“It was a full circle moment for me and finally I said, ‘I need to be forthcoming with you. I need to tell you the story of my sister and how this charity started.’
“His father was sitting there very stoic. He spoke no English, but every so often his son would interpret what we were saying.”
She told them how her younger sister, 30-year-old Kristy Irvine Ryan — a University of Dayton grad, a newlywed of three months and an equities trader for Sandler O’Neill and Partners in Manhattan — had been killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that were exactly 21 years ago today.
She had been working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when a hijacked commercial airliner was slammed into the famed high-rise. 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, D.C. and in a commandeered airliner headed for the White House that instead crashed into a Pennsylvania field when passengers fought back.
Five other UD grads were killed at World Trade Center that day, too.
Less than a month later, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, which had been home to the Al Qaeda leaders who had directed the attacks, although 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and none were from Afghanistan.
That invasion led to a 20-year American presence in Afghanistan.
Secret Smiles of Dayton was born out of the Sept. 11 attacks, first as a group that helped people in New York and then, after a year, with its attention turned to the Miami Valley.
For Janess, deeply shaken 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’s told me in the past: “No matter what happens. No matter how evil something is, I believe goodness will prevail.”
That day, as she told her story to the Afghan family, she felt goodness.
As Kristy’s story was relayed to the father, he started to cry.
And that’s when Tracy said the son told her: “’Tracy, first of all, I need to apologize for my country and what happened to your sister.’
“And I was like, ‘No, no, nooooo! No! That’s not what this is about That’s not it at all!’
“For me, the day was very special. It was goodness coming out of something awful that happened.”
That has been a mantra she’s embraced for over two decades now as Secret Smiles of Dayton has given out close to 9,000 beds, many of them to children.
And it’s the reason why six days from now — on Sept. 17th — the University of Dayton will give Tracy 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 work best reflects the unique quality of service and sacrifice to others and is consistent with the Marianist identity of UD.
No one better fits that paradigm than Janess, whose effort has been buoyed by so many others here in the Miami Valley.
Initially, the Junior League of Dayton, the non-profit organization of women that promotes voluntarism, helped her launch Secret Smiles.
Since then, it’s especially been lifted by Morris Home Furniture and its leaders, Larry and Rob Klaben, who provide beds at cost or less and deliver and set them up. Marilyn Klaben, Larry’s wife, has added books to given away.
And Secret Smiles has expanded its reach thanks to community volunteers of every stripe, including Yvette Gregory and her husband, Brian, when he was the head basketball coach at UD for eight seasons and would deliver beds incognito, not wanting 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 was her lifelong friend growing up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, and then graduated from UD with her it followed its predecessor and provided mostly household items to families.
Soon, though, it was realized that the biggest need was beds.
“It’s the No. 1 resource 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, a lot of social service agencies won’t accept beds anyway.
“So we decided to keep our model as just beds.”
And in recent years here — with the tornados that ravaged the Miami Valley in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that soon followed — she said the need has escalated.
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 nearly quadruple 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 area social service agencies, one which also gets twin and full beds, but two that only needed cribs.
Several of the beds also were going to individuals who were referrals from a church, school, social service agency or a doctor. Those wanting a bed also had written a letter explaining their situation.
On her order sheet, Janess had made brief notations about each recipient and they summed up the need:
“Mother with substance abuse problem. Father in prison. Had been homeless.”
“Single mom trying to get GED. Daughter in a toddler’s bed.”
“Mother sleeping in bed with daughter.”
“Grandmother with disability raising kids.”
“Pregnant student without a bed for her or her baby.”
“Children sleeping on blow-up mattress. Domestic violence”.
“Children sleeping on floor.”
Janess talked about the need to fill each request:
“For a child, nothing is more important than a bed. When you get 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 had a good night’s sleep.”
Finding a way to help
Janess’ family has deep ties to UD.
Her grandfather, Joseph “Chief” Wagner, came from Sidney, played football for the Flyers and got an engineering degree.
Tracy, Kristy and their three other sisters often spent parts of their summers in Shelby County — their mom was from Sidney — and they knew about UD. Several of their Ohio cousins 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 after that they were in houses on Lowes, Kiefaber and Stonemill in the then-called Student Ghetto.
At UD, Kristy did volunteer work 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 working for the banking investment firm run by Meredith’s father. Meredith taught kindergarten at P.S. 145 in Harlem and sometimes Kristy came there and read to the students.
Tracy once told me about the start of Secret Smiles in New York.
“Meredith got to know a kindergarten boy and his mom who were living 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 little boy and then delivered them to the place they’d live. The boy and his mom 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 soon-to-be husband, Brendan Ryan, whom she’d 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 was to be the maid of honor when Meredith wed in early October 2001.
On Sept. 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 following morning all that was shattered
I first met Tracy a few days after the attack as she sat with her dad, Stu Irvine, and other family members in the backyard of his home on Revere Drive in Huntington. Her mom had passed away eight years earlier from cancer.
The numbed 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 shared how her family was “deluged by calls, letters and donations from people all around 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 show up freshman year at UD, they have all these booths set up in the plaza. They were all the different organizations you could volunteer for. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, but it quickly becomes common place — whether it’s Christmas on Campus, service clubs, whatever. It’s a big part of your education there.
“Later on, Kristy and I talked about how UD had taught us about being involved in your community and how it enriched your life.
“And after all this happened, it helped me. It’s paid back all my efforts 10-fold.”
She said it helped her “find some peace.”
Her family, including her three children, will be at next Saturday’s event, as will be the women who serve on the Secret Smiles Board of Directors: 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, wasn’t born yet, but Tracy said he has the closest kinship with his late aunt.
He’s had a bumpy road at times as he made his way beyond high school. That’s taken him from the University of Kentucky to welding school at Hobart, which seems to be a good fit.
“I tell Timmy, ‘If this isn’t your guardian angel looking out for you, if this isn’t Kristy, I don’t know what is,’” Tracy said with a smile.
All these years later that same guardian angel still is taking plenty of people under her wings.
Before she receives the award next Saturday evening, Tracy will take part 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 end of the floor. Atop each will be stuffed animals and books and a sign bearing a child’s name.
A large curtain stretched across the floor will keep them hidden from 50 children on the other side who were selected by social agencies and schools.
There’ll be a countdown and the curtain will be pulled back and the excited kids will run to find their new beds, often as the adults with them stand back and watch through glistening eyes.
As she hears the kids’ shrieks of joy and the laughter and sees their beaming smiles, Tracy has one overriding thought.
‘I think of Kristy,” she said as her voice began to break. “All these years later, we still share something.
“I see her smiling. I feel her so strong. That is her gift.”
It is goodness prevailing.
To donate to Secret Smiles: Visit secretsmilesdayton.org or send a check to Secret Smiles of Dayton, PO Box 291903. Dayton, Ohio 45429.