Appalachian remembers... our decade-long friendship with the family of a 9/11 firefighter

After New York firefighter Doug Miller died in the World Trade Center, an unexpected relationship developed between his widow with three young daughters and Appalachian State University. It continues 10 years later.

"In the beginning everyone was trying to figure out how to help, what to do. It was a way we could connect in a personal way," Jenny Koehn, associate director of student programs at Appalachian, said of the "beautiful friendship" that has blossomed between the Miller family and the Appalachian family.

This love and support effort began through a contact with TIME magazine, which just a few days before Sept. 11, 2001, had featured Appalachian as a "College of the Year." Appalachian's Barbara Daye, who was dean of students at the time, had the idea of asking the TIME reporter if there was a New York family that might appreciate direct communication. Through a friend of a friend at the news magazine, the writer put Appalachian in touch with the human resources office of Rescue 5 in Staten Island. A man there suggested Appalachian reach out to Laurie Miller and her daughters Elizabeth, age 6, Rachel, age 5, and Katie, age 3.

Appalachian began with small steps: a letter suggesting the possibility of communicating directly, a phone call of introductions, then simple gifts like a bouquet of flowers on Laurie's birthday, holiday and birthday gifts for the girls, and cards from students just to let the family know that someone cared.

Letters of gratitude came in return. "What a support system we have in you," Laurie once wrote. A card became "a ray of sunshine in a difficult day," she'd write or "the flowers came at a perfect moment."

Among periodic care packages and notes, Appalachian sends a special package of gifts to the Millers each Christmas. For the first five years, it included a North Carolina Fraser fir; more recently, a holiday wreath. The package is usually hand delivered by a staff or faculty member traveling north.

The Millers have also visited campus four times—in 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2010. Each trip to Boone centers on spending time with the staff, faculty and students who've made their post-9/11 journey of grief a little more bearable. This past summer, the oldest daughter Elizabeth attended a forensic science camp for high school students offered by Appalachian's Department of Chemistry.

"They really love Appalachian," said Koehn, who has coordinated much of the communication and gift-giving by the campus community. She added that watching the girls grow up has been a sweet blessing.

"Thank you for my birthday presents. I am really glad that you think of me. You are really great people," Elizabeth once wrote in a thank-you note.

"You make me feel so loved and cared about," Rachel once wrote. "You are always with us, in our hearts! You help us through, keep us happy and anything you can imagine."

"I basically love anything that says ASU on it," Katie once wrote.

The friendship has become "much more than we could have ever dreamt," Koehn said. "A lot of people on campus feel they are our friends. While I'm sure we weren't a complete distraction from what has happened in their lives, I think it's been a bright spot."

As Laurie once wrote in a letter, "The words thank you are not enough. We are deeply blessed to be a part of your lives and continue to enjoy each new year of our relationship."