A couple days ago, in preparation for today's 13th anniversary of Sept. 11, Harry Ong Jr., neatly dressed in a shirt and tie, brought two dozen red and white roses to a remembrance plaque at a gleaming recreation center in Chinatown named after his sister, Betty Ann Ong.
Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, spent her last moments relaying information about the terrorists aboard the hijacked plane before it crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower in lower Manhattan, N.Y., that day, killing all 92 people aboard.
Every year since the crash, the Ong family has taken retreats to try to cope with the memories that they can't go a day without thinking about but are most intense at this time of year.
Before this year's getaway, as he has during the past two years since the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center at Washington and Mason streets reopened with his sister's name, Harry Ong Jr., 65, brought flowers to his sister's plaque.
“You don't ever get over it,” he said on Tuesday. “And as each year passes, it's as painful as the day of the occurrence. But you try to do positive things, like the recreation center. It's a way to ease our grief, to see that kids and adults are smiling.”
Within a few years of Sept. 11, 2001, community advocates successfully campaigned for a recreation room at the Woh Hei Yuen Playground to be named after Betty Ong. Her family thought that would be the extent of her imprint in the neighborhood where she was born and helped her parents run a beef jerky store until they retired and she became a flight attendant in 1987.
On Mother's Day 2011, Ong's mother, Yee Gum Oy Ong, was invited to receive a recognition from Mayor Ed Lee in his City Hall chambers, and it was then that Harry Ong mentioned it would be nice to have a larger public structure named in his sister's honor. Harry Ong didn't think much of it at the time.
Then on the 10th anniversary of the event, while the Ong family was on their annual retreat at Lake Tahoe, Betty Ong's oldest sister, Gloria, was notified in a text message from Norman Fong, now executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, that the recreation center could possibly be named after Betty.
They started a petition and got 3,700 signatures in just a few days. The renaming became a reality.
“We were shocked and honored that something that was so public would be named for Betty to continue her legacy,” Harry Ong Jr. said.
Betty Ong herself spent much of her childhood playing at the old recreation center, located four blocks away from the family's humble two-bedroom flat at Broadway and Powell Street. Moments there with Betty are some of her sister Gloria's fondest, and still bring tears to her eyes.
“Her and I would always play swings in the playground,” Gloria Ong reminisced. “After the swings, we would look in the sand because coins fell into the sand from other people that used the swings and we would always find a nickel or penny.”
Since bond money covered only the $21 million renovation for the recreation center, Harry Ong Jr. and the Betty Ann Ong Foundation have raised more than $100,000 to buy exercising equipment, throw three holiday parties per year for youth and expand programming — free to those of low income.
When the center first opened, the Recreation and Park Department offered about seven recreation programs. This fiscal year, 11 more programs were added. And while the department's programming budget has grown from $4.2 million last year to $4.6 million this year, so has the need. Eighty percent of the children at the center receive scholarship funds, Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg said.
“This is an area where we don't have enough open space and we don't have enough recreational amenities,” Ginsburg said. “Twenty-first century government can't do it alone; we need partners and feel very incredibly grateful to have the foundation with us.”
The foundation plans to throw its biggest fundraiser yet next September. For Harry Ong Jr., seeing the recreation center bring smiles helps him cope with the painful anniversary.
“As long as I live,” he said, holding the roses. “I plan to bring them here.”