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An Evening That Proves the Power of Participation

One of the most profound experiences I’ve had in the past decade in New York City was witnessing former Mayor Rudy Giuliani accept the first annual Children’s Foundation Hero Award at an intimate gala on Monday. Addressing a room of mostly high ranking leaders in law enforcement—from fire fighters to the NYPD—Giuliani spoke with a camaraderie that was the stuff of history. Witnessing it felt like going back in time through a machine especially built for scholars, to truly understand the deep bond that united people after 9/11. He didn’t give a speech, he talked to his family.

“Al, I'll always come on Thanksgiving. Even if they have to wheel me there, I’ll do it,” said Giuliani to Al Kahn, the C.E.O. and founder of the National Law Enforcement & Firefighters Children’s Foundation, which raises money for the families of first responders killed in the line of duty. (In a time of the sequester and more looming threats of government shutdown, we desperately need organizations like this one.) Giuliani referred to the Thanksgiving tradition that Kahn started in 2001, hosting and bringing together the families of first responders killed in the World Trade Center. That night, his organization raised half a million dollars for scholarships, grants, and family programs for, as Kahn put it in a question, “Who protects the children of the heroes who are protecting us?”

For quickly building needed networks to assist families of missing persons after 9/11, John Chambers, C.E.O. of Cisco Systems, was also honored.  “This city is the most resilient city in the world,” he said. “To me it’s only appropriate we help you.”

Broadway producer Sarahbeth Grossman, the executive director of the organization, invited her friend actress Holland Taylor, the star and writer of Ann, the critically acclaimed one-woman show about Ann Richards, the former Texas Governor. It earned her a Tony nomination. Taylor ran the night’s live auction, citing a friend who recently influenced her to chrome the wheels of her car, which cost a thousand dollars. So Taylor chided the audience, “What have you chromed lately?” to compensate for throwing away money by donating to a worthy cause.

I sat down with Taylor to discuss the five year long run of her show and how it came to be. “It was such a big part of my life, full of mystery. The fact that I did it at all…” she marveled. “The term total immersion comes to mind.”

After the passing of Richards, Taylor, who had met the charming firecracker only once, felt a deep sadness that she couldn’t shake for months. She finally decided to make a film about her. But that didn’t feel right. While driving in Los Angeles to her job as the regal mother on Two and a Half Men, Taylor was struck by creative lightning, she says. She pulled over, and for fifteen minutes, while sitting in her car, she wrote down the structure of a play. “Is there anyone more suitable for theater than that woman?” she beamed. Over six years of hard work, interviewing Richards’ closest friends, and performing in Galveston, San Antonio, and Richards’ hometown of Austin, Texas, as well as in Chicago, and New York, Holland was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Throughout, she says, she was never afraid, because the project immediately took on a life of its own, as though it had chosen her. “It was something that had to be done. You’re very lucky when something like that happens to you.”

Her advice for those hoping to be struck by creative lightning, Holland says she strongly believes in the power of participation. “Participate in something. See where it goes.”

It was clear from the evening that meaningful projects and missions cannot be forced. As a firefighter interviewed by journalist Joan Lunden, a host of the event, said of his work, “It’s a burning desire. You don’t want to do anything else day after day.”

Photo Credit: Barry Doss

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