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Post-9/11 Family Foundation Helps Terror and Trauma Victims

September 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Peter C. Alderman was attending a technology conference on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11, 2001. He was only 25 years old when he was killed.

A year later, his family, searching for a way to honor Peter’s memory, used the $1.4 million they received from the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund to launch a foundation. It was one of the more than 300 foundations that sprang up after the 9/11 attacks.

Inspired by a segment she saw on ABC’s “Nightline,” Peter’s mother, Liz, and her husband, Stephen, contacted Harvard University psychiatrist Richard Mollica, who specializes in the psychological and emotional trauma brought on by violence.

DR. RICHARD C. MOLLICA, Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma: The family called me up, and they said, “What can we do? What can we do to make a difference for other people who have been through the experience of violence? Because we’re so upset and so shocked by the loss of our child, our young boy.”

GWEN IFILL: The Aldermans sent out to provide mental health care for the approximately one billion people all over the world who have experienced torture, terrorism or mass violence. Since 2003, the foundation has trained 35 doctors from 12 countries and opened mental health clinics in Cambodia and Uganda.

As of last year, only about 10 percent of the charitable groups established after 9/11 were still operating, but the Aldermans’ work continues.

Serving people abroad

Stephen Alderman
Peter C. Alderman Foundation
If someone is lucky enough to be in this country or get to this country, they can get aid. On the other hand, in the developing countries, there is almost nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to talk about that work are Peter Alderman's parents, Elizabeth and Stephen Alderman.

Thank you for joining us.

ELIZABETH ALDERMAN, Peter C. Alderman Foundation: Thank you for having us.

STEPHEN ALDERMAN, Peter C. Alderman Foundation: Thank you for having us.

GWEN IFILL: You decided to create this foundation, but to serve people abroad. Why an international foundation?

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: We believe that, if someone is lucky enough to be in this country or get to this country, they can get aid. On the other hand, in the developing countries, there is almost nothing.

In Sierra Leone, there are 100 doctors. In Rwanda, there are two psychologists for a population of almost 10 million people. In Baghdad, there are about five psychiatrists left and, for the entire rural area of 26 million people of Iraq, there is no one. And so we really believe that this is where our efforts would be felt maximally.

Also, we're a small foundation, and we were able to do this for very little money. Our Cambodian clinic, for example, costs us $22,000 a year. And we saw 4,000 patient visits, 400 home visits. The government of Cambodia partnered with us to give us the drugs and give us the rental space. But we have trained Cambodians to treat Cambodians. And we get a bang for our buck, if you will.

Training doctors around the world

Elizabeth Alderman
Peter C. Alderman Foundation
We are helping to direct [doctors'] knowledge toward treating the psychotraumatic problems that victimized populations have.

GWEN IFILL: I'll say you get a bang for a buck.

Mrs. Alderman, tell me a little bit about how the program works. You have master classes. You have these clinics your husband mentioned. Describe it to us.

ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: OK. What we do is, with Dr. Richard Mollica and the Harvard program in refugee trauma, we conduct master classes. They are held in Italy, because it is convenient for doctors coming from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe. It's also less expensive to hold it in Italy and easier to bring in the doctors.

During the master class, where they are trained in the use the psychotropic drugs, in the use of the toolkit to help diagnose and treat psychotrauma, we spend a very, very intensive week. The doctors really have some experience. We call it the master class because they're not starting from scratch. But we are helping to direct their knowledge toward treating the psychotraumatic problems that victimized populations have.

At the master class, we make relationships. We make relationships with these healers. We build trust. Trust is very hard to establish with a lot of these people, because they've been promised so many things and nothing has been delivered. And once we have that relationship of trust, then we go into the country, and we open a clinic for that country.

GWEN IFILL: There were more than 300 of these foundations which were created post-9/11, and now only 10 percent of them still survive. Why did yours survive when others didn't?

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: My answer would be conjecture, at best. The Philanthropy News Digest evaluated it, the situation, and they believe that many of these foundations were unable to compete for scarce philanthropic dollars. We, on the other hand, have had very good partners. We have very closely defined objectives. And we are very careful in judging our outcomes. So I think, also, we've been lucky. So that's the best answer I can give you.

GWEN IFILL: How much time do you spend on this, Mrs. Alderman, would you say?

ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Just about every waking moment. I never thought at this stage of my life that I would have a seven-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day job. It is constant.

And to save the money so that we can put it toward the programs, we do all the work ourselves. I mean, we print our own stationery. We lick our own envelopes. And all the money really needs to go to the programs. And these programs are really supported by very generous donors.

Respecting cultural differences

Stephen Alderman
Peter C. Alderman Foundation
To date, Peter Alderman-trained physicians and other personnel, such as psychiatric nurses, village elders, midwives and Peter Alderman clinics, have touched more than 55,000 people. This is over a three-year period. We are gearing up to do more.

GWEN IFILL: How do you avoid then, however, these Americans who to them look like rich Americans coming in? And how do you avoid imposing your own standards, your own mores on people who may just have a different standard of what mental health care means?

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: Oh, that's easy, frankly. We're the interlopers. In Cambodia, mental illness is recognized as being either the household gods are angry at you or they've taken off.

When I was in Africa in Uganda walking down the street, little kids would run up to me, and look at me, and giggle, and run off. They'd never seen a white man. How dare we do anything that's not culturally appropriate. No psychiatrist can treat a child or an adult if the adult thinks you're a white devil, you know, a real oddity.

You have to embed yourself in the culture. You have to embed yourself with the major religion. You have to embed yourself with the government and make them into stakeholders. And that's what we've done. We would be fools to do otherwise, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: I was just going to ask you, finally, in the six years since September 11th, in your grieving, in your coming to grips with the loss of your son -- and your family has been involved, your daughter is the CEO of your foundation -- how has this kind of project, this labor of love, ultimately helped you?

ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: It takes you outside of yourself. You start caring about others. The altruism is terribly important. I didn't think I would ever, ever feel good about anything again, but I feel good about the work that we're doing.

It doesn't take away the grief. Nothing will ever take that away. It doesn't heal the sorrow, but it helps us to function, and to be productive, and to do some really important good in this world.

GWEN IFILL: Do you feel that you're doing good in this world?

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: Gwen, to date, Peter Alderman-trained physicians and other personnel, such as psychiatric nurses, village elders, midwives and Peter Alderman clinics, have touched more than 55,000 people. This is over a three-year period. We are gearing up to do more.

Our only constraint is funds. We will be opening two new clinics within the next six months. We will be defining the best practices for treatment in East Africa of people who have been victimized by mass violence, terrorism, in the form of genocide and ethnic cleansing. And so, yes, I believe we're making a very big contribution.

GWEN IFILL: Quite a legacy for your son, as well.

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: He deserves it.

GWEN IFILL: Stephen Alderman, Liz Alderman, thank you both very much.

ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Thank you very much.

STEPHEN ALDERMAN: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: For more information about the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, go to our Web site at PBS.org.