Why Nonprofits Matter

by Joan Garry

I’d like to tell you a story that I guarantee will remind you why you work in the nonprofit sector. It’s not the easiest story you will ever hear.

Take a minute from whatever mundane management task you’re doing. Forget about the donor who won’t return your calls or the board member suggesting celebrity outreach (well you’ve never thought of that before).

Set that all aside for just a few minutes.

I’d like to tell you a story that I guarantee will remind you why you work in the nonprofit sector.

It’s not the easiest story you will ever hear.

I met Judy Kottick more than 20 years ago when our daughters were in a toddler playgroup together. Judy’s daughter Ella was kind and full of life. A joy. Apple right near the tree.

Ella grew into a remarkable dancer and artist and graduated from Macalester College in 2011. She planned to pursue a doctorate in psychology, aspiring to provide mental health services to undeserved populations.

In January 2013, while crossing a Brooklyn intersection known to be among the most dangerous in the city, Ella was hit by a bus. She never had a chance.

Her mom and dad, Judy and Ken broke into a million pieces, unsure how they could go on.

It was a sleepless year for Ken and Judy. Judy often found herself at her computer in the middle of the night. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for – maybe there was someone who might understand her pain.

One night, she found HP and Amy Tam Liao. Their 3-year-old daughter Allison had just been killed on October 13 that same year while crossing the street with her grandmother.

She emailed them and they responded in less than a day.

Through them, Judy met Amy Cohen. Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein’s 12-year-old son Sammy had been struck by a van on his own block just 5 days before HP and Amy lost Allison.

Three couples. Kindred spirits. Unimaginable grief.


Amy and Gary were members of Transportation Alternatives, a NYC-based nonprofit whose mission is to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile.” The organization works to promote bicycling, walking, and public transit as a better alternative to driving a car.

These three couples began to find other grieving parents; grieving parents found them. All bound together by the unimaginable and determined to build legacies in their children’s memories.

Soon there was a small army.

On the first anniversary of Ella’s crash, this army of mourners, along with Transportation Alternatives, organized a vigil calling for safe streets at her Brooklyn intersection.

The turnout was huge. Ken and Judy were stunned.

That day they learned their first lesson about community organizing: if you get a press person to cover a vigil (essentially an outdoor press conference), politicians appear. The more press, the more politicians. The combination can lead to action.


A month later, the army had a name. Families for Safe Streets was born as an initiative of Transportation Alternatives and its goal was clear and specific — fight to lower the NYC speed limit.

They would soon need a new goal.

These grieving activists, including Judy and Ken, got some media training and went to Albany to tell their tragic stories to their elected officials. Imagine telling the same awful story over and over, holding up graphic pictures. They did what needed to be done.

Just 3 months later the speed limit in NYC was dropped from 30 to 25 mph. Warp speed.


After this huge win, Families for Safe Streets is now focusing on enforcement. This time it’s David vs. Goliath. Families for Safe Streets (David) is taking on the bus drivers’ union and the Taxi and Limousine Commissions (Goliaths). This will be a much tougher fight. The unions will fight back.

Get this. It’s assumed that bus drivers will have a certain number of “knock downs” (their words) each year. This is considered normal and acceptable. Unbelievable.

Makes you want to donate to Families for Safe Streets, doesn’t it? You can do that here.


I used to say to people that my friend Judy’s daughter was killed in a bus accident. No longer.

In the world Judy and Ken live in, the word “accident” is gone. No oops here. It was a crash. Not an accident.

Families for Safe Streets has a petition running to raise awareness about this. They ask supporters to pledge, “I will not call traffic crashes ‘accidents.’ I will educate others about why ‘crash’ is a better word.”

I took the pledge. If you want to, you can do so here.


Ken and Judy are made of special stuff. In their shoes, I’m not sure I would have the kind of fortitude they have and I consider myself an activist. But something happening to one of my three children? And then participating on weekly steering committee calls, reminded every single day of the tragedy? I’m not sure I could bear it.

Some days this work feels like the best thing Judy could possibly do. On other days, it’s just a different kind of torture.

I asked Ken what it was like to be involved in a nonprofit for the first time in such a big way. Ken took his time answering and his response has stayed with me.

“When it all happened, it all felt so random. Something insane, impossible and unimaginable. Being a part of Families for Safe Streets and this group of the most impressive and passionate people has helped me to reframe my daughter’s death in a way that helps me to make more sense of it. It’s been reframed for me as a problem to be solved. 24,000 crashes and 100 fatalities in NYC year to date. I see that our work can save lives.”


There are lessons for all of us who work in nonprofits in the story of Ella and Sammy and their parents and the growing number of families like theirs banding together as part of FSS.

