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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."

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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