Profile: Building a Living Legacy for Beloved Son They Lost on 9/11
Herbert and Anna Ouida have created a foundation in memory of young man who overcame childhood adversity to become everybody’s buddy
Name: Herbert Ouida
Hometown: River Edge
Who he is: A former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the World Trade Centers Association, Ouida now is director of the Global Enterprise Network at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Why you should know about him: He and his wife Andrea are co-founders of the Todd Ouida Children’s Foundation, a living memorial to their late son.
Who was Todd Ouida: Growing up in River Edge with his parents, brother, and sister, Todd had a normal childhood. But he began to suffer panic attacks so severe that he had to stop attending school in the fourth grade. Finally, he found a child psychologist who helped him work through his anxieties.
Returning after being home-schooled for three years, Todd became a popular classmate and honors student. Despite his five-foot-five frame, he played football and wrestled at River Dell High School. As a camp counselor, he told younger children about his past difficulties and how he got help overcoming them.
9/11: As an executive vice president of the WTCA, Herb Ouida was working on the 77th floor of 1 World Trade Center. Todd’s Cantor Fitzgerald office was even higher, the 105th floor.
After terrorists flew an airliner into the building at about the 80th floor, Todd Ouida called his mother. “He told her, ‘Mommy, you’re going to hear that there’s been an explosion here at the Trade Center,’” Herb Ouida recalled. “’But don’t worry, I’m all right and I’m heading into the stairwell. I just spoke to Dad and he’s all right too.’ He hadn’t really spoken to me, but he wanted to reassure his mother. That was the kind of guy he was.”
Like most of those below the floors where planes hit, Herb Ouida was able to make his way out. Todd Ouida was among 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the attacks.
Everybody’s buddy:Eventually, the family received some of his remains and effects and held a memorial service. Herb Ouida was struck by a common theme among the well-wishers. “Todd had gone from a boy who couldn’t leave the house to someone who was a friend to everyone. So many people told me that he was their buddy.”
So when the family formed a foundation in Todd’s honor, it was natural to use that phrase for its website:
They began with a $250,000 endowment from Todd’s estate to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, for research, treatment, and education of childhood anxiety orders. But that was just the start.
Medical history: While searching for help for Todd’s childhood disorder, his parents were distressed by some of what they heard, even from some medical professionals. Some relied heavily on drugs, others downplayed the issues, according to Herb Ouida.
“There’s a common thread of, ‘Oh, they’ll grow out of it,’” he said. “But why should stress and anxiety be any less serious for young children than it is at any other age? If you have trouble coping, you need help. Like any other illness or disorder, early intervention can make a big difference.”
Building bridges: Through their own outreach, the Ouidas made contacts with experts working in the field, like the Partnership for Children in the United Kingdom, which has established the Zippy’s Friends social skills and coping program in school around the world for children ages five to seven.
They brought that program to the YCS (Youth Consultation Service) Institute of Newark and Hackensack, which in 2000 opened the state’s first licensed clinic exclusively dedicated to infant and preschool mental health.
“Herb and Andrea Ouida are wonderful people, real salt of the earth,” said Dr. Gerard Costa, the director of the institute at the time. “They wanted other children to have access to the same kind of care Todd found.”
In 2011, Costa became director of Montclair State University’s new Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health. The center’s extensive brief includes professional development, education, clinical services, and research in the areas of autism, infant and early childhood development, and mental health.
The goal is to enable professional to bring multi-disciplinary resources to bear across a wide spectrum of problems that may have commonalities but still be particular to an individual child.
“If we just try to fix behavior, we may be ignoring some meaningful problems” from neurological or other sources that can be helped, Costa said.
A lasting legacy: Since Todd’s death, the Ouida foundation has regularly supported community and children’s groups and sponsored a number of events around the state and nation, providing more than $1 million so far. Recipients have included the Community Food Bank of New Jersey Kids Division; Family Promise of Bergen County; Fresh Air Fund; Association for Child Psychoanalysis; Children’s Aid Society; and the Richmond Art Center on California.
Since the creation of the center at Montclair, though, the most high-profile annual event has been its conference,.
“It’s become an annual event that combines love and science,” Costa said.
The size of his heart: On his college application, Todd Ouida wrote, “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.” What he discovered, he wrote, “no matter how big the person is on the outside (for I am only 5' 5" tall) that the size of the heart is always going to be more important."
"I miss my buddy," said Herb Ouida, now 73. But the family continues to celebrate his son's life and values, he said, particularly the belief "that happiness comes in giving."