“Because I have that connection, I wanted to do something here in Shaker so that other people can understand.”
By Jennifer Kuhel
As a small child, Caleigh Leiken had a sense that adults connected with her birthday in a way that she didn’t. She couldn’t fully comprehend why the fact that she was born in New York City on September 11, 2001 was remarkable.
Of course today, as an 18-year-old young adult, she understands. And she is committed to helping others her age do the same. In September, she coordinated an assembly at Shaker Heights High School, where she is a senior, with the help of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Th e assembly included a live video with World Trade Center survivors and first responders, as well as a Q&A session with Megan Jones, the Senior Director of Education Programs at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Jones is also a graduate of Shaker Heights High School.
“My whole life, I’ve had people telling me that something significant happened on my birthday,” she says. “And because I have that connection, I wanted to do something here in Shaker so that other people can understand.”
Caleigh’s own understanding begins with her parents’ emotional story as New Yorkers witnessing the tragedy first-hand. At the time, Caleigh’s father, Jonathan, worked near Times Square, but her mother, Erika, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, worked only two blocks from the World Trade Center. Erika saw the fires and witnessed the collapse of the second tower. She was among the stunned and terrified thousands who walked north, along the river, to return home. In the meantime, Jonathan had been waiting for hours at the couple’s Upper East Side apartment without any method of communication.
When Erika finally returned home, the stress of the walk combined with the trauma
had put her into labor. The two immediately got into a cab and headed to the hospital,
only to be stopped at police roadblocks. The police then escorted the Leikens through
Central Park, but when they arrived at the hospital, they were told they couldn’t be seen: The hospital was waiting for victims. After explaining to hospital personnel that Erika was in labor, the hospital admitted her. Soon it was clear there would be no victims and Caleigh was born just a few hours later.
Caleigh’s understanding grew deeper this past spring, when she visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City with her dad and her younger brother. For her, the experience was memorable and life-changing.
She took a VIP tour of the museum, which meant that she could participate in the daily morning Birthday Rose Ceremony, where a white rose is placed near the inscribed name of a victim who would have celebrated a birthday on that day.
“It was eye-opening for me that I would celebrate my birthday on a day when so many people died,” she says. Th at connection spurred her to reach out to Jones, which ultimately led to Caleigh’s planning the assembly at Shaker Heights Hish School as the Memorial’s first out-of-state educational ambassador.
“I realized that this day is one that’s so important to my parents and to so many others for so many reasons,” Caleigh says. “There was nothing I could have done on September 11, but I know that now, I can do something to help the generation who didn’t experience what happened that day to understand it as I do.”