Thousands Of Miles Away, 9/11 Touches Home(s)

By Merle English
Staff Writer

March 22, 2003, 3:13 PM EST

After Robert and Mary Grace Foti honeymooned in Jamaica in June 2001, they came away wanting to help people living in poverty there.

Robert Foti, then 42 and a firefighter assigned to Ladder 7 in Manhattan, never had a chance to do anything. Four months later, he was killed in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

Now, however, Foti is memorialized in a 12-by-12-foot wooden home built for an impoverished family on the Caribbean island as part of an effort to lift some of the misery he saw there.

The home is one of about 500 little wooden houses built for the poor in Jamaica by Food for the Poor, a Florida-based charity, with money it raised in a special appeal to honor the heroes who died Sept. 11, 2001.

For each of the rescuers who died in the World Trade Center -- each of the 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police, and 23 Police Department officers -- a house was dedicated.

The survivors received a photograph showing the home built to honor their loved one and the family living in it.

Mary Grace Foti said she cried when she got her photo in the mail.

"It just really touched me," said the Huntington Station resident, "because when we got there we were both stunned to see the poverty and how people lived in some places that don't even have walls."

"I know it would have meant so much to him to be able to help," she said. "It was amazing how that worked out. It made me feel good that Bob was there ... I would love to meet the family."

Angel Aloma, executive vice-president of Food for the Poor in Deerfield, Fla., said that after 9/11, "We felt frustrated that unlike other organizations, we weren't able to make a generous contribution" to honor "the heroes that died trying to save others."

Aloma said someone came up with the idea to ask people to build houses in memory of the firefighters and police officers. "People responded beautifully," he said. More than $1 million flowed in, much of it from New York, for the project they dubbed: "September 11 Dedication." The homes, which do not come with electricity or plumbing, each cost $2,000 in U.S. currency to build.

Denise Barrett's new home, reached only on foot, is in an area called Top Maryland in the hills above Kingston, Jamaica's capital. It is named for Joseph Agnello of Belle Harbor, a firefighter with Ladder 118 in Brooklyn.

Barrett, 32, lives with her daughters, Kishana, 11, and Terika, 14 months, in the zinc-roofed home painted in blue, light green, yellow and white. It has a small verandah with a sweeping view of a valley.

She said she is grateful for a home she can call her own on an island where housing for the indigent is in short supply.

"It's much better," said Barrett, "cause I am on my own. Without it I'd still be living with my parents."

So would Simon and Christopher Walters, brothers who left cramped family quarters to live in one of the little homes built on the side of a steep hill.

"It's a good thing, man," Christopher Walters said of the Sept. 11 housing project. "Whole heap more youth [young people] ask me how we come by this."

To qualify for a home, applicants must own or lease land. Construction can take as little as two days or longer if the building site -- which is often on high ground -- is difficult to reach.

Filmore Farquharson, part of a Food for the Poor construction crew on the island, said donkeys are used to transport materials, "but sometimes we have to walk a mile uphill with 100 pound bags of cement, stones and blocks to build the foundation. Sometimes we have to take buckets of water as well."

But it's a labor of love.

"We try to get these houses to the poorest of the poor," said Pearl Barrett, a Food for the Poor housing manager, "people who are destitute, the aged, blind, people mentally or physically challenged, people who've been through disasters. They are very, very comfy. You want to give people a better way of life."

"Some dogs have kennels while people don't have a decent shelter," remarked Richard Forrester, a Food for the Poor investigations officer in Jamaica.

The Fire Department expressed its gratitude for the recognition of its heroes last year. In a letter to Food for the Poor, Susan Magazine, the FDNY's assistant commissioner for family assistance, wrote, "We were very moved to hear of your tribute to our fallen."

Many of the 9/11 families have also written to say how much the houses have touched them.

Geraldine Halderman of Brentwood lost her son, David, 40, from Engine Squad 18 in the West Village.

"Thank you for the beautiful tribute to his heroism," she wrote. "A home for the poor dedicated to his memory is a fine tribute. I thank you, and I am very touched."

She also sent a donation.

Joan De Meo's husband, Martin, was assigned to the Hazmat Company in Maspeth. "Your loving gesture was such a wonderful tribute," the Farmingville resident wrote.

"To all who built the house in honor of my husband, Ray, I thank you from the bottom of my heart," wrote Joanne Meisenheimer of Holtsville, whose husband served in Rescue 3 in the Bronx. "It brings me comfort to know that even though his life was lost another has been saved."