Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Jackie Sayegh Duggan: A Life Tragically Taken on 9/11 Enhances Young Lives at All Children’s

Memories from the national nightmare of 9/11 always reawaken the lingering anguish that the Sayegh family has learned to live with. The inevitable wave of news coverage reminds parents George and Diana of how much they lost that morning 12 years ago – a smile that once lit up rooms, an exuberant presence that enriched their lives and those of so many others, a daughter named Jackie.

Jackie Sayegh Duggan - Courtesy of the Sayegh Family
She worked as Banquet Manager at Windows on the World, perched atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center with its breathtaking vistas of New York City and beyond.

Always punctual, she had gone in to work little earlier than usual that morning to oversee a client’s conference. The Brooklyn native loved her job, even though she soon planned to move to Atlanta and join her newlywed husband, who had taken a new position with Hilton Hotels.

Then came the horrific events that remain all too vivid and personal for the Sayegh (pronounced Sayer) family – two commandeered U.S. flights crashing into and toppling the Twin Towers, a country and world forever changed, and a beloved daughter, sister and friend forever gone along with nearly 3,000 victims that day in the rubble of Ground Zero.

But born from the tragedy and heartache was a spirit of hope and love in Jackie’s memory. And the uplifting ripple effect has found its way, after all these years and quite by accident, to All Children’s Hospital.

Jackie Sayegh Duggan never knew of All Children’s when she died at 34. Yet now her legacy is a tangible part of it, and will soon help countless young patients deal with their fears and uncertainty in the face of the unknown – and provide staff with new methods to enhance care.

Here is the story of a special life that ended far too early that terrible day in New York, and how that life now lives on with new meaning some 1,200 miles south – in ways neither Jackie nor her family could ever have imagined.

•••

Until Sept. 11, 2001, Jackie’s world was one of happiness, fulfillment and boundless potential. She was always known as a do-er in her family, the one who organized everyone and everything. As the oldest grandchild on both sides of her parents’ families, as well as the only grand-daughter, she was the one her brother and cousins always looked up to. “Jackie was the go-to child among all the other kids,” recalls her mom.  “She was like the mother hen.”

Her parents nicknamed her “The Gap” after the store – not because she liked shopping there but because she had a knack for bridging gaps, relating to everyone with ease no matter their age or generation.

“She was also the family historian,” adds her father. “She would absorb everything and would always be the one to answer anybody’s questions.”

Jackie made friends easily and had many of them. “If she liked you, oh my God, she would do anything for you,” says Diana. She majored in fashion and marketing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After working for a short time in that field, Jackie decided to change course. She and G.A. opened a little restaurant in a Brooklyn neighborhood with deep Sayegh family roots.

In no time, they turned it into a popular 50-seat, special occasion establishment called Kalio, named after their maternal grandmother.  G.A., a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, served as head chef, while Jackie poured her energy and talent into the venture to make a success.

But she longed to make a mark on the bigger stage of corporate hospitality. And when she was offered a job in special events at the Hilton Hotel in New York City, she knew the moment had come to take a new career step.  The move had an added benefit. That’s where she met a colleague named Mitchell Duggan. They fell in love, but corporate policy would have prevented them from each staying on the job if they married. So when her department head moved on to Windows on the World, she gladly accepted his offer to join him there.

She and Mitchell married in a small ceremony with no reception in March of 2000. Life was filled with possibilities, opportunity – and unexpected change. Though Jackie loved her work at Windows, her husband was soon offered a dream management position in Atlanta. They knew it was too much to pass up, and prepared for a new life together in the South.

The couple decided that Jackie would leave Windows before the busy Christmas holiday season and join Mitchell in Georgia as soon as she could. But they still looked forward to returning to New York in March 2002, when they planned to pull out all the stops for the wedding reception they never had, a much-anticipated celebration with family and friends from all over the country and abroad.

They spent hours talking on the phone about their plans Monday night, Sept. 10. On Tuesday morning, she e-mailed him to say “Good morning, I love you.”

It was the last message they would share.

•••

The days, weeks and months that followed were a surreal, searingly painful blur. “In a four-block area of where we lived in Brooklyn, six people died,” G.A. recollects. “You kept hearing about someone else you knew who had been killed, and there were months of memorial masses.”