  • You are needed. Badly. You may be in the business of advocating for the homeless, caring for sick kids with cancer, or standing in a courtroom fighting for immigrants about to be deported. You may be delivering meals to seriously ill patients or teaching in a school for autistic kids. These people are counting on you. Sure it’s a lot of responsibility. But even more so, it’s a privilege.
  • You make things happen. You have an expertise in your field that you share with those who need it. Re-read what Ken said. TA helped Ken make a shift in his point of view. He is motivated to solve a problem. While his grief remains unimaginable, an organization that was there for him is sharing its expertise to enable him to play a role in solving a problem. That’s a gift.
  • You raise awareness about societal problems. You provide an opportunity to folks like Ken and Judy to turn their grief into action. You advocate like hell, inspired by your clients to change the system. You organize vigils and press conferences, you write op-eds. You ensure that the story of each family, each client reverberates – that the larger point is made – and you call people to action.
  • You offer hope. When the truck arrives to deliver a nutritious meal to a seriously ill patient, you’re delivering hope – “maybe I can beat this thing.” A homeless gay teen finds a bed at a shelter and the next day meets with someone dedicated to getting that teen a part time job? That’s hope. A hospital researching the cure for pediatric cancers is offering hope. That’s what nonprofit work is about.
  • You lift us all up. Surrounded by passionate, dedicated people for whom the work feels like a vocation? It’s inspiring to be in your company. It’s a privilege to know you.


Before you head back to the mundane work it felt like you were doing, may I make two suggestions:

  • Do something right now to touch and feel the work. Or call a program staff member and ask them to tell you an inspiring story about your work.
  • Remember that every single thing you do, even the mundane and the frustrating, is a means to an end. The end? Re-read 1 through 5 one more time as a reminder.

Thank you.

24 thoughts on “Why Nonprofits Matter”

  1. I so admire those people who can reframe something so tragic into something so focused. While the nonprofit board I head is an arts organization, the lessons here are clear. And after board meetings, refreshing!!!!! Thanks so much

  2. Thank you. I needed this reminder today. Also some impressive nonprofit story telling – kudos on the writing.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s a testament to human spirit that, when faced with a tragedy, people react by helping others. Whether it’s this amazing couple, or Malala, or any number of unknown helpers, good prevails. I spent time with a woman last week who lives in rural Missouri and is fighting back against the Ku Klux Klan, which is setting up a camp near her county (#notmyozarks). She’s a farmer and fiddler…and fed up with hate so she got busy. These people are my heroes.

  4. Returning to why you exist in the first place inspires. Connecting to the real stories – behind the theories & data – give the humdrum tasks meaning. For these families, finding a purpose so their broken hearts & shattered dreams can be harnessed to save others from a similar catastrophe is a legacy for the departed loved ones. Going public also reaches others who need to know they are not alone. Kudos to those who can make this transformation! Kudos to those who continue long after the initial impetus!

  5. Joan, thank you for sharing this. I too lost a child — it is inimaginable sorrow, but good can come out of such tragedy. Thank you for the powerful reminder of why I do what I do!

  6. Debbie.
    It is clear that the sense of community – I’m not alone — is a big driver for these families and their participation with Families for Safe Streets. Here’s hoping that even a post like this introduces families to FSS.

  7. Jennifer. SO many heroic people in our midst, right? And we in the nonprofit space have the privilege of bringing out the best in people to make lasting change.

  8. Seth. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to tell Ken and Judy’s story and to be able to use the story to tease out the messages for those who read my blog.

  9. There are a lot of resources out there for grieving parents, but not always easy to locate – especially for people in shock. Bereaved Parents of the USA (http://www.bereavedparentsusa.org); The Compassionate Friends (https://www.compassionatefriends.org);
    All that Love can Do (http://allthatlovecando.blogspot.com).
    You are a good friend to remain supportive; many cannot. These sites also have resources for friends and family to them help understand the depth and longevity of loss of a child.

  10. This is an excellent piece, thank you. This line particularly strikes me: “…participating on weekly steering committee calls, reminded every single day of the tragedy” – because I’m sure that the Kotticks are remembering every.single.day their loss anyway. In this way, they know, as Ken says, that they’re doing something for others and for their community with that remembrance, not just letting it beat them down. As a mother of three I can hardly imagine what they feel, but I send healing thoughts and prayers and gratitude to them.

  11. What a well written article. Having worked in the environmental non-profit world for over ten years – the “board member” comment is so on spot!! Now a volunteer and/or board member for a couple non-profits in our community – this article helps to remind us to return to why we are involved with that particular organization or group. The burn out rate is really high and an article like this – helps. There are so many unsung heroes among us that have turned their grief/anger/frustration into a avenue to help. Thank you again Joan for sharing Judy & Ken’s story. May your day be filled with light and happiness.

  12. This just reignited something in me. Thank you, Joan. I needed the reminder. That happens when you’re tired.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this story…….so rich in courage and compassion, through tragedy. Our non-profit is dedicated to suicide prevention, intervention and grief support. We are blessed with countless “Champions” who share their story of HOPE!

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