Megan McDowell’s life has never been the same since Sept. 11, 2001 — it has been transformed into a life full of giving, receiving and gratitude.
The tragic events of 9/11 inspired the grief counselor and mother of three to start Heartworks — a nonprofit for women to cultivate spiritual and emotional growth and create kind acts around the world.
After McDowell’s brother-in-law, John Farrell, died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she left her private social work practice in Boulder, Colo., and moved back to her hometown of Bernardsville, N.J., to help her sister cope with the tragedy.
For weeks, McDowell (MSW ’97) watched as neighbors, friends and strangers supported her sister’s family by dropping off food, flowers and donations and helping with yard work and chores.
After observing these small acts of kindness, she noticed that kindness changes people’s perceptions of tragic events. So she decided to create a community that delivers kindness to people in need of hope.
“On Sept. 10, my family went to bed with our relationships intact,” she says. “Within a several-hour period our entire lives changed and we were at the mercy of others to help get us through our days. Sept. 11 was a very public tragedy, but people live every day with private or less-known struggles. I wanted to create a way of life that encouraged people to pay closer attention to these struggles and to the power of healing available through giving.”
She started the grassroots effort in 2004 with a group of eight women who gathered in her living room. About 35–50 women now get together each month for food, wine, prayer, meditation, personal growth workshops, and most of all, helping others.
This year, Heartworks expanded into its own space — with administrative offices, a meeting room and a private meditation and prayer room. Two foundations provided Heartworks with the funding it needed to rent the new space in Bernardsville.
Heartworks assists individuals and families struggling with illnesses or tragedies in personalized ways that others don’t think of. For example, Heartworks assisted a family that had to choose between purchasing groceries or chemotherapy medicine for the mother. Heartworks helped the family pay for food and assisted them with the shopping.
A woman in town had a stroke and Heartworks wanted to lessen her daily responsibilities. The women recognized that her first-grade daughter needed a snack every day at school, so they decorated a large bag, wrote notes to the girl, like, “You’re beautiful, have a nice day,” and taped them to non-perishable snacks inside the bag. Each day, the girl gets a snack and a kind note. It’s one less thing her mom has to remember.
The organization does everything from delivering a meal to raising $20,000 to pay people’s medical bills.
“We don’t like to judge what’s small and what’s big because we don’t know what’s going to be transformative,” McDowell says.
When Heartworks heard about Suzanne and Jerry Ostrander’s struggle to support their twin sons, who were born with a terminal illness, the nonprofit delivered medical supplies, diapers and formula.
“I was skeptical at first,” Suzanne Ostrander says. “I had never been at the receiving end and was not sure how to accept the help. In my wildest dreams I did not know such kindness existed.”
When their first son died, Heartworks helped plan his memorial service gathering.
“Heartworks pulled off an amazing tribute to my son’s short life,” she says. “I truly believe that the stress my family was going through — financially and emotionally — could have torn us apart. However, it made us stronger and I credit Heartworks and our amazing support group for this. My family will forever be grateful.”
McDowell established several rules for women in the group: Have fun, come as they are, leave their egos at the door and refrain from calling themselves “good people” because they are involved with Heartworks.
Their work isn’t special — it’s the way everyone should act, she says. Women must be respectful and never judge those they help, and they should practice gratitude daily. The most important rule McDowell has for members of Heartworks is to practice receiving.
“It’s easy to give, but it’s harder to receive,” she says. “If we’re going to ask for another woman going through breast cancer with no hair to open her door to receive a meal from us in her most vulnerable state, I want us to practice the vulnerability of receiving in our lives so that we can be in touch with that feeling when we’re giving to others.”
Heartworks will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with a day of reflection. Events will include yoga and meditation classes, a labyrinth walk and a private memorial room. McDowell also will read her children’s book, Angels Over the Towers, which she wrote to explain the attacks from a spiritual perspective.
McDowell plans to leave her private practice to run Heartworks full time. She also wrote a guide for other women who want to start Heartworks chapters. Five groups have started. Her dream is for Heartworks to be as common as Oprah’s book club.
“Oprah brought women together to read and socialize; Heartworks brings women together to socialize and do kind acts for other people,” McDowell says. “It really feels like I’m living my destiny, that I’m doing the work I was put on the planet to do. Every single day is a day I’m doing something meaningful with my friends. I love that my three daughters witness all that Heartworks does for others and what it does for my life, as well.”
To get involved with Heartworks, visit www.njheartworks.org.
Visit DU’s 9/11 memorial site.