George and Diana’s home was a revolving door of family, friends and well-wishers. Their dining room table was filled with piles of food that appeared every day. Bouquets of flowers filled their home and cascaded down the front steps. They did their best to get through each day, still awash in grief.

A mass of celebration, attended by hundreds, was offered in the chapel of Visitation Academy, Jackie’s elementary school. Outside, two parked NYFD fire trucks served as honor guards. Emotions and tributes flowed, followed days later by some amazing news. The family received a call from Visitation – members of the academy community had spontaneously contributed $12,000 in Jackie’s name.

The gesture inspired the Sayegh family to form a foundation. Within three months, they earned 501(c)3 status, appointed a board of directors and ­officially unveiled the Jackie Sayegh Duggan Charitable Foundation in 2002. Soon after, a cocktail reception, was organized as the first official fundraiser held in her honor.

“We thought there would be about 60 people,” says Diana. “But more than 400 people walked through the door – family, friends, survivors. Many were strangers to us but obviously not to Jackie. It was standing-room-only complete with news cameras.  People kept coming up to us all eager to tell us their Jackie story. We couldn’t believe it.”

Nor could they believe how quickly the donations poured in. The foundation went on to hold six annual fundraisers around the Sept. 11th anniversary date, each with live and silent auctions and a party atmosphere that would have made Jackie proud. Those efforts raised more than $600,000 for the foundation – all beginning with the original $12,000. The family gave that back to Visitation Academy to fund a much-desired music room.
Jackie loved kids and wanted to have many of her own. So everyone agreed it would only be natural that the focus of her foundation would be “taking care of children.” That made the decision easy on how to begin dispersing their charitable funds: children would be the ones to benefit.

They reached out to The Churchill School and Center in Manhattan for children with learning disabilities and established “Jackie’s Kids” – an after-school, remedial reading program for students in need. They gave money in support of the Freedom Alliance, which provided assistance to children of armed forces members serving in combat.  They created a scholarship at her Brooklyn high school, Fontbonne Academy, and funded a Read-a-Thon in Rockland County.

For several years, Diana brought 10 mothers of needy children to a Long Island Old Navy and enabled them to shop for clothes before Christmas. They contributed to The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy, purchased new computers and furniture for the Sayville Library children’s program and paid tuition for siblings at St. Philips Academy in Newark N.J. – helping 17 worthy causes in all.  

In addition to the foundation’s work, Jackie is remembered close to home in another way. An open space in Sayville, Long Island, where the Sayegh cousins once rode bikes and flew kites, has become a community meditation garden now bearing her name. It is a serene, beautiful spot that is maintained both by the family and total strangers who bring flowers and plants to honor Jackie and the lives of others who died on 9/11.

••

There was one more place where Jackie’s roots would take hold.

George and Diana had spent nearly 30 years vacationing and visiting with long-time friends in northeast St. Petersburg. In the years since Jackie’s death, coming to Florida gave them a temporary respite from the constant reminders of their loss. Last year, they made a big decision and got a place of their own in downtown St. Pete. They were staying temporarily in an upper condo of the Signature building, when G.A. and his wife, Debbie, flew to town to check on them – and make sure they weren’t making an emotional decision to leave New York City.

But a funny thing happened. The younger Sayegh couple fell in love with St. Petersburg on the first day. They were struck by the comfortable feel of the area, the number of businesses sprouting up and the lack of congestion. G.A. and Debbie could tell it was the place they wanted to raise their daughter, Sophia, and open a restaurant (which they have since done with a Cuban food eatery on Central Avenue called Bodega). They immediately made plans to move south.

One day during the visit, they were all on the Signature balcony, and G.A. pointed to a nearby building. The bulk of the money in Jackie’s foundation had been given away, but there was still enough to make an impact somewhere – if only they could find the right fit.

“You know, Mom, that’s All Children’s Hospital,” he recalls saying. “How about All Children’s?”

Diana knew next to nothing about the hospital, but that’s not why she balked at G.A.’s suggestion.

“Selfishly at that point, I wanted to leave the tragedy back there in New York and bring only the happy time with Jackie with us,” she says, her voice quavering. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to bring it here.’ Of course, that wasn’t possible.”

