On September 11, 2001, Herb Ouida and his son Todd left their River Edge, N.J., home for New York City, where both men worked at One World Trade Center. The blue sky beckoned to Herb Ouida, and he decided to take the ferry to Wall Street. Todd didn’t feel like walking to the terminal and opted for the train.
“Have a great day, sweetheart,” Herb told his son. He never spoke to him again.
Todd Ouida was among 658 people who worked at One World Trade Center for Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage firm, and died that day. The company’s lost employees made up roughly a quarter of the nearly 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks.
Just two days later, the company created a fund to help families like the Ouidas cope with their unimaginable losses. Today that fund, which has granted more than $270-million to individuals and organizations, is doing far more than just providing relief to the victims of the tragic day in 2001. It helped the Ouidas create a children’s charity that has raised more than $1-million, and has supported victims of catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, wounded veterans, and many other causes.
Instead of closing its doors as other 9/11 charities have done, the organization is becoming a major benefactor in New York and beyond.
“Although the 9/11 families were our primary focus, we had the opportunity to take what we had learned from that community and use it in other natural disasters and emergencies and to assist other organizations that were giving direct services,” says Edie Lutnick, Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund’s chief executive. She and Cantor Fitzgerald’s CEO, Howard Lutnick, lost their brother Gary in the attacks.
The group’s first five years were consumed by helping the families of Cantor Fitzgerald and those of victims from 14 other companies in the World Trade Center. Howard Lutnick started the fund with $1-million and pledged a quarter of the firm’s annual profits for five years to the relief fund, as well as a decade of health benefits for the family members of victims. (The company covers the group’s administrative expenses.)
In the days following 9/11, Mr. Lutnick—who was taking his son to his first day of kindergarten the morning of the attacks—faced criticism for halting the paychecks of the employees who died on 9/11. But his sister argues in her book, An Unbroken Bond, that Cantor Fitzgerald teetered on the cusp of collapse, with 658 of its 960 New York employees dead.
Had Howard Lutnick not worked quickly to revive the company, the relief fund would have had no money to help victims’ families.
Cantor Fitzgerald now numbers 3,000 people, among them 38 children of Cantor employees who died in the attacks.
Howard Lutnick “had to save his company so he could do what he did for us,” says Susan Esposito-Lombardo, who started A Caring Hand: the Billy Esposito Foundation in memory of her father. About her father, she adds, “I am damn proud he ended his career at Cantor Fitzgerald, a company that goes beyond the scope of moneymaking.”
In addition to direct financial aid, the Espositos and the other Cantor families received $1,500 apiece from the relief fund to memorialize their loved ones.
Many families have started charities, among them the Todd Joseph Ouida Children’s Foundation, which helps families struggling with childhood anxiety and depression, a condition that kept Mr. Ouida out of school for several years. The group has raised $1.3-million.
“We have had this terrible tragedy absorbed into our family, but the blessing is in each other and in helping people in Todd’s name,” says Herb Ouida.
He says the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund acts the same way for the Lutnicks, just on a larger scale: “It’s their way of helping themselves to heal and also doing a lot of good.”
When victims’ families were more “stable,” says Ms. Lutnick, the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund was ready for its next step.
In 2004 the group started Charity Day, which takes place annually on September 11, when Cantor Fitzgerald and its affiliate BGC Partners donate all global revenue to the relief fund. The company’s offices in New York and Los Angeles invite celebrities and sports stars to come in and work alongside brokers to execute trades, which encourages business and creates an uplifting atmosphere.
The event has raised $89-million, which has gone to unrestricted gifts for 200 charities as well as donations for Hurricane Sandy and other causes. Last year about 80 charities from around the world received support, including Mr. Ouida’s and Ms. Esposito’s. Employees and clients can suggest groups, and charities fill out an application to participate.
“We wanted there to be a legacy for the 658 men and women who perished that day and wanted it to be a positive one,” says Ms. Lutnick. “We wanted it to be a day where even though it’s going to be an extraordinarily difficult day for us, it’s one where you can focus on a mission that is larger than yourself.”
Charity Day revenues have also allowed the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund to assist with other large-scale disasters that have a connection with the company, with the interests of its employees, or with 9/11, says Ms. Lutnick.
For example, it gave $10-million to families affected by Hurricane Sandy, which hit areas of New York and New Jersey where Cantor Fitzgerald employees lived. And it gave $2-million to families affected by the tornado in Moore, Okla. (The group feels a kinship with Oklahoma, the site of another domestic terrorist attack, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, which killed 168 people.)
The group also donated all revenue from its Tokyo office for a week in 2011 to help with the tsunami recovery in Japan; the company also has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore.
In addition, Ms. Lutnick has hosted clambakes in honor of her brother Gary. Proceeds from the fundraising events benefited wounded military veterans, many of whom signed up for active duty because of the 9/11 tragedy.
The relief fund focuses on providing direct financial aid to victims, a lesson taken from the aftermath of September 11. In talking with 9/11 families, Ms. Lutnick learned that each had different needs, and she decided that people coping with disaster knew best how to use the money to help themselves.
She was also frustrated with the myriad complex forms for assistance that grieving families had to fill out after the terrorist attacks.
“We didn’t want them to have to fill out a laborious stack of papers. We wanted to make it easy for them to get the help and care they needed,” says Ms. Lutnick.
When the Sandy and Moore, Okla., disasters struck, the group decided to focus on giving financial aid to families with young children. Ms. Lutnick also learned from her experience with 9/11 families that helping parents first is important so they have the wherewithal to support the rest of the family.
After visiting the affected areas, the group selected 19 schools in New York and New Jersey and 13 schools in Oklahoma, and each family received a $1,000 debit card to use as they chose. The group also offered $1,000 each to 9/11 families affected by the hurricane.
The Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund now actively works to help rebuild communities affected by disasters, says Ms. Lutnick.
“When we went to do Sandy, we called in volunteers and we had the opportunity to judiciously set a path,” she says. “We could sit down and say, OK, where do we think we can be most effective?”
David Campbell, a professor of public administration at Binghamton University who has studied 9/11 charities, says it makes sense that the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund has expanded its mission instead of closing, like many other groups formed after the terrorist attacks. “The lesson they drew from it is a sense of the importance of community pulling together in response to disasters,” he says. “It’s no longer about them.”
Ms. Lutnick, for one, never considered leaving the group to return to her former career as a labor lawyer.
“I am still here,” she says. “If you are one of my 9/11 families, if you call and have a problem, I still answer the phone.”