Celebrating Todd Ouida
Zippy's Friends has been launched in the US through the vision and generosity of the Todd Ouida Children's Foundation. This is the story of the Foundation and of the man whose life it celebrates.
Todd Ouida was an All American boy, born in the small New Jersey town of River Edge, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He was the baby of his family, younger brother of Jordan and Amy, much loved son of Herb and Andrea. He played with the other children on his street, went to the local kindergarten, and then moved on to grade school.
But when Todd was nine he started to suffer from depression and anxiety attacks which became so bad that he had to be ‘home schooled’ for two and a half years. Doctors gave him medication, but it didn’t work and Todd just lost weight. His condition imposed a lot of stress on his family and on his parents’ marriage.
His father, Herb Ouida, recalls: ‘It was just so sad to see this boy who loved school and who loved to go out being trapped in this fear. He couldn’t go to school, couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We’d go out on a family trip in the car and Todd would suddenly say that he couldn’t go on, and we’d have to all turn back. It was hard, very hard.’
Todd’s mother, Andrea, gave up everything to care for her son, coaxing him out of bed and eventually taking him four times a week to see a therapist.
‘We struggled for two and a half years,’ says Herb, ‘we were really in the pits. We had to borrow money against the house to pay for Todd’s treatment, but we didn’t give up.’
Over time, the therapist began to gain the boy’s confidence. The treatment worked. Todd was able to return to school, and graduated with his class. He applied to the University of Michigan to study psychology, and in his application letter wrote frankly about his childhood difficulties:
I suffered for two and a half years, but in those two and a half years I learned more than most people learn in a lifetime. I realized that the time a person wants to give up is the time when it is imperative for that person to fight the hardest. I learned that with family a person can overcome anything. And I discovered that no matter how big the person is on the outside (for I am only 5’5” tall) the size of the heart is always going to be more important.
Todd never looked back. He enjoyed football, baseball and wrestling. He was the best man at his brother’s wedding, and proud god-father to his sister’s first child. He began to make his mark professionally, working for a financial services company in New York. In short, he was a young man with the world at his feet.
‘You see, Todd didn’t just learn to manage his condition,’ says Herb, ‘he beat it. He became a bright, confident person. He was really free. He enjoyed his work and was doing very well, going up. He’d travelled to Brazil for the company – this boy who hadn’t even been able to get out of bed or go out on his bike! In fact, as a young man he was one of the most confident people you could meet – not showy, but confident. He was fun.’
One morning, Herb and Todd set off to work together. They worked in the same building, but Herb decided to travel by ferry while Todd went on by train.
‘I said “have a great day, sweetheart.” Those were the last words I spoke to him.’
It was September 11 2001. Father and son worked in the World Trade Center.
Minutes after a hijacked plane hit the first tower, Todd called his mother.
‘I just spoke to Daddy,’ he told her. ‘He’s fine.’
In fact, he hadn’t spoken to his father, but, with his own life in danger, his first concern was to reassure his mother.
Herb had been in the World Trade Center when it was attacked before, in 1993. He had walked down the stairs then, and on September 11 2001 he left in the same way, although this time it took him an hour to get out of the building.
‘I figured that Todd as a fit young guy would have no problems. At that stage, of course, I didn’t know that the stairs higher up the building had been destroyed and there was no way out.’ Todd was in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 105th floor.
When the building collapsed, Andrea Ouida ‘knew’ that Todd had died, but Herb went round the hospitals with pictures of his son, desperate, hoping, praying for a miracle. He and Andrea gave DNA samples for matching, and a week later the Health Commission called to say that they had found parts of Todd. Over the following weeks there were three more calls, as more parts were found. Eventually, in the rubble of those two huge buildings, a worker found Todd’s wallet.
‘I got in the car and raced down there like I was going to collect Todd,’ said Herb.
So many people came to Todd’s memorial service that the church was filled to overflowing, with people standing in the street. One of the speakers was the therapist who had treated Todd as a boy. Although he had lost contact with the Ouidas, he had never forgotten Todd whom he said had become an inspiration and a symbol of hope in his work.
‘We learned a lot about Todd during those days,’ says Herb. ‘We got letters from people saying how he had helped them. He had been a camp counsellor and would share his experiences with other kids, telling them how he had come through. We just hadn’t known that.’
Quite quickly, the idea for the Todd Ouida Children’s Foundation developed.
‘People at the memorial service said that they didn’t just want to give money to charity, they wanted to write Todd’s name on a cheque, to feel connected to him.’
So the Foundation was created to help children suffering from anxiety and depression. In this way, it was not only commemorating Todd’s life but also celebrating it, using his triumph as an example. For his family, it was a way of turning personal tragedy into hope for other people, responding to terrorism by trying to make the world safer, making people more connected to each other, more caring. It also helped them to have a new sense of purpose and to feel connected to Todd.
‘Everyone tells us how wonderful we are to do this,’ says Herb, ‘but we answer by saying that it’s important for us, we need to do this. Todd is not in the ashes of the World Trade Center, he is in our hearts.’
An initial sum of $250,000 in compensation and insurances enabled the Foundation to fund research and endow an annual lecture at the University of Michigan Depression Center. Since then, it has continued to raise funds and to support a wide range of children’s mental health programmes, mainly in New Jersey.
|From left: Robin Peck of YCS, Herb Ouida, Kate Diamond-Fitzgerald of the University of Michigan, and Dr Gerry Costa of YCS at the Yankees Stadium|
‘We raise $100,000 a year and 1,200 people read our newsletter,’ says Herb. ‘We raise money from lots of people. Some give us $10, a few give $5,000. Every year on Todd’s birthday we hold an event – at his old high school, at the Yankees stadium (Todd was a devoted Yankees fan), or in his favourite restaurant. They’re always family events.’
It is through Todd’s Foundation that Zippy’s Friends has recently been launched in the U.S., managed by Youth Consultation Service (YCS), the largest provider of services for children in the state of New Jersey. Herb saw the opportunity, brought the partners together and then used some of the Foundation’s funds to get things started.
‘As a relatively small foundation, we’re always looking for leverage, where a small grant can unlock more funds or be the catalyst for something with great potential. When I saw Zippy’s Friends it just seemed to fit like a hand in a glove. I liked the fact that the programme is not-for-profit, international and based on solid research and evaluation. Zippy's Friends allows us to do more on prevention, as we shouldn't be waiting for children to have problems. We should be helping them before they have problems. I can’t help thinking that if Todd had done Zippy’s Friends when he was young he might not have had the difficulties he did.’
It is now more than five years since Todd died. In that time, the Todd Ouida Children’s Foundation has raised and distributed more than $750,000 to children’s mental health programmes. Does Herb feel proud that so much has been accomplished in his son’s name?
He pauses for a moment.
‘I don’t think proud is the word,’ he says. ‘Honoured. We are grateful to all the people who have helped us. So many people in so many ways have said that they want to be Todd’s buddy. I feel indebted because of that.
‘You know, I always used to tell the children when they were growing up that the secret of happiness is not in taking, it’s in giving. It’s true.’