On September 11, 2001, 25-year-old Peter Alderman was attending a conference on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center when he was killed in the terrorist attacks.
The next year his family took the $1.4 million they received from the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund to launch the Peter C. Alderman Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to create a sustainable, culturally effective mental healthcare system for the victims of torture, terrorism or mass violence. Elizabeth and Stephen Alderman, Peter’s parents, were on the PBS NewsHour show yesterday. The interview is remarkable for the way it demonstrates so many of the powerful ways that philanthropy impacts the giver, the receiver and the world at large.
Given our recent discussion of Logic & Emotion in Philanthropy, I was struck by how the systematic way that the Alderman’s have approached their mission and the quantified impact that they are having is what makes the story so emotionally satisfying. This story doesn’t make your heart swell just because of the pain that you feel for the family, but because of the heroic way that they are trying to turn their son’s death into something that really makes a difference. They are not interested in just soothing their pain through the emotional lift of giving money away, they are clearly trying to figure out how they can have the largest impact. It is the impact they are having that is healing them.
GWEN IFILL: You decided to create this foundation, but to serve people abroad. Why an international foundation?
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: We believe that, if someone is lucky enough to be in this country or get to this country, they can get aid. On the other hand, in the developing countries, there is almost nothing.
In Sierra Leone, there are 100 doctors. In Rwanda, there are two psychologists for a population of almost 10 million people. In Baghdad, there are about five psychiatrists left and, for the entire rural area of 26 million people of Iraq, there is no one. And so we really believe that this is where our efforts would be felt maximally.
Also, we’re a small foundation, and we were able to do this for very little money. Our Cambodian clinic, for example, costs us $22,000 a year. And we saw 4,000 patient visits, 400 home visits. The government of Cambodia partnered with us to give us the drugs and give us the rental space. But we have trained Cambodians to treat Cambodians. And we get a bang for our buck, if you will.
GWEN IFILL: How much time do you spend on this, Mrs. Alderman, would you say?
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Just about every waking moment. I never thought at this stage of my life that I would have a seven-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day job. It is constant.
GWEN IFILL: I was just going to ask you, finally, in the six years since September 11th, in your grieving, in your coming to grips with the loss of your son — and your family has been involved, your daughter is the CEO of your foundation — how has this kind of project, this labor of love, ultimately helped you?
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: It takes you outside of yourself. You start caring about others. The altruism is terribly important. I didn’t think I would ever, ever feel good about anything again, but I feel good about the work that we’re doing.
It doesn’t take away the grief. Nothing will ever take that away. It doesn’t heal the sorrow, but it helps us to function, and to be productive, and to do some really important good in this world.
GWEN IFILL: Do you feel that you’re doing good in this world?
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: Gwen, to date, Peter Alderman-trained physicians and other personnel, such as psychiatric nurses, village elders, midwives and Peter Alderman clinics, have touched more than 55,000 people. This is over a three-year period. We are gearing up to do more.
Our only constraint is funds. We will be opening two new clinics within the next six months. We will be defining the best practices for treatment in East Africa of people who have been victimized by mass violence, terrorism, in the form of genocide and ethnic cleansing. And so, yes, I believe we’re making a very big contribution.