For Dennis McKeon, 20 years of giving back to his community started at St. Clare's Church in Great Kills on Staten Island. The house of worship lost 29 parishioners during the attacks on the World Trade Center.
What You Need To Know
- Where to Turn has been providing community services for 20 years on Staten Island
- The organization started as the St. Clare's Church World Trade Center Outreach Program — the church lost 29 parishioners on 9/11
- Founder Dennis McKeon was among the parishioners and clergy helping families of those lost to get information they needed in the wake of the tragedy
- The organization now provides a variety of services, including litter and graffiti clean-ups, snow shoveling for seniors, prom dresses for high school students and a prop shop for community theater groups
McKeon visited the church's memorial of those lost with Denise Matuza, whose husband Walter was killed, and Nick Chiarchiaro, who lost his wife Dorothy and niece Delores. Both sought assistance from the St. Clare's World Trade Center Outreach Program, formed by clergy and parishioners to help their friends and family.
"What we did is we sent out notices to all 29 parishioners and said if you need anything, call us and then they started showing up, Denise was the first person to actually come," said McKeon.
Matuza was the mother of three young children and in search of answers to many questions about what to do in the face of the tragedy.
"We learned how to do paperwork, we learned where to go for things, we had each other to lean on, we became best of friends with these people that we were never going to meet in our lives and we became family," said Matuza.
Word about the group spread and McKeon, a father of three, said soon people from around Staten Island, Brooklyn and even New Jersey were calling for help. They started meeting at a hall inside the church, 50 people showed up for the first meeting.
"We gave them a place to come where they could be with other people that were going through the same thing, we answered their questions and we made them do things that they might not have done," said McKeon who added that if there were deadlines that needed to be met, we made sure they met them.
Soon the Robin Hood Foundation approached McKeon and helped form the organization now called "Where to Turn," paying the legal fees for the groups transformation into a 501c3 not-for-profit group, based on the South Shore of Staten Island in Charleston.
McKeon and Where to Turn built on their work at St. Clare's by continuing to fight for the rights of 9/11 families, but expanding their reach in the community to a variety of services for all residents who needed help.
"There was a lot of things that needed attention that we couldn't do as part of the church, so it made sense to have a separate entity where we could do that," said McKeon.
The name Where to Turn was created because people first came to the group not knowing where to turn after the devastating losses they suffered.
"We wanted the 501c3 not only to be a 9/11 organization but something where we helped the community, where we got kids involved in community service, so we developed programs, the snow shoveling for seniors program, we collected prom dresses for girls that couldn't afford them, gave them out to them, we got involved with graffiti cleanups and litter cleanups," said McKeon. Where to Turn became McKeon's full time job around five years ago. It's become clear that if something needs to get done on Staten Island, he and his organization can make it happen.
"The great thing about Where to Turn is, that we've met so many people and so many elected officials over the years, that we can actually get things done," said McKeon.
The latest endeavor for Where to Turn is a prop shop in their warehouse space to support community theater and schools putting on shows, which grew out of his son James's involvement in theater. It's a long way from those early days at St. Clare's, but McKeon says they still keep in touch with many of the victim's families they first helped.
We made a commitment, we told them that we would be around as long as they needed us," said McKeon, who through the organization he founded, continues to keep that promise.