In the days that followed, she thought of Jackie’s favorite cousin’s newborn son whose life was saved at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Suddenly she knew:  All Children’s would be the perfect place to bring Jackie’s legacy of caring and love. As she often did for solace, she found herself having a “talk” with her daughter:  “I said, ‘You know Jackie, you could have gotten my attention in a less dramatic way!”

Things fell into place quickly. The family decided to make a gift of $100,000 to All Children’s but weren’t sure how to proceed. So G.A. and Debbie contacted ACH board member Tom Mahaffey and his wife Shannon, whose daughter was a classmate of Sophia.

        From left: George Sayegh, Sylvia Ameen, Debbie Sayegh,
Sophia, Diana Sayegh, Kristin Maier and G.A.Sayegh
The Mahaffeys, in turn, reached out to Sylvia Ameen, Vice President of the All Children’s Hospital Foundation. She arranged to take them on a tour of the hospital and, working with Child Life Director Kristin Maier, proposed a way to put the donation to use.

The money will serve multiple purposes. It will go toward the purchase of five special “Medikin” dolls that allow patients to better understand what’s happening to them, and even practice medical procedures. “You can put ports, IVs, central lines, shunts, catheters and more in them,” Maier explains. “The kids can actually put fluid and ‘blood’ in an out – they’re very interactive. It helps kids become experts of their own medical care.”

The gift will be used in conjunction with other donor contributions to fund a “Beads of Courage” program.  The beads initiative awards children in three populations at the hospital – cardiovascular, cystic fibrosis and oncolology – various colored beads for different procedures and experiences they have. Kids can wear the beads on a necklace as a way of telling their personal story. The program will officially launch in October and more patient populations will be added as the program unfolds.

In addition, the donation will allow Child Life to buy five elaborate calming devices called Vecta Distraction Stations. The enclosed, five-foot-tall devices include fiber-optic lights, bubble tubes, built-in music and aroma-therapy. The stations help ease anxiety for children, especially those with sensory issues, facing frightening procedures.  

The contribution will fund an endowment to bring leading experts in the field of Child Life to All Children’s. The goal is to help the department continue growing, learning cutting-edge techniques and providing top-tier care to patients. If that weren’t enough, the family’s donation will also sponsor the birthday program, allowing every child who has a birthday while in the hospital to receive a gift card to one of several popular stores.

“Their philanthropic gesture has turned such a tragic loss into a positive,” Ameen says. “The family has found a beautiful and meaningful way to keep Jackie’s memory alive – combining her inspiring legacy with a mission that would have been close to her heart: helping children.”

Maier is thrilled with the purchases the gift will allow, and echoes the excitement over the educational component. The endowment money will, for instance, allow Child Life members to attend a national conference and learn about new tools available to patients and families, and different ways of delivering services.

“Education is the key to progressing and staying current, but it’s often one of the things in an operating budget we have to cut,” she says. “So to know that our department can continue to get educated and always be at the top of its game is the best thing you could ask for.”

Jackie's brother, G.A. Sayegh, and his mother, Diana
Though they found the hospital by chance, the Sayeghs have no doubt this is where they were meant to spend the final dollars of Jackie’s Charitable Foundation, a contribution marked with a special plaque that hangs in Child Life.

“I think it’s a fitting end to what our foundation has tried to do,” Diana says. “I feel very confident that Jackie would be very happy with where this money is going – and that makes us very happy.”

As another 9/11 anniversary nears, the private pain of George and Diana and their family again becomes public. This year, however, they know that Jackie’s giving spirit will soon permeate All Children’s, bringing comfort to the children inside and keeping the memory of the child they lost – and of all those who died that day – burning forever strong.


Faces and Places” is a regular column written by Strategic Communications Editor Dave Scheiber highlighting people, places and things that make All Children’s Hospital special. If you have an idea for a story, please contact writer Dave at (727) 767-2490 or dave.scheiber@allkids.org







4 comments:

  1. beautiful! thank you very much!

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  2. I am a Child Life Specialist at All Children's Hospital. I am so grateful for the gift you have given the children in honor of Jackie.

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  3. Thank You for your generous gift in memory of Jackie! It is folks like you that will make difference in the lives of the children. Reading the story humbled me to know you chose us. This makes me proud to be a part of All Children's and staff here are proud of who we are and what we do.

    THANK YOU !!

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