roundtable - helped him pay months of back rent. "I was getting evicted from my house and they got me financial help. They've helped me so much, I can't imagine where I'd be without them," said Edelman.

Edelman is not alone in his struggles. Agencies in New York City are still addressing the needs of thousands recovering from Sept. 11. While the news media reports on the deaths of some Ground Zero recovery workers due to illnesses caused by their time there, some city disaster responders worry that the whole story is still not registering with the general public.

"I think the diversity and scope of people who cleaned the site and have health problems due to that is not on the radar of the general public," said Maggie Jarry, director of disaster recovery and advocacy for New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). "There's a great diversity to the populations of people who came here and cleaned up the site."

While Jarry knows that there are many more workers like Edelman out there, she also noted that there is also a large immigrant population that also worked at Ground Zero. She and other responders are still doing outreach to various unions and minority organizations to let the populations know of the help available to them.

NYDIS' Sept. 11 Unmet Needs Roundtable received a $1.7 million grant from the American Red Cross Liberty Disaster Relief Fund in January to help the roundtable continue to address the lingering needs. The roundtable, comprised of faith and community-based service agencies, has already distributed some $4.5 million in emergency financial assistance to some 2,500 survivors and injured recovery workers.

Jarry said that grant helps NYDIS reach more immigrant workers in need. NYDIS hired a new staffer to tap into immigrant communities affected by Sept. 11 but underserved since then. The grant is also being used to train more caseworkers on how to present in-need cases to the roundtable and to educate regular social service providers on how to tap into the roundtable resources for their Sept. 11 clients.

"Long-term recovery is taking a new face here in New York City," explained Jarry. "One difficulty is the surge of people still coming forward with needs related to cleaning up the site. Their needs are very complex. The amount of aid needed and services needed remains very high."

Jarry added that the grant is extremely well-timed because some survivors and recovery workers already receiving therapy are now maxing out the benefits provided to them by insurance or state programs.

Another agency working closely with immigrant populations affected by Sept. 11 is the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). Carmen Calderon, NYCOSH's safety and health specialist for immigrant workers, is also meeting regularly with unions utilized by immigrant workers.

"There are still a lot of people out there needing services," said Calderon. "The Polish and Latino community had a large presence at Ground Zero during the clean-up operations, so we're trying to reach out to them. There are still so many people out there who don't know about the available help - or, if they've heard the message, they're still fearful about approaching us until we talk to them and gain their trust."

Calderon worries about how many of the immigrant workers returned to their home countries without getting any help. There are also concerns about how many are afraid to get help because of their immigration status. The problems with the affected workers go beyond respiratory issues, too, she said, noting that alcoholism, drug abuse and depression are on the rise.

"Many of the workers were mentally affected and the situation has gotten desperate," said Calderon, adding that many affected immigrants have not been able to work much or at all since Sept. 11. "It's been almost five years now and maybe they thought things would get better, but it hasn't. Anyone in this situation, whatever their job or immigrant status, they're seeing the harsh reality. Things are getting worse and they're not getting the help they need."

Many workers are also now in Edelman's situation of having to train for an entirely new job because of health complications. Edelman said he is grateful for the help in learning a new job, but that the idea of it all is very overwhelming.

"I don't know what I'm going to do for the rest of my life," he said. "I've been made a little humble now. Carpenters do alright (monetarily), anything I do now won't compete with that. I didn't go to college, I don't have computer skills. Construction was my game - that was what I understood. At least I'm a young guy - I'm lucky I don't have a family to support. What would I do then?"

Edelman said he is trying to remain optimistic about his future, crediting the many involved agencies for how far he's come since September. He knows of many others like him who have not yet come forward - a fact that confirms to him the reason why people should not be forgetting about those affected by Sept. 11.

"There are lots of people who are like me. There are still those who haven't asked for help yet, there are loads of them. I would encourage everyone to step forward to get the help they need. Putting it off only makes it worse. These programs should keep being funded, we deserve it."

Calderon echoed that statement. "These are all your heroes out there who helped get the city and country back. They can't be forgotten."

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