GROUND ZERO VOLS MOVE ON Profound change in their lives

Copyright 2002 Daily News, L.P.
Daily News (New York)...04/29/2002


Alisha Betten isn't concerned about making money anymore.

After spending five months at Ground Zero serving hot meals, hauling out trash and trying her best to comfort weary rescue workers, Betten isn't planning to return to her job as a freelance court reporter.

"After Sept. 11," she said, "the bank account is not the most important thing anymore. Neither is running around trying to get every dollar you can make."

With the search for victims nearing an end, hundreds of Salvation Army volunteers who have dedicated months of their lives to the effort are plotting their next move.

For many, the experience at Ground Zero has reshaped priorities. They speak about a desire to spend more time with family and find work where they can make a difference in the lives of others.

Betten, 31, of Gravesend, Brooklyn, plans to apply to the Peace Corps - after spending lots of time with her three young nieces.

"Family and friends are very important to me, they've always been. I want more time when this is over to devote to them," she said. Continuing commitment Rhonda Villamia hopes to continue working with the Salvation Army even after the Taj Mahal - the nickname given to the rescuers' giant tent on the edge of the wreckage - comes down.

After spending three eight-hour shifts a week at Ground Zero, Villamia said, she cannot imagine a life without public service.

"I know I'm personally going to make volunteering a part of my life until my last breath," said Villamia, 47, a divorced mother from Queens who works as a Spanish-language interpreter.

After watching the twin towers fall from her roof in Sunnyside, she felt compelled to help. "I could not be an observer," Villamia said. "I had to be a participant."

From their home in Phillipsburg, Kan., Barbara and Merlin Dennis had the same thought.

The retired farmers raised $ 8,000 for the families of fallen cops and firefighters and flew to New York in October to deliver the gift.

But that wasn't enough.

"We went home and I said to Merlin, 'I've got to go back,' recalled Barbara Dennis, who used to live in New Jersey and worked on Wall Street. "He said, 'Well, I'll go with you.' "

Barbara, 68, and Merlin, 70, were back in New York on New Year's Day, set to begin a 22-day stint working full time in the tent.

A few more stints followed and the couple, married 45 years, are due back in two weeks.

When the tent comes down, they plan to escort visitors from Kansas to the site to pass on their experiences sharing the city's tragedy and rebirth.

"We've made some wonderful friends. I hope that we have helped the people in some way," Barbara Dennis said. "We walk away having been given far more than what we've been able to give."