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Name: Katherine Avery


Residence: Spartanburg, South Carolina, before September 11; now Manhattan, New York City

Tower story: Avery, a 24-year-old South Carolina native, arrived in New York just more than a week after September 11 to serve as volunteer coordinator at St. Paul's Chapel, an Episcopal church- turned relief center just yards from Ground Zero. Over the next months, Avery led a corps of more than 5,000 volunteers in serving half a million meals and providing numerous other services for recovery workers.

In their words: "It was death -- it smelled like it, it looked like it. What made it OK [was] the privilege [to work with volunteers and rescue workers] at St. Paul's. People were there to give sacrificially. [They] opened their hearts and handed them over to someone else."

-- Avery said of her experiences at Ground Zero and St. Paul's Chapel, where she volunteered

The privilege to serve

Young Southerner finds horror, hope near Ground Zero

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Katherine Avery sat on her bed, tears streaming down her face.

Hundreds of miles from New York in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she couldn't help but take the September 11 attacks personally, even though she didn't know anyone hurt, killed or directly affected.

Like thousands, she watched the eerie replays of the twin towers' collapse. Like thousands, she signed up to give blood only to find a three-hour long wait. Like thousands, she asked herself, "What can I do?"

The answer came eight days later in a call from Courtney Cowart, a program administrator at St. Paul's Chapel, an 18th-century Episcopal church just yards from what had been the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Cowart asked Avery, who had graduated from college in late spring 2000, to be St. Paul's Chapel's volunteer coordinator. She'd done missionary work for a few months while in college but had never taken on a leadership role.

For the next nine months, the responsibility would entail mobilizing 5,000 volunteers, serving more than 500,000 million meals and resolving every sort of logistical challenge -- not to mention the psychological struggle of handling the horrific sights, smells and stories emanating from Ground Zero.

"I told her I was coming, but I was scared to death," Avery recalls. "Actually, my heart was telling me that this is exactly where I'm supposed to be."

Katherine Avery visits St. Paul's Chapel in Manhattan, where she coordinated volunteer efforts to help the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center.  

The ultimate challenge

Rev. Lyndon Harris, a minister at Avery's church in Spartanburg before moving to New York in 1995, picked up the 24-year-old lifelong Southerner at La Guardia Airport and headed into Lower Manhattan.

Harris knew Avery as a charismatic, delightful young woman, admitting he "just about fell out of his chair" when he learned the night before that she was coming to St. Paul's. But Harris also knew that she -- or anyone, really -- would have difficulty coming to grips with the tragic scene around Ground Zero.

"You're in for the challenge of your life," Harris recalled telling Avery as they headed to St. Paul's, before reassuring her that she was safe and up for the task.

After military police searched their car, they entered the "war zone," as Avery described it. Dust covered everything, and countless storefronts were shattered. The stench was "overwhelming," Avery says.

"People weren't really talking to each other, they were just putting their heads down and working," she recalls. "It was just, we're going to do this."

Avery's base of operations was at this desk in this small room in St. Paul's, where she worked alongside six other people.  

'You couldn't escape it'

The church provided a welcome respite from the chaos outside, as recovery workers slept in pews, ate up to four meals a day and talked about the horror that surrounded them.

"The reality of the stories, the deafening noise that was constant 24 hours a day, it was a reality," says Avery. "You couldn't escape it, you could not get away with it. The only place you could potentially calm down was the chapel."

St. Paul's was ideally situated to serve rescue workers, but the impromptu relief center was beset with logistical nightmares.

The chapel had no electricity, phone lines or way to warm food. Eighteen-wheelers brought in tons of food and supplies daily, but St. Paul's staff scrambled to find storage. And while would-be volunteers came by the hundreds to help, there wasn't always something for them to do.

"It's very difficult to turn people away that want to volunteer, because they have their heart and soul to be there and to give," says Avery. "But you had to just say, 'I'm sorry, you can't stay here, there is nothing for you to do.'"

What was done at St. Paul's was remarkable. Volunteers from around the world served 2,000 to 3,000 meals a day between until June 2, when the relief center closed, said Harris. Meanwhile, an array of specialists -- from psychologists to podiatrists, masseuses to ministers -- frequented the chapel, serving rescue workers in most every way imaginable.

"I realized pretty soon after I got there how privileged I was to be able to be there and serve these people," said Avery. "That is when we all started doing extraordinary things."

Avery examines potential office space for her new business, The 9/12 Foundation, in a building which has views of St. Paul's and the World Trade Center site.  

'You change -- you have to'

Despite her relative inexperience, Harris says he never doubted Avery's ability to handle the daunting responsibility. She exhibited energy, intelligence and dedication ever since he'd met her a decade ago, he said, and those qualities served her well in New York.

"She worked well with many different types of people, knew how to plan and manage many complicated situations, and displayed a significant degree of flexibility," Harris said. "And she really took the opportunity for ministry to heart."

Avery admits she had no unique qualifications as a counselor or manager, and said she found directing hundreds of people, some more than twice her age, "very empowering, sometimes scary." But she says, "I was put in this position, I believe, for a reason."

"I love working with people, I love being able to serve other people," says Avery. "It reminds me how lucky I am."

Since the chapel's relief center shut down, Avery has remained in the city and established the 9/12 Foundation to help people heal emotionally and address their spiritual needs in the wake of the terror attacks.

For a woman who had had no desire to go to New York, Avery says her experience at St. Paul's made her tougher, opened her up to new relationships and realities, and allowed her to see the worst and best that humanity could offer.

"It was death -- it smelled like it, it looked like it," said Avery, describing the scene near Ground Zero. What made it OK [was] the privilege [to work with volunteers and rescue workers] at St. Paul's. People were there to give sacrificially. [They] opened their hearts and handed them over to someone else."

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