“It was a full circle moment for me and finally I said, ‘I have to come with you. I have to tell you the story of my sister and how this charity started.’
“His father put a lot of stoics there. He didn’t speak any English, but his son occasionally interpreted what we were saying.”
She told them how her younger sister, 30-year-old Kristy Irvine Ryan — a University of Dayton grad, newlywed of three months and a stock trader for Sandler O’Neill and Partners in Manhattan — was killed in the 11 September , 2001 terrorist attacks that were exactly 21 years ago today.
She was working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the famous skyscraper. Another plane hit the North Tower. Both buildings fell.
Kristy and 67 of her co-workers were among nearly 3,000 people killed that day in the attacks at the WTC, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and in a commander en route to the White House that instead crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers fought back.
Five other UD grads were also killed at World Trade Center that day.
Less than a month later, the US invaded Afghanistan, which was home to the al-Qaeda leaders who directed the attacks, although 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and none from Afghanistan.
That invasion led to a 20-year American presence in Afghanistan.
Secret Smiles of Dayton was born out of the September 11 attacks, first as a group helping people in New York and then, after a year, focusing on the Miami Valley.
For Janess, deeply moved by the loss of her beloved sister, the effort was a way to help other people and to try to begin to heal herself.
As she told me in the past: “No matter what happens. No matter how bad something is, I believe goodness will prevail.”
That day, when she told her story to the Afghan family, she felt goodness.
As Kristy’s story was relayed to the father, he began to cry.
And that’s when Tracy says the boy told her: “‘Tracy, first of all, I have to apologize for my country and what happened to your sister.’
“And I was like, ‘No, no, no!’ No! That’s not what it’s about. That’s not it at all!’
“For me the day was very special. It was goodness that came out of something horrible that happened.”
It’s a mantra she’s embraced for more than two decades now, as Secret Smiles of Dayton has given out nearly 9,000 beds, many of them to children.
And that’s why six days from now — on Sept. 17 — the University of Dayton will present Tracy with its prestigious Christian Service Award at the 2022 Alumni Awards Celebration at Daniel Curran Place on South Patterson Boulevard.
The award is presented to alumni whose life’s work best reflects the unique quality of service and sacrifice to others and aligns with the Marianist identity of UD.
No one fits that paradigm better than Janess, whose effort has been encouraged by so many others here in the Miami Valley.
Initially, the Junior League of Dayton, the nonprofit organization of women that promotes volunteerism, helped her launch Secret Smiles.
Since then, it has been especially lifted by Morris Home Furniture and its leaders, Larry and Rob Klaben, who supply, deliver and set up beds at cost price or less. Marilyn Klaben, Larry’s wife, added books to give away.
And Secret Smiles expanded its reach thanks to community volunteers of every kind, including Yvette Gregory and her husband, Brian, when he was head basketball coach at UD for eight seasons and would deliver beds incognito, without publicity for his good deeds.
When Secret Smiles first formed as a Miami Valley offshoot of the original Secret Smiles started in Manhattan by Kristy and Meredith O’Neill, who were her lifelong friends growing up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, and then graduated from UD with her. followed its predecessor and provided mostly household items to families.
However, it was soon realized that the greatest need was beds.
“It’s the No. 1 resource that people can’t get,” Janess said. “People don’t donate beds. They keep them too long, until their back hurts, and then they throw them out. And unfortunately with the bed bug epidemic, many social service agencies won’t accept beds anyway.
“So we decided to keep our model only as beds.”
And in recent years here — with the tornadoes that ravaged the Miami Valley in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that quickly followed — she said the need has increased.
That was evident the other afternoon when I visited her at her Kettering home, just after she had finished working on this month’s bed order from Morris Furniture. The request was almost four times what it normally is.
She said most months they need 35 to 40 beds. This request was for 147.
The bulk of the order went to three social service agencies in the area, one that also gets twin and full beds, but two that only needed cribs.
Several of the beds also went to individuals who were referrals from a church, school, social service agency or a doctor. Those who wanted a bed also wrote a letter explaining their situation.
On her order sheet, Janess made brief notes about each recipient and they summarized the need:
“Mother with substance abuse problem. Father in prison. Was homeless.”
“Single mother trying to get GED. Daughter in a toddler’s bed.”
“Mother sleeps in bed with daughter.”
“Grandma with disability raises children.”
“Pregnant student without a bed for her or her baby.”
“Children who sleep on inflatable mattresses. Domestic violence”.
“Children sleep on the floor.”
Janess spoke about the need to fill every request:
“For a child, nothing is more important than a bed. When you are tucked into your bed at night, you feel safe, secure. And when you go to school the next day, you just feel better if you’ve slept well.”
