After publishing “Reclaiming the Sky,” a story of the courage of aviation workers on 9/11, Fordham University invited Tom to create the Human Resiliency Institute to develop resiliency training programs that reflect the healing principles of the 9/11 heroes profiled in his book. Edge4Vets is the lead program for the institute, which is housed in the Gabelli School of Business. Edge4Vets helps veterans, including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, learn how to tap into their resiliency strengths from the military to make successful transitions to civilian life.
Tell us about how you became involved in the aviation industry.
The LaGuardia Airport Kiwanis is part of a global organization of volunteers dedicated to improving the world “one child and one community at a time.” It is a great honor that my LGA Kiwanis family has once again elected me to lead our club, this is my third term as President.
I had created a program in Florida called “Miami Nice” to train hospitality workers in Miami when Dick Williams, head of operations for the Port Authority at Newark Airport, invited our team up to create a courtesy training program for EWR’s taxi drivers. That was 1987 and the program worked well. Sue Baer, who was head of marketing for the Port Authority at the time, asked if we could adapt the program to support airport workers at PA’s three airports, JFK, LGA, and EWR to deal with stress and keep their focus on airport customers.
Through Sue’s leadership, we created the “Airport Ambassador” program and offered the training to thousands of airport workers starting in 1990. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had created what became the first airport customer service training program in the country. The PA won many awards and the program became widely imitated.
2 What sparked you to write a book from the perspective of the aviation industry and the people that work in the industry?
By 2001, “Airport Ambassadors” had grown not only in NY, but we expanded it to nearly a dozen airports and airlines across the country, including in Boston and DC. After 9/11 and the devastation we all felt, I wanted to know how we as a nation – and we as aviation workers – could recover from the enormity of such loss. I went back to my aviation colleagues in Boston, NY/NJ and Washington – and at American and United Airlines – to ask them what they were doing. I didn’t set out to write a book, I simply wanted to know how to come back from such enormous loss. The powerful insight I received from the heroes who had been in the middle of the attacks that day, and their resiliency, were compelling and I put their profiles into my book, “Reclaiming the Sky.” Their stories complemented those of the brave police and fire professionals and provided a “roadmap,” as Sue called it, to “take back” hope.
3 What is the mission at the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University?
After the book was published in 2006, Fr. Joseph McShane, the president of Fordham University, invited me to collaborate with the Dean of the Graduate School of Education, Dr. James Hennessy, to create a “resiliency” institute. Fordham saw the potential in our developing programs based on the healing lessons in “Reclaiming the Sky” to teach resiliency. The lead program at our Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham is called Edge4Vets. We teach military veterans how to translate their military strengths into tools for civilian success, then we connect them to jobs that can lead to careers. We have offered our Edge4Vets workshop series, with its curriculum based on lessons drawn from the 9/11 aviation heroes, to two thousand veterans in nine states over the past ten years. Full details can be found at edge4vets.org.
4 What is your personal reflection on the resiliency of the American people and our military service members?
The aviation workers I profiled in “Reclaiming the Sky” did not know each other. I knew them because I worked with them in Boston, New York and Washington as I traveled the country to deliver my customer service training. But I found a “through-line” that connected them all. Anyone who was finding a way “back” from the loss of that devastating day, anyone getting better, had found a purpose, some way to take their energy and use it to support others. We “reclaim” our sky – take back hope – after loss when we use our energy to benefit others. In other words, we move forward by doing for others, and that became the theme of the 9/11 book.
5 What are some of the traits our service members have that make them ideal candidates for the aviation industry?
I find that military veterans have enormous strengths, just as the aviation workers I profiled in “Reclaiming the Sky” possess inner strengths.
Many of the veterans who take Edge4Vets come to us and down-play how good they are. They are coming from a culture we call “We” to “I,” meaning everything in the military revolves around being part of a team. Now they must go into an interview for a civilian job and “sell” themselves to a civilian HR professional as an “I.” They are on their own, and often they don’t realize how much companies covet the values and skills they can bring.
Our job at Edge4Vets is to guide them through a process to gain clarity on their military strengths, including values such as integrity, work ethic, selfless service. We teach them how to express their military values and skills in regular terms, no jargon, to land a job that can lead to a career and give them the life they want. We have a module keyed to helping airports accelerate veterans into their workforces, called “Edge4Vets at Airports.”
It’s gratifying work and it all stems from the values and skills reflected in the resiliency strengths of the aviation workers who “rose” up on that terrible day twenty years ago and continue to rise up to keep America flying as the country struggles to recover from COVID.