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From Tragedy to Trust

In the midst of grief, the Alexandria Community Trust is born.

When the federal check arrived, the Steuerles were still in mourning. They lost their wife and mother aboard American Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Anger turned into grief, and then hope for the future slowly began to emerge. By the time the Victims Compensation Fund money was issued for Norma Lang Steuerle, 54, her surviving relatives wanted to use it as a strategic investment for Alexandria’s future.

“It was our way of creating something redemptive out of the tragedy,” said Gene Steuerle, her husband. “A lot of it was a combination of hard work and good luck.”

Thus was born the Alexandria Community Trust — a foundation that serves as a catalyst for increasing charitable investment in Alexandria. A regional affiliate of The Community Foundation, the Alexandria Community Trust took about 18 months of behind-the-scenes work to put together. It’s now in the process of opening a child advocacy center in the west end and creating playgroups for at-risk children in Arlandria.

“Our daughters always said that they’d rather remember their mother for how she lived not how she died,” Steuerle said. “It was almost like something that was waiting to happen.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Norma Lang Steuerle was the valedictorian of her class at Carnegie Mellon University, where she met her future husband. She held a master’s degree from Temple University and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. She practiced clinical psychology in Old Town for many years before opening an office in Annandale.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Steuerle was flying to Japan to meet with family then visit Thailand. The first leg of her flight was American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles to Los Angeles — a flight that ended tragically when it struck the Pentagon, killing 125 Pentagon employees, 53 airline passengers, six crew members and five hijackers.

“There are two things going on here. The first is that we have a fifth anniversary just like everybody else dealing with the fifth anniversary of a loss,” Steuerle said. “The second is the national event, which was an awakening to what was going on in different parts of the world.”

SINCE ITS FORMAL launch at the Torpedo Factory in November 2004, the Alexandria Community Trust has been a heavy hitting organization. Its advisory board includes Mayor Bill Euille, Assistant Superintendent John Porter and former City Councilman David Speck.

“We’re developing an organization that is rapidly becoming a vital player in the matrix of Alexandria’s philanthropic activities,” wrote local businessman Don Beyer, chairman of the advisory board, in a summer 2005 letter to supporters.

Jonelle Wallmeyer, executive director of Alexandria Community Trust, said that one of the major goals of the foundation is to help philanthropists use their money strategically. One example of this is the Women’s Giving Circle of Alexandria — a group of 300 members who have contributed $75,000. Another example is the Nonprofit Excellence Forum, which the foundation will host on Oct. 5 at the First Baptist Church meeting center.

“Nonprofits rarely take the time to invest in themselves,” Wallmeyer said. “Do they have a strategic plan? Do they have a marketing plan? These are things that nonprofits need to think about.”

The foundation’s major new initiative is the creation of the Center for Alexandria’s Children at 1900 Beauregard St. — right next to the school system’s central administrative office. The goal of the center will be fighting child neglect. Under one roof, the foundation hopes to offer everything from prevention to treatment to investigation.

“It’s a holistic approach,” Wallmeyer said.

One of the key features of the center will be a secure room where abused children can tell their stories with a hidden video camera recording in the background. Warm colors and non-institutional furniture will create a more relaxed environment and video technology will allow children to minimize repeating their stories. According to Dave Cleary, a member of the center’s board of advisors, this will be a huge benefit to children traumatized by abuse.

“It’s a more effective investigation, and the child has less stress,” Cleary said. “It’s designed to be a friendly environment that doesn’t look like you are walking into a police headquarters.”

Cleary said that one of the major goals of the new center will be to work toward prevention.

“People who abuse children have almost always been abused themselves,” Cleary said. “We want to stop that cycle.”

BY ENGAGING the city’s needs, the Alexandria Community Trust hopes to become a preeminent local philanthropic institution. Through the Women’s Giving Circle, the Nonprofit Excellence Forum and the Center for Alexandria’s Children, it plans to put its money where its mouth is.

The surviving relatives of Norma Lang Steuerle wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Here was a family that lost the most important thing in their life,” Wallmeyer said. “It’s a great lesson about what you can do when life takes a bad corner.”