For several days after 9/11, construction worker John Feal, of Nesconset, worked to clean up the wreckage at ground zero. His efforts left him with several injuries, one that eventually led to the removal of half of his left foot after a piece of steel crushed it.
Twelve years later, Feal still copes with the physical and emotional scars left by his experiences but he does not do it alone. In 2005, Feal created the FealGood Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing aid and support to other World Trade Center responders in need.
“People who come to us, at first they say ‘How can you help, you don’t know our situation?’” Feal said. “But everyone here has gone through the same thing, we all know what it’s like.”
On Sunday, the FealGood Foundation teamed up with the Long Island Clinical Center of Excellence to throw the 4th annual WTC Responder Family Picnic at the Deer Park Fire Department. More than 500 people attended.
“This is a fraternity of yesterday’s heroes,” Feal, 46, said. “It’s a day for people to lighten up, get together and to ease the pain.”
The Long Island Clinical Center of Excellence, located in Islandia, serves as the local branch of the national WTC Health Program, which aims to provide physical and mental health services to 9/11 responders.
The Long Island branch serves 7,000 returning patients annually, administering check-ups and mental health assessments to track progress and recovery, said Melodie Guerrera, director of outreach for the WTC Health Program.
“These are very traumatic events,” Benjamin Luft, director of the Clinical Center of Excellence, said. “The memories stay with people.”
Luft founded the Center of Excellence after visiting ground zero during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“When I went down there, I knew that people were going to need help,” Luft said. “So many responders were from Long Island.”
Under a misty sky, responders gathered together with their friends and families to enjoy freshly cooked hamburgers and hotdogs. Local Long Island country band Roadhouse provided live musical entertainment. Members of Project Hope, a Sandy relief organization were also there providing resources to respondents who needed it.
New York City police officer Jerry Wong, 56, of Bayside, attended the picnic for the first time this year. After 9/11, Wong said he spent more than 500 hours at ground zero and the Staten Island landfill aiding with recovery efforts. He has been a member of the WTC Health Program ever since.
“This is a great way to pay tribute,” Wong said.