Iowa Man in New York on 9/11 Reflects on “Life-Changing” Day

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Eighteen years ago, Ames native Toby O’Berry was working as an investment banker in New York City and thought he had his life planned out.

“I was a young whippersnapper with a lot of drive and ambition,” he said.

O’Berry was working for Morgan Stanley, which was located on the 56th floor of Tower 2 at the World Trade Center. On the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001, he was running late to work. His subway stopped early, and he got out to see a second plane hit his building.

“I was not really grasping the magnitude of the situation. And lots of people I think were just trying to process what they had witnessed and seen and figuring out how to call loved ones,” O’Berry said. 

O’Berry said the impact of that day changed the course of his life.

There’s just so many little actions that can save someone’s someone’s life. So I was just very fortunate, and now it’s my opportunity to pay it back,” he said. 

After 9/11, O’Berry realized he wanted to be closer to family and get more involved in his community. He left New York in 2002 to work at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines. He started volunteering with local organizations and went on to be the director of the Iowa Homeless Youth Center in 2012.

“Lots of people are affected different ways, I think with trauma. And it really made me refocus on what my priorities are in life,” O’Berry said. “I really came to the realization that I wanted to have more of an impact on my community.”

O’Berry said working for IHYC has been the most rewarding of careers. He said if he had not had experienced 9/11, he might still be working as an investment banker in New York.

“I’m happy to be here and I don’t know if I would have if I hadn’t gone through 9/11. It reminds me every year, because it is a big deal. Not that I was in it, but just that event,” O’Berry said. “And so it’s always there every year to just take a minute and think about it, reflect on it.”

He traded the custom suits for hoodies and has never looked back.

“The work is fulfilling, it’s really hard but the days go fast, the years go fast and that’s a sign that you’re happy,” O’Berry said. 

He said his experience in trauma helps him relate to the children the organization helps.

“The youth that we work with at our homeless youth centers have gone through so much trauma as well, so I can bond a little bit,” O’Berry said. “Everyone goes through trauma, different experiences, and I think there’s credibility that I’ve experienced some trauma as well.”

And although every anniversary of the terrorist attacks brings back painful memories, O’Berry is reminded of the silver lining that came out of it for him.

“I think my ‘never forget’ is it’s never too late. That I can make a difference and you can make a career change in your late 30s, I did that,” he said. 

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