Paying It Forward: 9/11 Widow Channels Grief into Giving Back

Daily Point of Light # 5888 Dec 8, 2016

No other event in the history of this generation of Americans has left a more indelible mark than 9/11. The very mention of the date conjures up memories of pain, anguish and despair for a travesty that left 2,996 people dead, more than 6,000 injured, and an untold number emotionally scarred by the events of that fateful day.

For Christie Coombs of Abington, Massachusetts, one life lost on September 11, 2001 was very precious. Her husband, Jeff, was on Flight 11, the plane that flew into the first World Trade Center tower. In an instant, Christie’s life changed forever. She became a single parent to three young, grieving children, Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, while dealing with her own overwhelming shock and sadness. Yet the outpouring of love and generosity expressed in those initial days following Jeff’s death by friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers brought solace and comfort. Christie and her children realized they needed to do something to “pay it forward.”

Just two months after her beloved husband’s death, Christie started the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation with funds donated in honor of his memory. To date, more than $800,000 has been raised and distributed to Massachusetts families facing unforeseen challenges.

During the first post-9/11 holiday season, Christie set out to help the families of victims who had worked at the Trade Center’s famed Windows on the World restaurant complex. Many of the workers and their families were immigrants and/or uninsured, so they weren’t eligible for death benefits associated with their loved ones. “We had a huge yard sale and raffle in November 2001 and raised $50,000 for these families,” says Christie. “It was heartwarming to see the smiles on their faces when we presented them with their donations.”

Soon afterwards, Christie was approached about a road race for the foundation, and the Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race was created. On September 18, 2016, the 15th annual road race will take place on what would have been Jeff’s 58th birthday. The race is one of the more popular events of its kind in the state, with more than 1,000 runners participating.

The extensive list of requests, grants, and programs funded by the Coombs Foundation is astounding. These include counseling for children who have lost a parent; payment of bills for families in financial crisis; group outings for grieving families; support for families whose loved ones were killed while serving in the military; trips for families of terminally ill loved ones; scholarships totaling $45,000 for graduating seniors; enrichment programs at Abington schools; new books for the local library; care packages sent to hundreds of service men and women; ramps for children who use wheelchairs; an annual holiday party for military personnel and their families in Gillette Stadium; and much more. “If we can put smiles on the faces of a grieving family, even if for a short time, we will give them a memory that will last a lifetime,” says Christie.

Understanding what it was like to grieve allowed Christie and her children to be more innovative in their approach to supporting others. “One of the most difficult times after Jeff died was the dinner hour, so getting gift cards to restaurants really helped,” says Christie. “We’ve given lots of gift cards through the years!” Daughter Meaghan, who shared her father’s love for music, found solace in learning to play the guitar. As a teenager, Meaghan started an annual Summer’s End Concert, and in its five-year running, the concert raised $25,000 for the foundation.

“Jeff was such a giving person,” says Christie. “He believed in doing things for others, and he taught our children to give a helping hand and expect nothing in return. Emulating his spirit of generosity allowed his memory to live on in our hearts—and in the lives of others.”

Jia Gayles