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THERAPISTS OFFERED AN EAR TO SHOCKED NEW YORKERS

Local therapists Bonnie Collins and Linda Abrams of the Family Counseling and Wellness Center in Hamburg and social worker Ellen Silver, who is in private practice, went to New York to offer counseling and therapy under the auspices of the Salvation Army.

"I was terrified to go because I was afraid I'd see people crumbling and falling apart emotionally," said Collins, who has worked with victims of childhood abuse. "Instead I saw such self-sacrifice, such heroism and a strong work ethic. It validated my faith in human nature.

"The spiritual part was trying to help the people we worked with find meaning and grieve through it," said Collins.

They saw people talking everywhere, in cabs, in line for "Lion King" tickets," on the subway. "It's almost like a mass debriefing," said Collins.

As people came to the Salvation Army for financial help, the therapists encouraged them to talk about what they'd heard and seen and gone through.

"For some, it was the first time they'd talked about it," said Silver.

Abrams said she was struck by the importance of people feeling connected and supported. She saw firefighters, rescue workers, people from the FBI come into a break room, exhausted.

"They'd sit down and read letter after letter from schoolchildren and pass them around," she said.

As therapists, the women said they saw a full range of reactions: anger from a young man who was frustrated by the long wait and embarrassment from a woman who had never before asked for help, despair on the part of some.

Silver was particularly impressed by a Bangladeshi hot dog vendor, who suffered smoke inhalation and leg lacerations and also lost his cart, his means of livelihood.

"When I saw him, he was still shell-shocked," she said. "He said he had no reason to go on living."

As they talked, Silver learned that although he was injured and in a dangerous location, he had taken the time to call other vendors to warn them not to come to Liberty Park, where they typically sold food to employees of the World Trade Center.

"He was a hero," she said, "even though he didn't think of himself that way."

Abrams said she's encouraged by the resiliency she saw in New Yorkers.

"The first instinct is to get out of Dodge," she said, "but they are getting up and going through the day. They are doing it scared and they are healing.

"We're all concerned about how we've changed as people," she said. "But I've come to think that we're better people. We're more loving, more patient, more generous."

e-mail pvoell@buffnews.com

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