Courage to spare

Sun Staff

ROCKVILLE - Justin Dhyani and his siblings decided to donate their allowances to the families who lost someone to the Washington-area sniper even though none of them - not Justin, who is 11, nor his brothers, Jai, 15, and Josh, 14, nor his sister, Tess, who is 6 - knew any of the victims.

All the Dhyani kids knew is all most of us in the metropolitan area knew: For three weeks in October, we were forced to live with fear.

In the Dhyani house on a cul-de-sac in Rockville, it was Jai who was first out of bed, the family crier who watched CNN and MSNBC and told everyone, except little Tess, if anything new had happened overnight. He kept the family informed on who had been shot and where - and how close that was to their home on Safe Harbor Court.

But it was Justin who took their mom's challenge later to write a letter accompanying their family's donation. It was Justin, the busiest of the kids, who had so much to say that he went straight to his bedroom upstairs, closed the door and began to write.

His mom, Tracy Dhyani, had come up with the idea of donating. She was inspired by Carol Nelson, the wife of Justin's baseball coach, who suggested that they take the money typically spent at the end of the season on team trophies and give it to the victims' families.

Curious, Tracy looked back at the calendar and the schedule she had kept on her Palm Pilot to see what activities they'd missed. Justin was playing three sports at the time, so he missed baseball, football and basketball games and practices. Josh missed training events to prepare him for basketball tryouts and an archery class, Jai had been forbidden to walk to acting classes, and Tess' field trips with her Brownie troop to the pumpkin patch were canceled. So were Tess' soccer games.

Tracy counted the tennis tournament she missed and the meetings and events canceled or postponed by her group, the Community Woman's Club of Rockville. They counted the days Jai's high school wouldn't let students eat their lunch outside and the times Tess' elementary school canceled outdoor recess. In all, they counted 47 activities, and the number surprised them.

There was no way to measure the effect of other things. Josh's school taped paper over the lower windows and as the tallest kid in his class he was well aware that the top of his head could be seen where the paper stopped. Tess had been told "a bad person was hurting people," and that was why the children who lived close enough to her school to walk had to be escorted back across Montrose Road by armed policemen wearing bulletproof vests.

The whole family knew a 13-year-old boy had been shot, and the sniper had supposedly left a note saying no child was safe. Yet there was no method to calculate what it meant when Tracy stopped saying, "Have a good day" as she sent her children out the door, and said, "Have a safe day" instead.

Justin had a lot on his mind when he sat down at his desk the day the two suspects, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were arrested, Oct. 24. His mom was surprised it was Justin who took up her challenge. Jai was the writer in the family. She thought Justin must have something he profoundly needed to say.

Dear Mr. Wims,

Justin addressed his thoughts to Gregory Wims, president of the Victims' Rights Foundation, which gives all of the money collected to the victims' families.

As we all know, we have been attacked by men of evil, that we call "the sniper." The thing that got me the most during the attacks of "the sniper" was waking up to fear. Fear that today one person was going to die, we didn't know when or where it was going to happen, but we just knew. I guess the fear I felt was from just not knowing.

He wrote for half an hour and didn't stop until he was done.

I am eleven years old and being so young and naive made this experience much worse. I tried to live a normal life even though there was a killer out there, but I was reminded of this everyday in school when the principal would say that we were still on code blue. One of the worst reminders was on Friday nights, where we would usually be playing football in Dogwood Park, where I would've been able to release some of the stress by hitting people, but I couldn't because of these men of evil. Then to top it all off, every time I turned on the TV all I would hear was the sniper was still out there.

All that is over now, now that they caught the sniper. Today it felt like we had just won a war. It's the greatest feeling I've had in a month.

Justin wouldn't let anyone see his letter at first. It was only after he went to bed that night that his mother, who stays home with the kids while her husband, Bob Dhyani, sells appliances to developments, saw what Justin had written.

Now that I can really have a normal life, it is time to help the people that are still being affected. The victims' and their families'. My family is donating five dollars for every activity we have missed in the past weeks, and the total has come out to be $235. Even though that will never heal their emotional harm, it will help them pay for medical bills and to start a new life. It gives me a good feeling when I donate money and I hope many others also donate money as well.

His letter brought tears to his mother's eyes, but it brought back the fear they endured in October, too. Remembering that sent chills up her spine.

Justin's letter arrived at the Victims' Rights Foundation alongside letters from other people who felt grateful to be safe but haunted by what they had witnessed. A widow was so moved she mailed a $3.50 money order. A 15-year-old in Sterling, Va., sent $50 of her birthday present money. A woman in New York City gave $25 and wrote "God Bless America" on the memo line of her check.

Money has come from the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland but also from across the nation after Wims appeared on The O'Reilly Factor. There was $5 from someone in Little Rock, $7 from someone in Los Angeles, $10 from Corpus Christi, $14 from Tucson, $20 from Memphis, $25 from Fort Collins, Colo.

Some donors have written notes like Justin's. A student in Coral Springs, Fla., sent a donation because his grandparents live near the Home Depot where one victim was shot. A retired law enforcement officer explained his reason for giving: "I believe that as Americans we can say we were all victims."

Individuals have contributed, and so have groups: A field hockey team of high school seniors in Montgomery County raised $228; Oakwood Corporate Housing collected $685; the Middletown United Methodist Church gave $829. A Washington law firm donated $2,250; a Baltimore telethon brought in $10,000; and the AmeriDream Charity, Inc., which helps people afford down payments on houses, gave $70,000, the largest donation.

Families of 14 victims each received a check for $18,571.43 around Thanksgiving, and the foundation will continue to collect until the end of the year and distribute another round of checks.

Justin understands the emotion that is behind many of the donations; he understands why there are 15 separate funds to assist the victims and their families and to support charities important to those who were killed.

He was embarrassed at first when his mom read his letter, then the kids at his school, Robert Frost Middle, heard his story, then his fifth-grade counselor pulled him out of his newspaper class because she was so surprised this letter came from him.

But he's not embarrassed anymore. After feeling so helpless in October, he feels as if he has helped somebody now, and that feels good.

Donations may be sent to the Victims' Rights Foundation, 814 W. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg, MD 20878 . Telephone: 301-212-4141.

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