More Than Money
Issue #42
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More Than Money Magazine

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“Reclaiming a Son’s Legacy from the Ashes”

When the lined official envelopes came in the mail, Herb Ouida wanted little to do with the checks inside.

"It was terrible money, the worst you could get," said Ouida, who survived being on the 77th floor of the North Tower in the World Trade Center the day the planes hit in 2001. His 25-year-old son, Todd, was on the 105th floor that morning and did not survive.

"It was money we didn't want and that nobody ever wants," he said of the money the federal government and charities paid survivors and relatives of the 2900 people killed.

Ouida, a lawyer whose speech bears the resonant stamp of his native Brooklyn, and his wife, Andrea, live in River Edge, New Jersey. Todd's brother, Jordan, 33, and sister, Amy, 34, still live nearby. They knew instinctively as a family, the father said, that a good amount of the money should be used to help others.

"We didn't have a choice," he said. "We had to give it away. We had to use the money in such a way that Todd's spirit would not be buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center but would continue to touch us and others."

They took their cue from things people said at the memorial service as they remembered Todd's life.

Although it was not long, Todd Ouida's life included a dramatic triumph over adversity, one shared by his family. When he was nine years old and in fourth grade, Todd developed panic attacks so severe that he could not go to school. If he tried to go, his pulse rose, his skin sweated and he became ill. He stayed home for two and a half years.

"It wasn't the ordinary "˜I don't feel like it' attitude, but it was that I was scared to go to school," Todd wrote in his moving high school application essay to the University of Michigan, from which he later graduated. "My stomach was tight, and I, for a reason that will most likely never be explained, was terrified."

The "reason" may remain unknown. But after medication failed, a remedy was found: the slow healing of intensive therapy with a skillful child psychiatrist.

Todd wrote that he "wanted so badly" to go back to school, and he never stopped trying, never gave up on himself. With his therapist's and family's support, he did go back, part-time, and by seventh grade he returned to school full-time.

Todd's college essay expressed gratitude that his parents recognized the severity of his problem, took responsibility to obtain care for him, and supported him. "Thank God"¦ my parents realized that this problem wasn't just my fault or just my problem," he wrote.

The memorial service for Todd became a recollection and celebration of his triumph over adversity, and it gave his family their cue. They decided to try to help families facing similar problems. With the help of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, they started a foundation to help children and their families cope with anxiety disorders and depression.

Since it was launched in 2001, the Todd Ouida Children's Foundation has provided a million dollars to support psychological services for families in need, primarily in the New York-New Jersey area. The foundation also holds conferences and supports research and training in the field of childhood depression and anxiety disorders. In 2002, it established a clinical scholarship award and an annual lecture at Todd's alma mater, the University of Michigan, in Todd's name with a $250,000 gift from the young man's estate. It also continues to make a $10,000 annual gift to the university's center for the study of depression.

The Ouida foundation has neither paid staff nor a formal office. Volunteers do a lot, but much of the work is done by Herb and Andrea Ouida at their dining room table. "We need to connect with Todd and to tell his story, so the foundation is really a healing stone for us."

There was a poignant, final coda to Todd's triumph. By 2001, Todd had become a currency options trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, for which his brother also worked in London. By 2001, Herb Ouida, who had been counsel to a transportation authority, was executive vicepresident of a trade group promoting similar trade centers around the world. Both Todd and his father worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the father on floor 77 and the son on floor 105.

When the building shook and caught fire, Herb Ouida, instead of going down the nearest stairwell, walked up to floor 78. He knew that as a so-called "sky lobby," it had express elevators. These turned out not to be in service, but by going up one floor, Ouida got a better view and saw a vast stream of people exiting on the other side of the tower. He hastened over there and eventually got down.

Cantor Fitzgerald was just above the part of the tower into which the first hijacked jet sliced. Todd could not go down. He feared his mother would learn of the attack and worry, so amid the panic he called her on his cell phone. Todd reassured her that both he and his father were OK, that help was on the way.

But at that moment Herb Ouida was struggling down the stairwells. He had not been able to telephone Todd and did not risk taking the time to call his wife. Todd had concealed from his mother not only his own peril but also the fact that he actually had no word from his dad.

"This is a boy who had crippling anxiety attacks as a child, and here, at the moment of the maximum danger, he is trying to protect his mother and help her remain calm," Ouida said in an interview, his teary eyes reflecting equal parts pride and grief.

Herb Ouida retired in 2003 to devote more time to the Todd Ouida Children's Foundation. Todd's brother, Jordan, and sister, now Amy Morik, help with it as well.

"People often say to me, "˜There's nothing worse that can happen than to lose a child.' They mean well, but it's uncomfortable, because I don't agree. It would be worse to have had a child, but never to have really known and truly loved him, to have connected with him. We had that gift for 25 years. We cherish it, and we still have it today."

Although Ouida said that he felt confusion, anger, apprehension and guilt about receiving money for his family's suffering, the once unwelcome money in the lined envelopes has turned out to be a positive.

Ouida also said the family's experience of responding as a unit to Todd's problems during his childhood helped them in later responding to the calamity of his death. "There was already a support system and a recognition in our family of the value of taking care of each other," he said, "so doing the foundation was a natural for us."

"As we go forward, we still treasure life and try to remember our blessings on a daily basis," he said. "And we feel that Todd is with us, because of what we do in his name and spirit." ■

-Richard Higgins

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