“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” says Eric MacLeish, who helped organize one of the nation’s best known 9/11 charitable organizations. MacLeish, an adjunct faculty in PSU’s criminal justice department, is recognized as the creator of Massfund, an award-winning charity that helps families of New England victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nearly 200 people with ties to Massachusetts and surrounding states were passengers on the hijacked aircraft used in attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
MacLeish, a longtime trial lawyer in Boston, was shocked to learn several months after the attacks that the victims’ families were suffering financially, with insufficient assistance available from the government or private agencies.
“My fourth-grade daughter had a classmate who lost her father,” said MacLeish. “I met the widow and she told me how frustrated she was with legal expenses and other costs incurred by the tragedy and to me that showed utter chaos. There was tremendous confusion in asking for help from the Red Cross and United Way, the government wasn’t doing enough, either.”
MacLeish then made a decision that would change many lives. With the help of U.S Senator Ted Kennedy, he started organizing a charity. The first step would be the easiest, although he didn’t know it at the time.
“I knew I had to get a major grant, I approached the top people at Stop & Shop and asked them for $500,000. Amazingly, they committed to it within a half-hour,” MacLeish noted.
By January, 2002, Massfund had a board of directors and a very straightforward plan. First, all money raised would go to the families with nothing taken out for administrative costs; secondly, the help provided would be personalized, with each family receiving specific aid, including mortgage payments, psychological counseling, legal assistance and health insurance.
According to MacLeish, “Everybody grieves differently, everyone got the help they needed, when they needed it, there was no bureaucratic time-line, we were there for them when they needed us.”
As Massfund’s reputation grew, so did the fundraising opportunities, including a benefit concert, state-produced custom license plates that were auctioned off and appearances and public service announcements by members of Boston’s professional sports teams. By 2005, Massfund had contributed financial aid to families of 9/11 victims in every New England state.
“It was such an outpouring of support, we eventually raised nearly two million dollars, though the fund and the organization is still very much alive,” said MacLeish.
MacLeish stepped down as chairman of Massfund in 2004, but was named Chairman Emeritus to honor his dedication in establishing an effective, enduring beacon of hope to a group of people who desperately needed it. But for MacLeish, he too received something very important from the families. “These families gave me an incredible gift, they let me into their lives, I will never forget them.”
Now living in Waterville Valley, Eric MacLeish has another idea, spurred by the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d like to start a charitable organization for families of service-members killed or wounded in battle.
“I’m interested in finding people who want to help this constituency. I know there’s a need for it. The level of disability and death benefits for veterans and their families is totally inadequate,” MacLeish said. “There’s no reason why an organization like this can’t start here.”