For these parents who lost their daughter on 9/11, life couldn't stop. They also had a son.
True
Anything but Average

The Cottoms were a pretty typical American family before Sept. 11, 2001. Clifton and Michelle were the parents of two wonderful kids: Isiah and his younger sister, Asia. The kids were close, and the foursome was a family unit that was full of love and life.


All photos from Michelle and Clifton Cottom, used with permission.

But all of that changed on one heartbreaking day.

When Asia was just 11 years old, her life was cut tragically short.

A passenger on United Flight 77, headed to California for a school field trip, Asia died when the plane crashed into the Pentagon.


Michelle, an equal employment opportunity officer for a federal agency in Washington, D.C., and Clifton, a behavioral technician with the District of Columbia Public System, were suddenly faced with every parent's worst nightmare: a life without their child. And to say that her brother, who was 17 at the time, was devastated would be a gross understatement.

Following Asia's death, the Cottoms' lives changed in an instant.

No parent imagines losing a child — and so no parent is prepared to move on in life without her. In the blink of an eye, the Cottoms, still parents to 17-year-old Isiah, had to learn to function in a whole new way.

"We just went through the motions," Michelle said about their lives immediately following the plane crash. They faced life by waking up and taking each minute as it came. "We tried to make some sense of what was really going on," she shared.

Despite being a big brother with a hole in his heart, Isiah was a source of strength for his parents. And that strength helped them with their own grief.

“They played, laughed, and cried together," Michelle told me of Isiah and Asia's relationship.

Isiah was a rock for his parents, even while grieving the loss of his best friend. "He helped his father get closer to God by illustrating his faith," Michelle said. "Isiah dropped to his knees and immediately began to pray when we told him about the plane crash."

Michelle and Clifton admired the amount of strength and maturity their son possessed at the young age of 17.

Losing a child is hard enough. Losing a child to an act of terrorism that is the center of national attention adds another layer of complexity.

"When a tragic world event such as 9/11 occurs, it riddles individual families with unimaginable trauma and pain," Dr. Fran Walfish, a relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, told me.

Like many Americans who were devastated by the atrocities committed on 9/11, some of Isiah's peers also experienced feelings of vengefulness. And so just as he had inspired them with his maturity and faith, Isiah's parents helped him deal with the anger, hate, and pain that swirled around him every day.

“He had to deal with the pressure and questions that came to him from his classmates and friends. All of who, just like a lot of Americans, wanted revenge," Michelle recalls. Isiah faced all of these challenges and more with grace and strength.

“We instilled in him that revenge and hate was not an option even though everything around us was going to war."

There is no "new normal."

I asked Michelle if there's any way to settle into a new normal after such a devastating loss. The answer was clear: “Losing a child is not normal, so there will never be a 'new normal.' We live each day one at a time," she explained.

When it comes to parenting, people who have more than one child can't just check out completely when one dies to deal with their own grief. But as Michelle points out, Isiah was 17 and didn't require as much hands-on parenting as a younger child would. Still, even with an older child, there are pitfalls and ways that grieving parents could respond that don't help the child who is left behind.

"The parents had two children and were now left with one," Dr. Walfish noted. "It would be understandable if they held tighter and overprotected their surviving 17-year-old son."

And yet, that wasn't what the Cottoms did. They gave their son room to grow and to grieve. "We always talked to him about his feelings, hurt, pain, anger, and frustrations," Michelle said.

While some parents of younger kids might need to rely on their adult friends and family members to fill in the gaps and nurture their child as they too continue to grieve, Isiah was older and had a meaningful friendship in place to help him through the early stages. During the initial weeks and months following Asia's death, Isiah spent a lot of time with his cousin Mike, who was one year older and with whom both he and Asia had a good friendship.

As time went on and the Cottoms worked through their pain, they were able to arrive at a place together where their daughter and sister remains alive and well in their hearts, minds, and souls.

“We talk about her often and daily," Michelle said. “It is not painful — it is thoughtful and on purpose. Our memories are full of joy not the pain and sting of death."

Following Asia's death on 9/11, the Cottoms received an outpouring of financial contributions.

Many people and places — including schools, churches, boys' and girls' clubs, social clubs, companies, and more — sent money in Asia's name.

“This outpouring of generosity is what motivated us to create a scholarship fund in honor of our daughter," Michelle said. “Asia loved to learn, and even at 11 years old, [she] had big plans to attend college in California to become a 'baby doctor' — a pediatrician."

An added touch of heart-wrenching meaning was found in exactly how people gave: Many of the financial gifts were made in denominations of 11, such as 11 cents, $11, $111, and so on, symbolizing Asia's age at the time of her death.

The result of the generosity of others and the Cottoms is the Asia SiVon Cottom (ASC) Memorial Scholarship Fund, a 501(c)3 charitable organization that was created to honor Asia's life.

“Awards are made to deserving students who excel academically with special consideration given to students interested in math, science, and information technology," Michelle explained.

To date, the Cottoms have awarded over $250,000 in scholarships to students through their fund. “Our ASC scholars are now teachers, nurses, analysts, contract negotiators, engineers, and providing legal services, to name a few," Michelle said.

The Cottoms also wrote a book called "Asia's New Wings: The Untold Story of a Young Girl Lost on 9/11."

“It is a story about Asia's life, passion, legacy, and how to move on after experiencing loss," Michelle said. The book talks about how the Cottom family turned the most tragic thing that could have happened to them into “an opportunity to immortalize Asia and educate a nation."

Book jacket from "Asia's New Wings: The Untold Story of a Young Girl Lost on 9/11."

“We were motivated to write the book because many people keep telling us that we needed to share Asia's story … many had no idea children were lost during the 9/11 terrorist attacks," Michelle shared.

The Cottoms have found that the book not only helps parents who have lost a child, but also those dealing with other types of grief — in addition to allowing them to find “some level of closure" themselves.

“The Bible says a peace that surpasses all understanding. We have learned to accept what God allows whether we like it or not," Michelle said. “We have learned how to live on."

The Cottoms have learned that as time goes on, so does their love.

Losing a child is “unnatural and unfair," Michelle said. Parenting after such tragic loss will forever be an experience that only those who have lost one of multiple children can fully understand. But through their story we see the role that faith, friends, honesty, and love played in helping them all stay whole and make it through.

Today, Michelle says that despite the ways in which their life might seem drastically different, the only thing that's really changed is that Asia is no longer here on earth. They are still her parents. And she is forever their daughter.

“She remains alive and well in the hearts of all who knew and loved her."

True

Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less