High School Senior Born on September 11, 2001, Shares Her Experience Visiting 9/11 Memorial

Caleigh Leiken’s back is turned to the camera as she places a white rose at the name of Alena Sesinova at the 9/11 Memorial. Water cascades down the sides of a reflecting pool in the background.
Caleigh Leiken places a white rose on the name of Alena Sesinova during her visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Photo courtesy of Caleigh Leiken.

I was born on September 11, 2001, in New York City.

That morning, my mom, then a public defender at the Legal Aid Society and eight and a half months pregnant with me, walked the five miles away from the burning Twin Towers in lower Manhattan to my parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side. She went into labor that afternoon. After a cab ride across Central Park, with a police escort and lights and sirens so my mom-in-labor could cross the barricades, I was born at 5:15 p.m. by emergency C-section at Mount Sinai Hospital.

All my life, people have reacted to the story of my birth with wonder, especially when they hear about my mom’s journey from Ground Zero to the delivery room. I’ve known since I was little that although something terrible happened on the day I was born, my birth gave hope to my parents and the people around them. But until I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time this summer, I didn’t fully comprehend that a hole, both real and spiritual, was blown into the Earth on the day I was born.

When I walked into the Museum, I saw my birthdate in huge letters and numbers on the wall: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. It was at that moment, and throughout the rest of my two-hour visit, that I understood how much work, energy and love is devoted to telling the story of loss and bravery on 9/11. I realized then how important it is to honor the victims and tell their stories.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for the first time, I thought of my birthday as a tether across time, connecting me to those who were lost that day. Walking through the Museum, I felt a strong need to understand the stories of the people who were lost, and how to share and honor those stories. During my visit, I placed a white rose on the name of Alena Sesinova, whose birthday was the same day as my visit. I was so glad to honor her life on her birthday.

This fall, I will serve as an ambassador for the 9/11 Memorial to bring the Anniversary in the Schools webinar to my high school, Shaker Heights High School. As I enter my senior year, I will help to tell the story to my classmates, all of whom were born around September 2001. As we look ahead to graduation next spring, we must all take responsibility for understanding 9/11, learning from it, honoring the victims and the brave first responders, and making the world a better place in their memory.

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial inspired me to consider how the circumstances of my birth connects me to the mission of this institution and one of world’s most pivotal days. I hope I can inspire others to learn about the story of 9/11 too.

By Caleigh Leiken, Senior, Shaker Heights High School

Over the past three years, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum has partnered with The New York Life Foundation in support of the 9/11 Memorial Art Cart: Activities for Kids & The Anniversary in the Schools Webinar. Together we are utilizing the transformative power of the story of September 11 and its aftermath to develop the core competencies of students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with particular focus on building personal resilience and empathy.

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