“While we have time, let us do good.”
Frank Siller heard that quote, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, quite often from his parents when he was growing up. Decades later, those words got him through the worst tragedy of his life and motivated him to to become a force for good for those enduring their own brand of horrific loss and suffering. It’s the reason he is winning the 2019 Christopher Leadership Award – and it’s a mission that began with his brother Stephen’s death 18 years ago.
On Sept. 11, 2001, firefighter Stephen Siller got the call that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Stationed in Brooklyn, he drove the truck to the Battery Tunnel to get into Manhattan, only to find the tunnel shut down for security reasons. So Stephen strapped 60 pounds of gear to his back and ran through the tunnel to join rescue efforts at the Trade Center. The husband and father of five was killed when the Towers collapsed.
Stephen’s six siblings were determined to not only keep his memory alive, but to do it in a way that would help others. In 2002, they created the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, initially as a New York City-based charity run that retraced Stephen’s steps on 9/11. But under the leadership of Chairman/CEO Frank Siller, Stephen’s brother, the Foundation has grown into a national force for good.
They build specially adapted smart homes for catastrophically injured members of the military who have lost arms and legs, pay off mortgages for families of first responders who have been killed in the line of duty, pay off mortgages for Gold Star families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country, and support a variety of community programs around the country. Since its inception, the Foundation has raised over $125 million dollars, with 95 cents of every dollar going to programs.
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Frank recalled that his parents, George and Mae Siller, were devout Catholics who were both a part of the Third Order of St. Francis. “They were such giving people,” he said. “My parents had seven kids. We were very poor, but we were never too poor to do something for our neighbors. I remember one Thanksgiving – my oldest brother, Russ, told [us] that the neighbor didn’t have anything for Thanksgiving, and [my father] actually took our turkey dinner- and gave it to our neighbor…And my mother was 100% behind it.”
Frank also remembered that his father used to visit the local hospital to talk or pray with the sick. He said, “This is the foundation of our family, of seeing these good, simple works and these acts of kindness and love that we were all brought up with that enabled my brother to make that ultimate sacrifice.”
The Sillers had faced tragedy once before, when their parents died when Stephen was just 10 years old. The rest of the siblings were all significantly older – between the ages of 24 and 35 – so so they each took a hand in raising Stephen.
After Stephen’s death, the remaining brothers and
sisters first focused on caring for his widow and five children. But
they also started the charity run by 2002, which retraced Stephen’s
steps through the Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center. For the
motto of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, they chose the
words of St. Francis they had often heard from their parents: “While we
have time, let us do good.” They also begin each meeting with the St.
Francis Peace Prayer.
That prayer is especially appropriate because Frank and the Foundation spend all their time bringing hope to those in despair and light to those in darkness. For instance, Firefighter Brad Clark from Mechanicsville, VA, was killed on the road while working an accident scene. Tunnel to Towers paid off his mortgage so his wife and daughter could live in their home free from financial worry. One woman told Richmond.com, “[Frank Siller] came to Mechanicsville and did this without any solicitation or anything. He showed up to help this community after this tragedy.”
Frank and Tunnel to Towers did the same more recently for New York City firefighter Christopher Slutman, who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan while serving a tour of duty as a Marine. His widow and children won’t have to bear the burden of mortgage payments.
Another aspect of Frank’s work is building smart homes for catastrophically injured members of the military, who have lost some or all of their limbs. This part of the mission began when the Foundation started building a home for the first quadruple amputee to survive any war. He happened to be from Frank’s home base of Staten Island.
They started putting in heating controls, air condition controls and window shades that could all be run with an iPad. They designed wheelchair-friendly kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, and showers. They’ve already built 75 smart homes, at a cost of $500,000 each – but need to build 200 more.
“We need the miracle of the loaves,” noted Frank. “We do have a tremendous financial burden on the Foundation, but how do you tell one person ‘yes’ and another person ‘no’? We’re at that point now, because so many people turn towards us for help, and I know that we’re going to get there one day. We’re going to have a million people donating $11 a month, because that’s really what our goal. When I have that, we’ll be able to take care of every police officer, every firefighter throughout this country that died in the line of duty that leave young kids behind. We can pay off their mortgages and take care of every Gold Star family member that died in the line of duty and leave family behind. We can build them a house, a mortgage-free home and take care of all these catastrophically injured service members. We’ll get there. I don’t know when, but we’re going to keep on pushing until we do.”
For Frank, his commitment to the Foundation goes deep because of the losses that he’s suffered in his own life. He can relate to the people they’re helping because he has walked in their shoes.
Frank concludes, “I understand exactly each point they’re at because I lived it… After 9/11, so many people were there for our family. It lifts you to know you’re not alone, and that people care and are praying for you. This is the message that we send to all these great families…We don’t want to just pay off the mortgage or build them a mortgage-free home, a smart home; we want to be part of their lives. They join us on our mission and are our greatest ambassadors because they received it and they want to pay it forward to the next person…The more they do for somebody else, the better they’re going to feel. And they do. It does lift you, it does heal you, and it does give you a great purpose that’s bigger than [yourself].”
(For more information on the Foundation, visit Tunnel2Towers.org. And to listen to my full interview with Frank Siller, click on the podcast below):