Losing her father – and two uncles – in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center at three years old has been the singular defining event in Delaney Colaio’s young life, the 18-year-old tells PEOPLE.
But rather than feeling bitter and hopeless, the terrorists’ attempt to destroy her family’s spirit only made her stronger – and gave her proof that love and understanding can actually trump anger and hate, she says.
“People hear 9/11 and think tragedy,” she says. “They look at the 9/11 kids and see tragedy. It is a tragedy.
“But we want people to look at us now and see hope. People don’t know that we are OK. People don’t know that we are thriving. But we are.”
Colaio is showing people just how well some of the children who lost parents that tragic day are doing with We Go Higher, the first documentary about – and made by – the kids of 9/11, which she is filming this summer.
“It’s kind of like a love letter from us to the rest of the world, saying, ‘Hey guys, you’re going to be OK,’” says Colaio, the film’s co-writer and co-director.
With the recent terror attacks on London Bridge, Manchester, England, and other places impacting so many families, “I just felt and knew that there are all these 9/11 kids who have been thriving on the other side of grief,” she says.
“I felt that the world needed to hear their stories. I didn’t feel like it was necessary. I almost felt like it was a responsibility to go and comfort the world that is living in such fear right now.”
Colaio, who just graduated from high school and plans to study film at Quinnipiac University in the fall, teamed up with Sara Hirsh Bordo, the producer of the award-winning documentary A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story.
“What we are all learning from these kids is that there is a choice to be made about how we live our lives when we are losing a loved one,” says Bordo.
“What I keep hearing, and what I can’t wait to project, is that it is possible to choose hope and positivity through loss.”
The pair will crisscross the country this summer and document 9/11 kids “on their own journeys to rise above” and show how they, too, dealt with the pain of losing a parent but also overcame tragedy with love, peace and forgiveness, says Bordo, the founder of the award-winning production company, Women Rising.
“For me to be able to meet Delaney and witness the way these kids are holding hope louder than anything, really came forward as a project that I am honored to be a part of,” says Bordo.
“Here was this 18-year-old very bright light who unwaveringly felt she wanted to be a part of positive storytelling through loss,” she says. “Anything that can positive story tell, we just need that right now,” says Bordo.
Practicing What She Preaches
Delaney was five days shy of her third birthday when she came home from ballet class on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw her mother crying as she watched two buildings engulfed in flames on TV.
Among the more than 3,000 people killed in the attacks were her father, Mark Colaio, 33, who worked on the 104th floor of Tower One at the World Trade Center as the senior managing director at Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of its 960 employees that day.
Also killed were her uncles Stephen Colaio, 32, and Tommy Pedicini, 32, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald with her father.
Like other families, hers was “devastated” by the loss of three of the most important men in their lives, she says.
But when she recently got a chance to level the ultimate punishment against the five men imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay who were the mastermind and co-conspirators behind 9/11, she said no.
The Department of Justice had asked her family provide a victim’s statement, which would vote to give the death penalty to the terrorists if they won the case.
“That’s not something I would want to do,” she says. “I don’t believe in killing anybody or being responsible for anybody’s death, but that’s just me.”
Instead, she says, she wants to show the terrorists that they failed to destroy her life – and the lives of the other kids who lost parents that fateful day.
“Delaney’s bravery and the bravery of the kids to step forward and cast a new light on darkness in a positive way, represents the strength of a new kind of American hero,” says Bordo.
About and By 9/11 Kids
Bordo and Colaio are working with Tuesday’s Children, an organization formed in the aftermath of 9/11, to help find kids who lost parents in the attacks to participate in the making of the film – in front of or behind the camera.
“There are 3,051 kids who lost their parents that day,” says Bordo. “We want to give them a megaphone to be heard in the ways they are comfortable.
“If they want to be on camera, then they can be on camera. If they want to be production assistants, they can be production assistants. If they are great chefs, they can work in craft services.
“When we say this is the first documentary not only about the kids of 9/11, but by the kids of 9/11 – I take that as a producer very seriously. We are doing everything we can to find a place and a role for any child of 9/11 who wants to participate.”
Fundraising for the film is being handled through the International Documentary Association’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program.
Proceeds from the film will benefit Tuesday’s Children, a response and recovery organization that cares for communities impacted by loss.
“Tuesday’s Children is honored to be a part of this project,” the organization’s executive director Terry Grace Sears said in a statement.
“It is rewarding to know that some of the children of 9/11 are being given the opportunity to participate in their own way on their own terms about their healing process after losing their parents. There is no greater voice to uphold the American spirit than the children of 9/11 and to show the world how we can rebuild and be stronger than before.”
Any 9/11 kid can learn more about participating in the making of the film by contacting wegohigherfilm.com.
For tax-deductible film donations, please visit: www.documentary.org/project/we-go-higher.