BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — A retired firefighter whose 34-year-old brother was one of 343 New York City firefighters who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center of Sept. 11, 2001, has been tooling around the country on his Harley Davidson since his retirement in 2005.
“I responded to the twin towers,” said Rob Carlo, 56. “I lost my younger brother, Michael, there.”
When he’s not visiting iconic places that make the United States so incredible, he roosts in Long Beach, N.Y., where he pedals his beach cruiser on the town’s two-mile-long boardwalk.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Carlo said, he was introduced to the Fire Department of New York’s Counseling Service Unit.
“As a lot of people were,” he said, during a visit to the Brattleboro Retreat on Wednesday. “I’ve been going to various forms of counseling with the unit since then and I am still in active counseling.”
But Carlo, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, realized he needed more.
“I reached out to the counseling unit and asked about retreats,” he said. It was through the NYFD’s counseling unit that he learned about the Uniformed Services Program at the Brattleboro Retreat. “I wanted some structure and some tools to help me beyond that one-hour session a week.”
In the winter of 2017, Carlo attended a two-week session of the USP and was so impressed by the services that he has returned each year since for the USP’s annual Ride For Heroes fundraiser, a motorcycle cruise around southern Vermont every August. At this year’s event, riders raised more than $18,000 for the program that provides, according to its website, “specialized training and support for men and women in uniform (active or retired) who are struggling with serious duty-related problems including PTSD, depression, and addiction.”
But Carlo wanted to do more to help raise money for the USP.
“Nine days later (after the 2019 ride) I thought about doing my own ride,” he said.
But not on his Harley this time, opting instead for his single-speed beach cruiser.
Coming up on his 56th birthday, Carlo remembered something he learned during his time at the Retreat — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which gives participants tools “to live a life that’s aligned with your values and not controlled by painful thoughts, feelings, and memories of difficult experiences.”
“One of the things they stress in the program is a commitment to an action that leads toward a positive value in your life,” said Carlo. “With my birthday coming up, I decided to take a positive action instead of being a year older and closer to the end, dwelling on the doom and gloom.”
Trying to think up an idea to do something positive for his birthday, he busted out his beach cruiser and started pedaling along the boardwalk, deep in thought. That’s when he had his light bulb moment for riding 24 hours straight.
“I mentioned it to a buddy and he said why not make it a fundraiser,” said Carlo, who couldn’t think of anything better to raise money for than the Retreat’s USP.
With a little help from the folks at the Retreat, he set up a Facebook fundraiser, bringing in nearly $2,000 in the first 24 hours. On Aug. 27, he began riding his bike at 6 p.m., pedaling through the night. Thirty-nine laps and more than 120 miles later, he raised nearly $20,000 for the USP.
Carlo decided to start the ride at 6 p.m. because he thought he would need all his energy for the “loneliest and hardest” part of the ride, after midnight and into the dawn.
“I thought it was going to be a very long night of solitude on the boardwalk,” he said, but he was wrong. “I had more people riding with me at 3 a.m. on a Monday night than I did at 9 a.m. In fact, I was never alone for the 24 hours.”
People showed up to ride with him and cheer him on, bringing him coffee and food.
“I think I gained weight,” he said with a laugh.
On Wednesday, Carlo met with members of the Brattleboro Area Development Professionals Meeting at the Retreat to talk about his success at raising money for the Retreat.
He told them he didn’t really know what he was getting into when he decided to raise money for the USP, but he learned quite a bit as a result.
“Donations poured in from around the country,” said Carlo, largely because he was tied into a community of motorcycle riders that shares experiences and is well-known for its largess when it comes to donating for good causes.
“I was doing it in a town that embraces good causes and being in the motorcycle community I had the long reach of 1,500 friends across the country,” said Carlo. “And just having a cause that helps veterans with PTSD was another element of this that all came together to make a perfect storm in a good way.”
Carlo also posted updates and live videos on Facebook during his 24 hours on the boardwalk, posts that were shared exponentially. He also posted as many thank yous as possible to all the individual donors.
“I was watching the numbers on the day of the event,” said Konstantin von Kruisenstiern, the Retreat’s vice president of strategy and development. “I thought there was some kind of mistake.”
Carlo’s biggest tips to the development professionals gathered at the Retreat were to make any fundraising effort personal, maybe involving some sort of physical challenge, and by appealing to folks directly or indirectly affected by each of the organizations.
“The more you engage people along the way, the bigger it grows,” he said.
Carlo said he hopes to do it again next year, and maybe with a little bit more planning than he did for this effort. He also hopes his fundraising effort can help raise awareness among veterans and emergency responders about the Retreat’s Uniformed Services Program.
“You are going to experience a lot of trauma over your career,” he said. “You clearly can’t control those thoughts, but it’s what you do with those thoughts that count. What you learn at USP really helps you process those thoughts and appreciate them for what they are.”