To find a way to help
Janess’s family has deep ties to UD.
Her grandfather, Joseph “Chief” Wagner, came from Sidney, played football for the Flyers and earned an engineering degree.
Tracy, Kristy and their three other sisters often spent parts of their summers in Shelby County — their mother was from Sidney — and they knew about UD. Several of their cousins in Ohio graduated from the school.
Tracy met her husband, Brian Janess, a student from Chicago, when he was at UD. His brother and sister also went there.
Six years after Tracy came to Dayton, Kristy followed with Meredith O’Neill.
Freshman year they lived in the Marycrest dorm and then they were in houses on Lowes, Kiefaber and Stonemill in what was then the Student Ghetto.
At UD, Kristy volunteered at Womanline and had an internship at Good Samaritan Hospital. When she and Meredith graduated in 1993, they moved back to New York and shared an apartment.
Kristy got a job at the bank investment firm run by Meredith’s father. Meredith taught kindergarten at PS 145 in Harlem and sometimes Kristy would come over and read to the students.
Tracy once told me about starting Secret Smiles in New York.
“Meredith got to know a kindergarten boy and his mother who lived in a domestic violence shelter and had nothing.
“Kristy and her friends went out just before Christmas and bought them all kinds of household items, furniture, clothes and toys for the boy and then delivered them to the place where they would be staying. The boy and his mother never knew where any of it came from. But their smiles said it all.
“And that started Secret Smiles.”
Meredith, Kristy and other friends – including Kristy’s future husband, Brendan Ryan, whom she had known since she was 12 – continued to develop the charity over the next three years.
Meredith was the maid of honor in Kristy’s wedding and Kristy would be the maid of honor when Meredith got married in early October 2001.
On September 10 – the night before the attacks – Kristy and Meredith had dinner together in Midtown Manhattan and talked about how well their lives were going.
The next morning everything was shattered
I first met Tracy a few days after the attack when she was sitting with her father, Stu Irvine, and other family members in the backyard of his home on Revere Drive in Huntington. Her mother died of cancer eight years earlier.
The stunned family shared some memories of Kristy and the kindness she so often showed. and the story I wrote brought an outpouring of love from readers who wanted to do something for them.
Tracy later recounted how her family was “inundated with calls, letters and donations from people all over Dayton and the UD campus.”
In the months that followed, Tracy embraced that idea of goodness eclipsing evil, and she made it happen by drawing on a concept she said she — and Kristy — learned at UD:
“When you arrive at UD as freshmen, they have all these stalls set up in the plaza. They were all the different organizations you could volunteer for. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, but it’s quickly becoming common place – whether it’s Christmas on campus, service clubs, whatever. That’s a big part of your education there.
“Later, Kristy and I talked about how UD taught us to be involved in your community and how it enriched your life.
“And after all that happened, it helped me. It paid back all my efforts tenfold.”
She said it helped her “find peace”.
Her family, including her three children, will be at next Saturday’s event, as will the women who serve on the Secret Smiles board: Kelly Uhl, Barbara O’Brien, Sara Hemmeter, Molly Treese and Lisa Lambet.
Tracy’s two daughters, 25-year-old Lizzie and 24-year-old Sara have a memory of Kristy. They were both flower girls in her wedding.
Son Tim, just 20, has not been born yet, but Tracy said he was the closest relation to his late aunt.
He had a bumpy road at times as he progressed past high school. That took him from the University of Kentucky to welding school in Hobart, which turned out to be a good fit.
“I tell Timmy, ‘If that’s not your guardian angel looking out for you, if that’s not Kristy, I don’t know what is,'” Tracy said with a smile.
All these years later, that same guardian angel still takes many people under her wings.
Before receiving the award next Saturday night, Tracy will participate in Secret Smiles’ annual “Hope to Dream” event at the Frericks Center.
Fifty children’s beds – neatly made up with crisp sheets, bedspreads and fluffy pillows that say “Secret Smiles: Dream Big” – will be set up on one side of the floor. On top of each will be stuffed animals and books and a sign with a child’s name.
A large curtain stretched across the floor will keep them hidden from 50 children on the other side who have been selected by social agencies and schools.
There would be a countdown and the curtain would be drawn back and the excited children would run to find their new beds, often as the adults stood back with them and watched through glistening eyes.
As she hears the children’s squeals of joy and laughter and sees their beaming smiles, Tracy has one overriding thought.
“I’m thinking about Kristy,” she said as her voice began to break. “All these years later, we still share something.
“I see her smile. I feel her so strongly. This is her gift.”
It is goodness that dominates.
To donate to Secret Smiles: Visit secretsmilesdayton.org or send a check to Secret Smiles of Dayton, PO Box 291903. Dayton, Ohio 45429.