The spirit in N.Y.C. heartens volunteer

A Canfield woman describes working as a mental health counselor in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
CANFIELD -- Karen Soyka thought she understood the power of the human spirit. Then she spent time with firefighters digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.
"I tell you, I underestimated it," Soyka said. "I've been given the most important gift in my life by what I witnessed and experienced."
Soyka, 39, recently returned home to Canfield after spending four weeks as a volunteer counselor at the disaster site in New York City. Her duties included talking with the families of victims as well as counseling firefighters who were digging through the rubble.
Conditions are awful: The firefighters rarely stopped digging, Soyka said, and they worked in terrible conditions.
"Every sense you have is being overstimulated," she said. "The smells were unbelievable, from the engine fuel, to the burning, to the bodies."
Yet each day the firefighters returned to the site and kept digging, Soyka said.
"I've never been so proud to be an American," she said.
Soyka is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in chemical dependency. She also is a full-time doctoral student at the University of Akron.
Soyka said she was inspired to volunteer in New York when her daughter, Brianne Goclano, 14, asked her if she was going to help the people affected by the attacks.
Soyka's son, Jacob Goclano, 12, said at first he was concerned that his mother would not be safe at the site.
"Then I thought about it some more, and I knew it would be something very big to help others that don't have families," he said.
Headed for N.Y.: On Sept. 18, Soyka woke up, said goodbye to her children and drove to the Red Cross emergency headquarters in Brooklyn.
Later that day she was assigned to a "compassion center" in the city, where she talked with the families of those missing in the rubble. The families were waiting to learn if their loved ones were alive or dead, Soyka said.
"Their grief was so profound," she said, describing the scene inside the center as "wailing, sobbing and mothers collapsing, just in a great emotional pain."
Soyka said her job was to ensure that the families had a support system of friends and relatives to help share their pain. The process could last two hours, she said.
"It was very, very intense work," she said.
After two days in the center, Soyka was assigned to work with the firefighters who were digging through the rubble. She said getting to the rubble could be an intense process, as she had to pass through five security gates patrolled by armed guards.
Brotherhood: Soyka said that when she first arrived at the site, she didn't push the firefighters to express their feelings about the things they had witnessed. She described the firefighters as "brothers," who felt that those trapped in the rubble would die if the firefighters stopped digging long enough to express their feelings.
To start conversations with firefighters, Soyka and other counselors at the site began to bring in therapy dogs and admired lapel pins made by schoolchildren.
Soyka said she knew not to ask the firefighters such questions as, "How are you?" Instead, she would ask them when they had last been home or when they had last been able to sleep. Soyka said that over time, the firefighters learned they could share their anger and sadness with her.
She said that some of them needed to express their emotions. "They needed to realize that they had a heart, they had a soul."
Soyka said that the firefighters soon gave her the nickname "baggage claim girl," because she was responsible for helping them with their emotional baggage.
Praised for work: Jim Rogers, an associate counseling professor at the University of Akron, who spent eight days at the site, described Soyka's work as "phenomenal."
"I'm just very proud," Rogers said. "Karen has a very, very strong faith in the human spirit and soul and is very willing to share her strength any way she can."
Soyka said the firefighters particularly enjoyed hearing stories about Jacob and Brianne. She noted that one of the firefighters sent the badge from his helmet to Jacob as a gift.
Meanwhile, in Canfield, both Jacob and Brianne were praying for their mother's safety. They stayed with their father, who lives in Cornersburg, and with friends while Soyka was in New York.
"I just prayed every night and put her life in God's hands and went from there," Brianne said. Soyka said her children were "reminders about why I need to take care of myself."
"They give my life purpose," she said.
The firefighters eventually told Soyka that to safeguard her own mental health, she needed to pick a day to return home. She finally drove back to Canfield on Oct. 4.
Coming to terms: Soyka said that only recently has she started coming to terms with the emotions she confronted in New York.
"I'm now just really dealing with the intensity of their pain," she said.
Soyka, Brianne and Jacob each said that their lives have been changed by Soyka's trip to New York. Brianne said her mother's experience taught her to appreciate her life in Canfield.
"It just made me look at life differently," Brianne said. "Knowing that I was safe here and I was being taught the right things."
Soyka, meanwhile, said she realized that most of her day-to-day concerns in Canfield were "the little stuff."
"Life is mostly little stuff," she said. "The little stuff has gotten littler and the big stuff has gotten bigger."