- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The Welch sisters of Alexandria transformed the fear and grief of September 11 into an act of charity and volunteerism that inspired the nation in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Ashley, Aubrey, Alana and Alyssa Welch started a local car-wash drive that grew by word-of-mouth and newspaper and broadcast reports into a nationwide effort to raise thousands of dollars for the families of victims in the September 11 attacks.

The girls, now ages 11 to 17, had narrowly avoided a personal tragedy that Tuesday: Their father, Air Force Lt. Col. Tracy Welch, had been scheduled to attend a morning meeting in the southwest side of the Pentagon, where terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 at 10:20 a.m., killing 125 persons in the military headquarters.

"I found out the Pentagon was hit when someone from the journalism room came to our classroom and told us," said Alana, 15, a sophomore at Annandale High School.

Fortunately for the Welches, the lieutenant colonel's meeting had been scheduled for 10:30 a.m., and he had not yet arrived when the plane hit. "I was just leaving my office in Crystal City. Had it been just a half-hour earlier, I wouldn't be here," said Col. Welch, now retired from military service.

"I didn't reach my wife to let her know I was all right until after 11 a.m.," he said.

His wife, Cherrie, was busy tending to preschool children and talking to parents at Annandale Methodist Church, where she works as a preschool teacher. She called Annandale High School to inform the three oldest girls that their father would be coming home that evening.

"After I called my mom and Tracy's mom, I figured the news would trickle to the rest of the family and immediately called the school," said Mrs. Welch, 41.

However, "the school didn't even give us the message," said Ashley, 17, a senior at Annandale High.

Alyssa, 11, who was attending Parklawn Elementary School in Annandale, said she found out about the attack from her friend Shahana. "She is Muslim, and it was tough for her that day and she stayed out of school for a week," the youngest Welch girl said. "I felt so angry about people messing with her."

The dread and horror of the terrorist attacks turned to grief and guilt as the girls tried to comprehend what had happened while sharing in the joy and relief over their father's survival, Mrs. Welch said.

"I did feel guilty about feeling happy because there were so many who weren't lucky like we were," said Aubrey, 16, an Annandale High junior.

The girls wanted to find a way to help ease the sorrow and suffering so many others were experiencing. Mrs. Welch took them to donate blood at the American Red Cross the next day, but they were turned away.

"The Red Cross said the girls were too young you had to be 17 and the other places were filled with people trying to help," Mrs. Welch said.

Grief and guilt turned into depression and anger. "They were only trying to help," Mrs. Welch said. "What were kids supposed to do?"

The answer came that evening in a suggestion from family friend Jack Cutty, who called the Welches to find out how the girls were dealing with the tragedy. He said they should start a car wash to raise money for victims' families.

And with that advice, the seed for "Wash America: Help Wash Away the Hurt" was planted.

The first Saturday after September 11, the Welch sisters began their campaign with four car washes. Alyssa said she thought the campaign would net "at the most $500."

But with volunteers from Alana's chorus group, Aubrey's cheerleading squad, Ashley's swim team, the Girl Scouts and the church youth group, the two days of car washes made $10,000.

With their parents spurring them on, the girls sacrificed many of their regular activities cheerleading, swimming, cross country running and piano lessons to devote themselves to Wash America each weekend. "We were on the phone, on the Internet, putting up fliers and posters and making announcements at school everyday," Aubrey said.

After Alana contacted local newspapers and TV stations, the D.C. office of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide donated its services to publicizing the girls' cause.

"Our general manager, Peter Segall, asked us if anyone would volunteer, and I think the entire office agreed to help, as did many other Edleman offices," said Virginia White, senior account supervisor for Edelman.

"They set up a Web site (www.washamerica.org) and kids all over the nation began putting on these car washes," Col. Welch said.

The girls were featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," WTOP Radio and NBC "Nightly News," and were part of a worldwide satellite tour to urge children across the world to get up and get involved. U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, drafted a resolution making three weekends in September 'Wash America' weekends.

"We got calls from kids in Florida, California," Mrs. Welch said.

"And don't forget about the little boy in the Ukraine," Alana said.

"And the one in Puerto Rico," said Ashley.

The effort eventually earned $84,000 for the Red Cross.

"It was probably more than that because there were hundreds of people who put on washes after the deadline and didn't register with our Web site but sent in money," Col. Welch said.

"We could only count the ones who registered," said Mrs. Welch.

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