It Takes a Village

When Linda and Larry Curia moved from Staten Island to Garden City, N.Y., six years ago, they worried that they would never feel at home in the upscale Long Island village. “We were afraid that this was a snobby neighborhood where you don’t talk to people over the fence,” says Linda, 39, who, like her husband, came from a more modest background. “They put up high shrubs.”

But after Sept. 11, when two planes hijacked by terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, Curia learned that behind those hedges lived neighbors with huge hearts. Larry, 41, a Cantor Fitzgerald bond broker who worked on the 104th floor of Tower 1, was among the estimated 4,700 people who perished in the attack. Since that terrible day, Linda and her two young children have been enveloped in a cocoon of kindness from community members, who have brought them home-cooked meals, helped them make repairs and simply kept them company. “We put our arms around her and said, ‘We’ll never desert you,’ ” says neighbor Brit Connors, 40, who organized the dinner deliveries. “It’s not just me, not just this block, it’s our whole town. We bond together and we’ll get through this together. And months, years from now, we’ll still be together.”

Curia is far from the only Garden City resident in need of such comfort. The quiet, tree-lined town bears the wrenching distinction of having lost more residents per capita to the disaster than any New York City suburb. Every weekday many of its 21,000 residents make the 25-mile commute to jobs in Manhattan. On Sept. 11 at least 62 did not return. “It’s a tragedy for everyone here,” says the Rev. Joseph Schlafer, 53, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, whose Catholic congregation of 3,500 families has lost 13 members. “We all know people who are missing,” says contractor Gene Bonacci, 50. “You can’t express the feeling in words.”

Words may fail, but in Garden City deeds abound. Within three days of the tragedy, Eileen Engelke, 39, and her cousin Maribeth McNelis, 40, organized a candlelight vigil that drew some 1,000 residents to the village center. “The churches and synagogues were doing things,” says Engelke, “but we wanted to target people without a church or a neighbor to call.” Local resident and U.S. Olympian Tiffeny Milbrett, 29, now a soccer player for the New York Power, raised $4,000 signing autographs on a recent Saturday. Even children have found a way to turn their anguish into action. When Gene and Maureen Bonacci returned from running errands on a recent Sunday, their daughter Kelly, 10, and her cousin Darcey Blair, 12, were out front selling brownies they had baked. “They made $21 in a few hours,” says Gene. “The children are showing us that they have a sense of responsibility and are touched by the tragedy.”

Across town, the girls’ soccer team, the Garden City Hot Shots, made $732 washing cars. The fund-raiser was the idea of 10-year-old Hots Shots player Taylor Papa, who knew two children who each lost a parent. “The kids needed to feel useful,” says her mother, Sharon Papa, 45.

So do the adults. At the Food Basket, a specialty grocery, owner Charles Reichert, 67, and manager Michael Giancola, 37, wanted to aid their bereaved patrons: They gave a $250 credit to every family touched by the disaster. “They’re not just our customers,” says Reichert. “They’re our neighbors.”

Board members of the Garden City Community Fund, a local charity, also jumped in to help. They decided to raise money expressly for the families of victims. Donations have topped $80,000 and will cover everything from household bills to college tuition. The group also teamed up with the sponsors of the Breeders’ Cup, who in past years have thrown a party at the Garden City Hotel the night before the race at the nearby Belmont track. This year’s Oct. 26 fete—moved to another venue to accommodate a crowd of 1,000—has been turned into a fund-raiser expected to net $100,000. Mary Kate Repetti, a mother of four, helped organize the silent auction and got many businesses and residents to make donations, including tickets to hit Broadway shows. Bestselling author and Garden City resident Nelson DeMille (Up Country) even agreed to name a character in his next novel after the highest bidder. Repetti, 40, sees herself as striking back against the terrorists. “I’m patriotic, and I’m mad,” she says.

“As awful as this tragedy is, it’s so encouraging to see the goodness pouring out of people,” says Father Schlafer, citing a call he got from a doctor who offered to sweep the church, which has been in almost constant use. “It’s so intense, this desire to help.”

As is the need. Since losing her husband, Linda Curia says, “there are days I can’t get through.” Linda, who grew up in Bay Shore on Long Island, was 18 and a clerk at Paine Webber in 1980 when she met Staten Island-born Larry, then a 21-year-old trader’s assistant. They would have celebrated their 16th anniversary on Nov. 2. Larry wasn’t a dozen-roses kind of guy; his gifts to Linda were practical—a cordless screwdriver, a ladder. But at the end of the day he couldn’t wait to get home to his family. One Friday night, Linda told the 500 mourners at his Sept. 29 memorial, he reached his train at Penn Station in Manhattan just as the doors closed. To the cheers of fellow commuters, he jumped through the conductor’s window to get in.

Even strangers have come forward with free help. A plumber fixed her kitchen sink. A veterinarian offered to care for the family dog Midnight. “She wasn’t eating,” says Linda. “She missed my husband.” Rev. Brian McNamara, the soft-spoken associate pastor at St. Joseph’s Church, turned tough when a call from an insurance agent left Linda in tears. “He said, ‘Let me call a lawyer, you don’t need this,’ ” recalls Linda. “He cursed. I was speechless.”

It was one of the few times since Sept. 11 that she has smiled. Curia, a freelance curtain maker, worries about paying her bills. But she is no longer uncertain about her neighbors. “Now I see,” she says, “that they have always been there for us.”

Christina Cheakalos

Diane Herbst in Garden City

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