On 9/11, A Family Gives Back
TV reporter Jen Maxfield has seen more than enough tragedy to make her grateful for her Bergen County life. So each year she helps her kids reap the rewards of helping others.
Twenty-one years ago this month, when airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the three children of WNBC-TV’s Jen Maxfield and her husband Scott Ostfeld weren’t yet born. But now the kids pitch in each year on the anniversary of those tragic events to assist their needy neighbors. Maxfield is a longtime community volunteer and former board member for the Center for Food Action here in New Jersey who helped develop the organization’s annual September 11 Weekend Snack Pack initiative. The packs contain healthy, fresh, easy-toprepare snack foods for those Saturdays and Sundays when children aren’t reached by nutritious school lunch programs. And her whole family pitches in. Maxfield is a reporter and a substitute anchor for WNBC (Channel 4). She is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism who teaches video and on-air skills. And this year she’s out with a new book, More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories, in which she revisits people whose lives were touched by events she covered to see how they’re doing now. BERGEN was curious about how Maxfield does it all, so we turned the tables on her. This time we asked the questions.
What prompted you to start the Weekend Snack Pack initiative as part of the National Day of Service and Remembrance?
I started volunteering for the Center for Food Action while I was a student at Tenafly High School in the 1990s, when I used to stock shelves in the pantry. After having my own three children, I realized that there were very few hands-on volunteering opportunities for children. CFA was not only providing the chance for kids to volunteer to assemble Weekend Snack Packs, but the packs were going to help other children in our community. The CFA leadership and I developed the idea for the Weekend Snack Pack event on September 11 because it was a way for people of all ages to serve the community on a day that is painful every year. As a reporter I have covered many stories about people who are struggling. One woman I will never forget invited us into her apartment and opened her cabinets and told me and the photographer that she was going to be eating buttered pasta for Thanksgiving because she couldn’t afford anything else. CFA wound up giving her a full Thanksgiving dinner—and plenty of support beyond the holiday.
How did your family catch the volunteering bug?
My kids have always participated with their friends at the 9/11 event; they’ve been helping assemble snack packs since they were in preschool. Helping someone who is hungry is a relatable concept for a child, and I found that my children—Trevor, Vivian and Evelyn—got a lot of satisfaction from it. I remember one year when Evelyn was 4 years old and barely taller than the table, she was explaining to older kids how to put the pasta and granola bars into the bags.
Are there other ways your family remembers September 11?
My children weren’t born yet when 9/11 happened, so every year they have questions for me and my husband about what it was like. I was a reporter at my first on-air job in Binghamton, New York, at the time, so I watched it on television. I’m generally working every year on 9/11 and I will show my children the stories I report about the victims, and we talk about all of the people who were lost that day, and how everything changed.
How has revisiting the news stories in your book changed you?
In researching More After the Break, I was humbled that so many of the families remembered me and the stories I wrote initially—people remembered that I treated them with dignity and respect. Writing the book also highlighted that as hard as it is to knock on someone’s door and ask them to share their story, sometimes it’s even harder to leave them to make my deadline.
You’ve been present during times of incredible grief. What advice do you have for people trying to show support to others at such a time?
Being there for people is key, just showing up and telling them that you care. I learned a lot from meeting with Kristen Wilkens, the cousin of Darren Drake, the young man from New Milford who was killed in the Lower Manhattan terrorist attack in 2017. Kristen says that as heartbreaking as it was to lose her cousin, she likes it when people ask her about him, because talking about him is how she keeps him alive. My parents always taught me to “treat other people the way you want to be treated,” and that is the mindset I approach every interview with.
How did you pick these 10 stories?
The element all the stories share is the triumph of the human spirit. These families have experienced heartache and tragedy, and yet they have found a way to move forward. The pain doesn’t go away, but they’re now able to put their loss or trauma into context. Some of these news events have resulted in laws being changed or overturned, people rebuilding their lives after a natural disaster, and victims of crimes learning to find happiness again.
What’s a behind-the-scenes secret about local TV news that viewers don’t know?
Let’s set the record straight on a few things. We don’t have hair and makeup help when we are out reporting. I’m usually fixing my makeup in the visor mirror of the news van 15 minutes before the live shot. I write my scripts for the stories I report myself based on the research and interviews I’ve done with the photographer. Many of us TV news reporters are friends with “competitors” from other local stations because we’re out covering stories together. And no, the live trucks don’t have restrooms, and we are very thankful for everyone who invites us into their home or business for a bathroom break on assignment.
What do you like most—and least— about your work as a reporter?
I’m an extrovert and I really enjoy meeting new people and going to new places. Being able to report in my home state of New Jersey is a privilege. So the best part of the work is the relationships I’ve formed, both with other journalists and with the subjects of my news stories. There’s no question that the hardest part of my job—the part that takes me well outside my comfort zone—is knocking on someone’s door who has experienced a tragedy and asking them for an interview. More often than not, people welcome us into their lives and trust us. But I recognize that I am asking a lot, and that they are trusting me to share their stories with the broader community.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been on an assignment?
Going to cover Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi, in August 2005 for Eyewitness News. I was only 28 years old and had never been to Mississippi. The scope of the destruction there was beyond comprehension, and things we take for granted—water, power, access to food or gasoline—were all in shambles. I felt tremendous pressure to do the best job I could to bring the story home to viewers in New Jersey and New York, and I also worried about when I was going to be able to shower again or get a hot meal. It was never lost on me that my discomfort was temporary. I was going home to Bergen County. The people I was interviewing in Mississippi are still living with the fallout from that storm.
What advice do you have for working mothers trying to balance it all?
I think all working parents are trying to find that balance, and I am particularly blessed to have a supportive husband and our moms, both of whom live close by and are thrilled to spend time with their grandchildren. My family has been incredibly supportive when my job required strange hours, working on holidays and leaving to go to work on snow days. I think being a mom helps me as a reporter, and being a reporter helps me as a mom and wife.
The key quality I aspire to as a mom and a reporter is empathy. Whether I’m with my kids or out in the news van, I’m genuinely open to listening and learning from other people. I am accustomed to a certain amount of controlled chaos at work, so that mood feels very familiar to me when my kids are loud at home. And the multitasking that is required to raise three children is very helpful when I’m trying to put together a story on deadline for work.
It can be very jarring to come home to my three healthy children after a day at work covering a tragedy for someone else’s child. My kids get longer hugs than usual from me on those days, and thankfully they don’t always ask why. I am very grateful for the blessings in my life, and I don’t take a single day for granted.