On September 11, 2001, native New Yorker Sonia Argon’s world changed. She wished her husband, a police officer, a happy birthday before leaving the house that day and didn’t see him for over 24 hours. When the first tower went down, she made her way home, then found her teenage daughter staring at the TV as the second tower fell. They waited for hours to find that her husband, a first responder, would make it out alive. Several days later, Sonia took her EMT skills to Ground Zero as a recovery worker.
Since that day, her family has been trying to heal. Sonia has dedicated her time to reminding people about that day, educating those who weren’t there and comforting those who were directly affected. Suffering from 9/11-related illnesses, the loss of friends and traumatizing memories, she finds peace through writing, going for sunset walks and telling her story.
Describe your volunteer role with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and beyond.
I volunteer as a docent at the 9/11 Memorial Museum and, before it recently closed, I was a docent at the 9/11 Tribute Museum. The Tribute Museum was the first 9/11 museum that opened, and the only people who could volunteer were first responders, recovery workers, family members or survivors. We told personal stories. The National Museum is artifact-driven. We interpret the artifacts and share the timeline. I don’t have to tell my story if I don’t want to. Sometimes it’s easier for me to just keep the story going instead of getting personal.
I also help with New York Cares and Stars of Hope, among others. During COVID, because my husband and I both have 9/11-related illnesses, we felt we couldn’t help because we would get sick. But we wanted to do something for the frontliners, so we cooked and delivered food.
What inspires you to volunteer?
It felt like we buried my husband twice that day. We thought he was in the towers. Then we heard from him, and later he was near the second tower that collapsed. After we did the cleanup, 9/11 was a taboo subject. Many of us whose husbands came home would be told, “Why are you so sad? You didn’t lose anyone.” There was a lot of guilt.
It’s important for me to live a life of service, because it makes me grateful. My story could have been very different. I found that it was very healing to talk and communicate. I even told my husband he needed to do it because it was cheaper than therapy. For me, the museum is a way to reach people, to remind them.
Why do you feel it’s so important to remind people or to teach those who weren’t alive at the time?
Young people inherited 9/11 just like we inherited Pearl Harbor. They think it’s normal to go through an airport and take your shoes off and practically undress. It’s important for them to understand that it wasn’t just people who were murdered that day who were affected. It was their families.
And most importantly, 9/11 didn’t end for many of us. It continues to haunt those of us who were there and are sick. Many of our friends have died. Telling that story to one more person who will go back home and tell someone else keeps the story alive. It’s our history. We can’t forget it.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
It’s wonderful to work with people who will take me to coffee on a bad day, and we don’t have to say a word. If we need a hug, or when we see somebody we haven’t seen in a while, we hug like the family we are. We didn’t ask to be members of this club, but we would never have met these amazing people had we not. I’m grateful for that and make the best of it by doing as much as I can to help others.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
A year or two after 9/11, people from Oklahoma City had come to see us. They knew, as survivors [of the Oklahoma City bombing], we had no idea what was coming for us. And they were right. So a group of us went to Japan after the major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011. We wanted to extend ourselves to others. I saw how great that community was, and it helped me heal, too.
Are there any future partnerships, programs or events that you are looking forward to?
September 4th is the Father Mychal Judge Walk. He was a fire department chaplain, and on 9/11, he walked from St. Francis Church all the way to Ground Zero to help. He died giving last rites. Every year, we take that walk in his honor, stopping at precincts and fire houses. All the men and women stand in uniform saluting, and play Taps. For me, it’s a quiet walk when we can remember.
On September 10th, they have the Brooklyn Wall of Honor. They list those who have died, and we have a candlelight vigil. The Museum also does something for us on the 10th.
Why do you think it’s important for others to get involved in their community?
If your community is strong, when acts of hate or natural disasters happen, you’re strong because you’re part of that community. Everyone can help each other. When I talk to students, I tell them it’s simple. If it’s snowing, go ask your neighbors if they want some soup or need the snow removed. Be kind to one another. We saw the best of humanity after 9/11.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
At some point, you’ll go through something tragic, and it’s going to change you. Let that change be for good, because if you stay angry, whatever happened to you wins. If you take that negativity you’re feeling and turn it into something good, you’ve stared adversity in the face and know that there’s nothing in this world you can’t do.
We need to be better. We need people to remember and to stop thinking that this is something we should get over. Evil doesn’t end, but love conquers all.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sonia? Find local volunteer opportunities.