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Families of Flight 3407 victims turn tragedy into charity, wresting 'beauty from the ashes'

Orphans found new homes. Families with hospitalized children found a place to stay. Teens went off to the schools of their dreams and poor children on six continents got Christmas gifts from Buffalo.

And it all happened because the Families of Continental Flight 3407 decided to turn tragedy into charity.

Ten years after that plane tumbled from the sky and crashed into a home in Clarence, many of the 50 victims live on in good works.

Ellyce Kausner lives on in the spirit and deeds of Elly's Angels, a foundation started by her sister that, among other things, pays adoption costs for families that can't afford them.

John J. Fiore lives on in the efforts of his nephew, who has raised $178,000 for Buffalo's Ronald McDonald House, a home away from home for families with hospitalized children.

And at high schools and colleges throughout Western New York and the nation, scholarships bear the names of those who died on Flight 3407.

And that's just part of myriad charitable efforts that now stretch across the world.

It's impossible to accurately quantify all of this charitable work, simply because some families keep their efforts private. But just the handful of examples cited in this story total more than $1 million.

It proves that those who died in the crash left plenty of special people behind, said John Kausner, Ellyce Kausner's father and one of the longtime leaders of the Families of Continental Flight 3407.

"It's a stellar group of people, and I think it reflects the kind of people who were on that plane — and their hearts, their abilities," Kausner said.

Aviation safety in the U.S. is the legacy of Flight 3407

Elly's Angels

Laura Kausner Voigt stood in the gymnasium of Lockport High School, microphone in hand Sunday afternoon, with young cheerleaders all around. There she summed up the philosophy of Elly's Angels.

"The greatest tragedy brings out the greatest goodness in people," she said.

It's certainly brought out good in Kausner Voigt, who lost her sister Ellyce in the crash and has raised more than $200,000 in her memory.

Elly's Angels works with Adoption STAR, a nonprofit agency, to pair special needs children with new parents. Elly's Angels has helped pair about a half dozen children with new families, and that's just part of its work.

The group brings young girls together to volunteer at charities such as Ride for Roswell, the Special Olympics and the Food Bank of Western New York.

The idea, Kausner Voigt said, is to help young girls become strong, confident young women like her sister.

That's harder for some girls than it is for others, and Elly's Angels provides special help in such cases.

In one such instance, Elly's Angels provided years of financial support for a family whose young daughter was hit by a van and left in a semi-conscious state. When the girl died three years later, Kausner Voigt said, she was buried with a picture of Elly Kausner.

Elly's Angels raises money through cheerleading competitions like the one that took place in Lockport on Sunday. In turn, the money raised helps young girls like Asia Edwards, 6, of Buffalo, who will be able to learn cheerleading for free for the next two years thanks to Elly's Angels.

"It's a tremendous help," said Latricia Henry, Asia's aunt and caretaker.

Separated from her parents at a young age, Asia has always been on the shy side, but cheerleading is helping bring the young Buffalo girl out of her shell, Henry said.

Kausner Voigt wrapped young Asia in a hug Sunday upon announcing the help she would be getting.

What's more, Kausner Voigt delivered a message that would resonate with anyone who, like Asia, got off to a rough start in life:

"Healing can happen, and light can come out of the darkness."

Watch: Karen Wielinski reflects on 10th anniversary of Flight 3407 crash

Fiore's legacy

Ron Aughtmon idolized his uncle, John J. Fiore, because he never stopped serving.

Fiore spent 30 years in the military, first as an active-duty Marine and then as an Air Force reservist based in Niagara Falls. Back home in Western New York, he used his spare time raising money for Children's Hospital and other local charities.

"Everybody knew him," Aughtmon said. "He did so much good."

So when Fiore died, Aughtmon vowed to do the same, in memory of his uncle.

The first John J. Fiore Memorial Golf Tournament took place a few months after the crash and raised money for the Ronald McDonald House — which, Aughtmon thought, was just the sort of charity his uncle would support.

That was just the start. The tournament now ranks as the largest that Willowbrook Golf Course in Lockport hosts every year, producing revenues so reliable that the Ronald McDonald House incorporates them in its budget.

Aughtmon's efforts also funded the construction of two new family suites at the facility.

"We're talking about a major improvement: meeting the needs of entire families," said Sally Vincent, the facility's executive director.

Aughtmon has expanded his efforts, too. He now sponsors an annual meat raffle for the Ronald McDonald House, along with a raffle of a "Wheelbarrow of Booze" to benefit local families in need.

All that work is starting to win Aughtmon some recognition. He received a One Buffalo Community Service award for his work at last Tuesday's Buffalo Sabres game.

"I never thought it would become this big," Aughtmon said of his charitable efforts. "It's a testimony to my uncle and the kind of person he was."

Parents snap photos of their children during the Elly’s Angels cheerleading competition at Lockport High School on Sunday. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A worldwide impact

Alison Des Forges lived to have a worldwide impact. And a decade after her death, she's still having one.

And Des Forges — a University at Buffalo professor and human rights activist — is by no means the only person who died on Flight 3407 whose legacy continues to grow both in Buffalo and around the world.

After Des Forges' death, her family and friends raised $500,000 to provide four scholarships annually for Buffalo public school students to attend the University at Buffalo.

Flight 3407 families also established either high school or college scholarships in the name of crash victims David Borner, Beverly Eckert, Ron Gonzales, Brad Green, Coleman Mellett, Lorin Maurer, Kristin Safran and Doug Wielinski.

And that doesn't include scholarships established — and six-figure donations made to universities and other institutions — by Flight 3407 family members who do not want their efforts publicized.

"There are a number of people who don't want the attention," John Kausner said.

In addition to the scholarships in Des Forges' memory, her family and friends sponsor annual international conferences on human rights issues such as climate change and human trafficking, as well as an annual award for people who work to improve Buffalo and the world.

Sharon Green’s efforts to honor her late husband Brad reach across the world as well.

Every November, Green and about 10 of her friends from the Flight 3407 families gather with dozens of others in her East Amherst home. Day after day, they form an assembly line to put together gift boxes for poor children across the world.

Part of Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child, Green’s effort started by putting together 100 gift boxes a year. Now, thanks in part to help from her "Flight 3407 sisters," the number has skyrocketed to more than 1,000.

“It gives you a sense of something good coming from something so tragic,” Green said. “Beauty from the ashes.”

Look back at The News' coverage of the Flight 3407 crash

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