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Small Acts of Thanks

May 11, 2020 (3 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, May 8, 2020

"I would like to share a nice story (for once).  It illustrates how a postscript can sometimes prove far more meaningful than the main story.

A friend and colleague in the DC area, Eileen Blessinger of Blessinger Legal, planned a series of training lectures via Zoom during the pandemic.  When I initially agreed to present one of the sessions on asylum law, I was told it would be for an audience of eighteen people.

Somehow, the number of attendees increased significantly.  Because meetings of more than 100 people require an upgrade on Zoom, Eileen asked participants for a small donation.  I believe the training went well, and that seemed to be the end of the story.

Later that night, Eileen informed me that because the number of attendees was well over 100, there was a surplus of donations beyond what was needed to cover the Zoom upgrade.  After a brief exchange, we agreed that the surplus should go to pandemic first responders.

Realizing the virtue of what was initially an unintended consequence, the next speaker, Louisiana-based attorney Glenda Regnart, also agreed to open her session to a wider audience, who were invited to make a small donation to treat first responders.  Subsequent speakers Kelly White, Himedes Chicas, Anam Rahman, Julie Soininen, Danielle Beach-Oswald, Heain Lee, and Jennifer Jaimes agreed to follow suit.  Over $1300 was raised.

Eileen took over from there, inviting suggestions for recipients from her staff.  So far, she has provided meals to nurses at Mass General Hospital in Boston; to employees at supermarkets in Louisiana and Virginia, and to preparers of meals for those in need in Alexandria, VA.  Plans are also in the works to provide a meal for DC-area sanitation workers.

Those of us able to quarantine comfortably and work from home owe an unimaginable debt to those putting themselves at risk to keep our cities and towns running, keeping us all fed and safe.  And as most of us read of infection and death rates as impersonal statistics, the nurses and other medical workers who are battling the disease on the frontlines on a daily basis, putting their own health at risk in the process, are far beyond our ability to properly thank.  

It was a donation to another group that touched me in an unexpected way because of its connection to an earlier unspeakable tragedy.  Eileen forwarded me the accompanying photo of FDNY firefighters enjoying the meal provided for them from the training surplus.  Looking at the photo, I was suddenly transported back to the fall of 2001.  My wife and I, who both worked in lower Manhattan, were physically very close to events on 9/11.  What we saw still triggers traumatic memories.  Among the horrible and tragic statistics is the heartbreaking fact that 343 firefighters died that day.  More than 200 more have died as the result of illnesses they subsequently contracted in the rescue effort.

I walked past the firehouse on Duane Street every day on my way to and from work when I was an immigration judge.  I remember the feeling of grief when passing by in the months following 9/11, and of stopping there one day in October to make a donation, and of words completely failing me as I tried to express my sadness and gratitude.

In the present pandemic, 15 firefighters in the unit pictured here (Engine 286/Ladder 135) had contracted COVID-19 as of last week.  As early as April 7, 500 of New York’s Bravest had contracted coronavirus.  Many more continue to be exposed as first responders to emergency calls from those stricken with the disease.  And the firefighter who took the photo, Jerry Ross, was also a 9/11 responder.

So once again, we are reminded of the great debt we owe to so many.  Thanks again to Eileen and all of the other speakers, and of course to all who contributed.  Hopefully, these small acts of thanks will bring a little joy to these most essential and selfless heroes."

Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City.  Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge and Senior Legal Advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is the founder of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, which was awarded AILA’s 2019 Advocacy Award. Jeffrey is also a past recipient of AILA’s Pro Bono Award. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys.