9/11 Service Day promotes unity

September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance prepare food packages for needy at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum yesterday. For the volunteers it is a way of honoring the victims of 9/11. Photo By Lisa John Rogers.

In the wake of two major hurricanes and ongoing forest fires stretching from Los Angeles to Montana and parts of Canada, survivors of a different sort of terror have a message: Don’t lose hope. On the 16th anniversary of 9/11 today, volunteers gathered in the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for the September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance — a project that promotes unity after tragedy.

Nearly 3,000 volunteers were put into groups of 10, where they assisted in the speedy packaging of meals that can be made just by adding water. The goal was that 80,000 of the 550,000 meals would be sent to help places affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The event, also called 9/11 Day, was put on by MyGoodDeed, which was started by two friends, David Paine and Jay Winuk. Paine lost friends to the 9/11 terrorist attack and Winuk lost his brother, a volunteer firefighter who ran into the south tower.

The friends came together because they wanted to change this into a day of service instead of just sadness. Aside from six moments of silence throughout the day to remember the times of the attacks, the atmosphere was lively, with upbeat music and performances by cast members of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Come From Away.”

“I think the biggest lesson for me is that tragedy is awful, and there is suffering and there is loss, but it does so often bring out the absolute best in people,” said Jennifer Burke, the National Program Director for 9/11 Day. “You know, we’ve seen that through Harvey and through Irma, such incredible acts of kindness and selflessness.”

According to Burke, who has been working with the organization for 12 years, last year they decided to do something bigger by partnering with U.S. Hunger and New York Cares. These companies help train volunteers and efficiently deal with packaging and distribution.

“Those initial service events, they were small,” she said. “In the early days our mission was more about spreading the message about the need to rekindle the spirit of unity, and to get others on board with that. It was a different time. It’s an incredible thing to see, 12 years later, to see people recognizing today in this way. We hope it will continue forever.”

Many of the volunteers have unforgettable memories of 9/11 that have shaped their desire to give back.

Alain LaFontant, a volunteer, said he remembers when the towers crashed. He had just walked into his midtown office and some coworkers told him what happened. He immediately called his fiance. He spent the rest of the day wandering around the city with his fiance and his friend trying to get home.

“People, with all their differences, and native New Yorkers — no matter how rude or short we can be with each other —but at that time people were very willing to lend a helping hand,” said LaFontant. “I remember finally when we got home, people on the train giving up their seats. Just being a better human being and at the end of the day, that we’re all in this together.”

Another volunteer, Christine Cohen, was working in sales on 41st Street and Broadway when the towers were struck. She remembered how the desk phones started ringing off the hook and her frantic cousin on the line telling her that her uncle worked near the towers.  She recalled her coworkers turning on AM radio just as her sister came into the office and said, “you gotta leave.” Cohen and her sister walked down to her Murray Hill apartment to meet their mother. She said the people walking past them, walking northbound from the Financial District, were covered in soot.

“The street lights were out,” she said. “The traffic was so congested, but no one blew their horn. Nobody was talking. It was shellshock on everyone’s faces. Paper flying everywhere, dust particles.”

Cohen said she learned a lot about life after that day, and had a message of assurance to those who have recently experienced trauma.

“Come together, stay calm, and have some hope,” she said. “Then when all is said and done, pay it forward.”