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Aftershock: What's on checks is as heartwarming as what's in them

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thump thump.
Thump thump.

The steady drumming is coming from Office 37 at the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Thump thump.
Thump thump.

For the past 30 days, that rhythm has been the heartbeat of Kristin Montanti's work day.

As assistant treasurer for the Downtown organization, her chief task has been processing donations to the September 11 Fund, a national effort to aid victims of the terrorist attacks. The United Way and the Pittsburgh Foundation are coordinating local efforts. Montanti is at the heart of it.

Kristin Montanti, assistant treasurer for the Pittsburgh Foundation, is at the local heart of the national effort to aid victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She's in charge of processing donations to the September 11 Fund, an effort that is being coordinated here by her foundation and the United Way. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The thump thump, thump thump is Montanti methodically flipping checks and stamping "deposit only" on the back.

Before Sept. 11, her day was a more routine numbers game -- keeping track of donations to the foundation's more than 800 funds, paying office bills and bookkeeping. She could pretty much count on a 9-to-5 day.

No more. Now, the benevolence of a nation looking for healing has thrust her normal duties into the background and put new stresses on her life.

The checks arrive at Montanti's desk 40 to a bundle. Most are for $10 or $20. Most come from PNC Bank employees -- some from bank workers as far away as Ireland. PNC is matching the donations. More than $800 million nationally has gone to the special fund, nearly $2 million from the local fund. Montanti, who is 29, has processed slightly more than a half-million dollars of that.

It's her job to enter the checks and donors into the data base, document the contributions and get her supervisor to sign off on them before they get funneled to Mellon Bank.

By noon on this day, she's processed more than $10,000 in donations. There's so much work that when she runs into Mellon bank workers on the street, she jokes, "Oh, please, don't hit me."

How Lives Have Changed

One in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.

Previous Installments

Navy diver certain her next assignment will be in Mideast

Fascination and fear grip 10-year-old in equal parts

Kurt Angle embraces role as U.S. icon

He leaves his adopted country after ugly encounters

A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

US Airways' mechanic escapes 'certain' layoff, but reprieve only prolongs uncertainty

Customers bring joy to Pakistani store manager


Montanti isn't alone. The generosity has crushed charities and their administrative staffs. Many are working longer hours, cramming in extra duties and calling for volunteers to help.

For Montanti, the public outpouring is pushing its way into her private world. The checks she processes for nonprofits must wait a day. She has to squeeze in her bill-paying for the foundation. The noontime walk with colleagues is on hold. So is lunch out of the office. Montanti brings a sandwich and a piece of fruit and eats at her desk.

"There are days when I'm on autopilot," Montanti said. "I don't have time to think."

A sense of gratitude boosts her sagging spirit.

"I'm not a firefighter at Ground Zero. This is my job. I didn't have to learn any new skill. This is what I can do to help."

The attacks have also hammered at a more deeply personal element of her life. Montanti was married on Sept. 11, 1999. She was set to celebrate her anniversary the day the terrorists struck, but she and her husband, Louis, dropped plans for dinner at Palomino Restaurant. They are considering changing the date for celebrating their anniversary. It's one way they'll try to escape the shadows of the attacks.

For the past month, overtime has become routine. She comes in early, coaxing her husband to drive her when she can. Otherwise, she catches the bus from Pine. Some evenings, she works late just to get caught up.

Her mom, Sylvia Marko, 59, a retired office administrator, made a donation and asked her daughter how else she could help. Montanti drafted her for a day. Her data processing enabled her daughter to catch up on other foundation tasks.

Montanti's sparkling aqua eyes don't reveal her anxiety. It could be the twice-a-week aerobics classes are helping her to exhale. But the stress and mental exhaustion of handling the barrage of donations take their toll.

After a 40-minute drive home to Pine, Kristin and Louis, who does pension consulting for nonprofits, used to be able to lock the stresses of work in the car -- and leave them there. That's been harder to do for Kristin. Her husband prods her to get away from news of the attacks. He takes her shopping. Once or twice a week, he orders pizza so she doesn't have to worry about preparing a meal.

In the office, Montanti wears a red, white and blue scarf around her neck and a flag brooch on the left lapel of her blue suit. Two flags are draped over the cabinets above her desk. A paper flag is taped to the front window. She distributed other paper flags to colleagues on her wing.

An Indian summer sun splashes into her 30th floor space. But the warmth that keeps Montanti thumping along are the intense emotions that float up from the memo line on the checks.

"Wish I could send more."

"Hope this helps."

"God Bless America."

These are people desperate to make a difference. Retired police and firefighters have forwarded checks. "This is for my brothers," they write.

One child sent a rainbow drawing with a donation from his family.

At about 2 in the afternoon, a colleague interrupts. She has another stack of donation checks. More from PNC. And, now, more from the Mitsubishi plant in Marshall. The foundation is processing that company's special donations to the Heroes of Flight 93 Memorial Fund.

In Office 37, the sun is shining, the computer is humming. Kristin Montanti is at work.

Thump, Thump.
Thump, Thump.

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