15 Years Later: Daughter of Fallen FDNY Lt. Reflects on Healing

A young Caitlin Leavey stands beside her father, FDNY Lieutenant Joseph Leavey, in this photo from 1994.
Joseph Leavey with Caitlin Leavey in her kindergarten classroom in 1994. Photo gift of the Leavey family in honor of Lt. Joseph G. Leavey.

Ed Note: Caitlin Leavey was just 10 years old when she lost her father, FDNY Lt. Joseph Leavey, on Sept. 11. In this guest blog, she writes about her journey of healing and how she honors the memory of her father 15 years after the attacks.

My favorite memories of my dad are dancing in the living room, standing on my tiptoes to get on roller coasters together and rollerblading as a family through Battery Park. He strived to make the most of our childhood, through the many family field trips, smiles and laughs. He called me his “sunshine.”

My dad had something about him that always made you feel special. He loved his community. When he was not at the firehouse, you would find him helping out at our school, church or around town.

Looking back at the past 15 years since he was killed on Sept. 11, my journey involved not only following in his footsteps to help others, but also finding the importance of community in my own healing. I would not be who I am today without a very special community that was instrumental in my healing process and taught me the ability to rise above. Caitlin Leavey in 2015. Gift of Caitlin Leavey.

I found this community at America’s Camp, which was created shortly after 9/11 by three amazing camp directors for all the children who lost someone that day. The campers and staff became my second family.  From dancing in the dining halls like no one is watching, to spaghetti running, to dressing up in silly costumes, to trying something new every day, it became my happy place.  After five years of unconditional love as a camper, I was able to spread the love to a group of courageous girls as a camp counselor.  

At America’s Camp, we were no longer the "9/11 kids" the media labeled us as.  We were able to leave our bubble of complete incomprehension of what shifted our lives and be in a place where we were just kids. 

Now, I am pursuing my passion working with children impacted by trauma.  As I embark on my fourth year as a pre-kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn, what inspires and keeps me going is what it means to cultivate a community for my students to grow, smile and thrive in a place that is safe and fun. Many of my students experience their own hardships at home, and if there is one thing that I learned from my journey, it is to bring out the "sunshine" in each and every one of them. Most importantly, myself and other America’s Camp graduates have had the opportunity to reciprocate the love and healing we received to another group of children dealing with trauma.    

The way our communities came together after 9/11 was remarkable.  It taught me that despite all our differences, we all have ability to come together: to listen, learn and accept one another.  I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today if it weren’t for these lessons.  I learned how difficult and messy traumatic events can be on our lives, but also learned how resiliency can be beautiful.  

Beginning on September 11, 2021, Cait Leavey will share her story, along with five other speakers, as part of this year’s sixth annual Anniversary in the Schools webinar. Register for this free program here.

The webinar is made possible thanks to generous support from The New York Life Foundation.

By Caitlin Leavey, 9/11 Family Member 

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