Twisting path for Sept. 11 families

Some overwhelmed by charities' rules, spotty responses

March 11, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - To get a taste of the strange twists and turns charity has taken in the aftermath of Sept. 11, tag along on Anne Hohlweck's tortured quest for assistance.

One scholarship fund, called Power of America, never returned her call seeking help with college tuition for her daughter, Robin, whose father died in the World Trade Center.

Another charity sent $5,000, no questions asked, and told her to pass it on if she didn't need it.

A third, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, asked for so much personal financial information that she balked.

"I have three children who have a lot of needs," said Hohlweck, who has a corner of her living room reserved for charity-related paperwork. "I have taken three days off since Tom died. I can't spend hours working on Jack Kent Cooke."

Six months after Sept. 11, charities have dispensed about half of the nearly $2 billion that Americans donated to the families of victims and to workers who lost jobs because of the attacks. But the process that is supposed to help is mired at times in conflicting rules, with spotty responses that have led some families to throw up their hands and others to be grateful for unexpected help.

There has been improvement, to be sure. Charities are starting to coordinate their services, including setting up a common scholarship application and a toll-free number that opened last week.

But some victims say the efforts are too little, too late. Some have given up on the charities altogether and are looking for their share of the multibillion-dollar victims' fund created by Congress - a much larger pot of money expected to pay at least $250,000 per family.

"You start to walk down a path with one charity, and you hit a wall," said Carie Lemack, president of Families of September 11, whose mother died on the first plane that hit the World Trade Center. "It feels like there are just endless hoops to go through."

Experts in philanthropy say the charities that raised so much money have damaged their reputations with vague appeals for donations and slow responses to requests for help. And the cost to future relief efforts, they say, could be huge.

The attempts to help in such an unprecedented crisis have had capricious results.

The Salvation Army initially promised to pay bills for the bereaved - and found its systems so overwhelmed that some families received late notices and cancellations.

The American Red Cross waffled between appearing to hold back millions for other needs and responding to criticism over that by doling out checks in such places as Manhattan's affluent Tribeca neighborhood.

An effort to coordinate the charitable response didn't get off the ground until last month, and even then it did not include many small aid groups that have sprung up around the country. The Internal Revenue Service has been criticized for offering speedy approval to more than 200 new "disaster-relief" organizations that some analysts say have little chance of carrying out their missions.

`A corrosive effect'

Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS division that governs tax-exempt organizations, said the problems will have "a corrosive effect on charity in this country."

"I think you're going to have people less willing to give the next time there is a major need," he said. "It'll take rebuilding to regain that trust."

The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance has received hundreds of complaints from donors who feel that the charities have moved too slowly or misled the public in their appeals for money, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the alliance. In the short term, he said, "I think people are certainly going to be more cautious about how they give."

The inconsistencies have been hard on some families.

Thomas Hohlweck Jr. was a vice president at the insurance company Aon Corp., making $200,000 a year. At the time of his death in his office at the World Trade Center, he was paying $2,300 a month to support his two children younger than 21 and had promised in a divorce agreement to pay for college.

Anne Hohlweck, by contrast, makes about $60,000 a year as an administrative assistant. Because her former husband had remarried and his will has not been found, it is unclear how much money the children might inherit from his estate. In the meantime, their daughter Robin, a business major at Virginia Tech, was worried about how to pay for her junior year at school.

A new charity - started by an upstate florist who raised money for the victims by selling red, white and blue ribbons - ended up helping Robin the most. The fund paid most of her bills for fall and has contributed to her spring semester.

But in helping the Hohlwecks, even that fund - called the September 11, 2001 Children's Fund - has gone beyond its original intentions, which were to give "highest priority" to the children of victims who worked in custodial or service positions.

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