What was for so long the defining thing in Liz and Stephen Alderman's lives now has a different relevance.
Their son Peter, 25, was at a meeting in the World Trade Center when it fell to terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
After experiencing the affects of mass violence so personally, the Bedford residents chose to help other victims of severe trauma from terrorism, mass violence or torture. They established the Peter C. Alderman Foundation with the mission of healing the emotional wounds of those victims by training indigenous health workers to provide psychiatric care in post-conflict countries around the world.
Now in addition to grief and memories they have a chance to change the world.
"One of the things we learned is that trying to combat a just unbelieveably evil act is by doing some good in the world," Liz Alderman said last week. "Our feeling was that we wanted to make the world a better place because Peter lived. There was this need for us to do something positive. That’s why we started the foundation."
The Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School brought back everything, she said.
"Not that it ever disappears—but we have this incredible empathy for what these parents are going through. They sent their kid to school and they never came home. We sent our son to work and he never returned."
In a complex humanitarian emergency such as 9/11 or Newtown CT, there's an incredible amount of personal and economic disruption, and loss of social capital, Stephen Alderman said. "The first two are bricks and mortar. But loss of fath in institutions, loss of neighborliness, that takes a long time and is hard to replace."
It's not that she's trying to give the parents of Newtown advice. First, it's much too soon, Liz Alderman said. Second, "My feeling, both my husband's and mine, is that it’s none of our business to tell anyone what to do.
"To me the pain never goes away—over time you learn to deal with it better," she said. "But starting the foundation was a reason to get out of bed every day. When you’re sitting at the computer you can’t cry—you get the keys wet and you can’t see the screen."
The Aldermans estimate that PCAF has trained 1,000 health care personnel in effective mental health practices to provide services in 22 countries across four continents—leading to the treatment of 100,000 people around the world.
The foundation funds annual training seminars and has opened six mental health clinics in countries where there are established government partnerships, including Cambodia, Uganda and Liberia. The Aldermans are hands-on, running the foundation from their home, attending the annual training conference, building relationships. What they've seen in 11 years is that mental health treatment for individuals who have experienced atrocities helps them rebuild their countries.
Coming from a place where she believed she was never ever going to feel good about anything again, Liz Alderman said she felt good about the privilege of working with—and for—the health-care workers they help fund.
A World Health Organization study of a refugee camp with 100,000 people found that three things mitigated against cruelty and violence, Peter Alderman said: altruism, spirituality and work.
In the process of helping others, they help themselves, he said, quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous comment:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
That's true for everyone who lost friends and family on Friday in Newtown, he said. "They won’t forget, but if they get something larger to work on they’ll feel better."