September 26, 2020

Author describes how volunteering after 9/11 disaster changed her life

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When the World Trade Centre collapsed, Alison Thompson’s life changed forever. Up until that point in time Ms. Thompson had been a successful Investment banker. But when 23 of her friends died in the Twin Towers, she just knew she couldn’t turn away – she had to help.

During a recent book signing event at Camana Bay’s Books and Books, Ms. Thompson read excerpts from her new book “The Third Wave”. She described how she and a small band of like minded volunteers were able to make a surprisingly big difference at other major disaster sites around the world, like the devastated coastal towns of Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, or Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Ms. Thompson’s message is that everybody can help. You don’t have to be a professional firefighter, doctor, or rescue worker. Neither do you have to belong to any of the big official aid organisations, that are often hamstrung by red tape and bureaucracy

Describing her experiences after 9/11, she told the story of an 83-year-old grandmother who helped the rescue workers by serving tea, all day long.

“There’s a spot for everyone,” she said. Her experience was that volunteers like her at Ground Zero were often given contradictory messages about their help. The official line was they should stay out. The unofficial line, often spoken quietly, and out of sight, was that people like her were badly needed:

“We had people trying to shut us down many times. They said, ‘It’s time to step aside because the professionals have to take over.’ Then they covered their badges and said, ‘we need you to stay,’” she said.

After the 2004 tsunami struck, Ms. Thompson arrived in Sri Lanka with just $300.

“We started driving down the coast and we found thousands and thousands of people without food and water, over hundreds of miles of coastline… where were the aid groups? Everything was gone. I felt like I was standing at the gates of hell and it was September 11 all over again but this time there were still people alive whom I could help, sad, desperate and lost.”  Ms. Thompson said, as she read from The Third Wave.

She ended up staying over 14 months, and spearheading projects involving the rebuilding of entire communities.

During her stay at Sri Lanka, Ms. Thompson purchased a small video recorder, and by editing several hundred hours of video down to just a couple of hours, she was able to put together a video that was seen by some Hollywood movie stars.

Soon she was approached by actor Sean Penn, who asked her to help him spearhead a drive to get young people from across America to volunteer with helping the people of New Orleans still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

When the Haiti earthquake struck, Ms. Thompson knew she was needed again.

“We slept out in the jungle, and then started walking through the streets helping people,” she said.

“I tell people: ‘get out of therapy…go and help people,” Ms. Thompson said.

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