The two men who helped turn Sept. 11 into biggest day of charitable service

Across the country, more than 40 million Americans are expected to participate in Thursday's federally established National Day of Service and Remembrance.

Robert Sabo/The Daily News/AP
An American flag marks the name of a loved one at the North Pool Memorial site in front of 1 World Trade Center during memorial observances on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.

Tolling bells, moments of silence, and readings of the names of those who perished 13 years ago are taking place in thousands of memorial services across the nation on Thursday, as Americans take time to remember that September morning that indelibly changed so many lives.

But along with country’s remembrances and prayers, millions of people from New York to Los Angeles are taking the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to volunteer their time or donate their money for charitable events and public-spirited causes.

Since the day’s 10-year anniversary three years ago, Sept. 11 quietly has been transformed into the nation’s most active day for charitable engagement, according to an independent research firm. Across the country, more than 40 million Americans are expected to participate in Thursday’s federally established National Day of Service and Remembrance, organized every year by the 9/11 nonprofit MyGoodDeed

The idea for a day of charitable service to commemorate Sept. 11 began informally in 2002, when two friends began organizing projects and promoting them on a website. By 2003, they formed MyGoodDeed to expand these efforts nationally.

“The concern I had was: What’s going to happen 20 years from now, when people begin to forget?” says David Paine, president and co-founder of MyGoodDeed. “If we really wanted to keep our promise as a country, that we would never forget the victims of 9/11, then we have to create some positive ways for people to always remember.” 

On Thursday, Mr. Paine will be serving at Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., a small grade school serving 300 mostly low-income students. Paine will join some 250 volunteers Thursday morning and help build the school a new playground. The project was organized by KaBOOM!, a D.C.-based nonprofit that has helped build 2,000 new playgrounds in schools across the country.

Thousands of similar volunteer service projects also will take place across the country Thursday as organizations including Habitat for Humanity, HandsOn Network, and The American Red Cross mark the National Day of Service and Remembrance with special events and projects.

“The idea of our 9/11 Day is essentially to rekindle that spirit of togetherness and compassion, at least one day out of the year, and remind everyone, all of us, how important it is to care about one another and to realize that we have a heck of lot more in common than we understand or believe,” Paine says. 

Like many Americans, after the attacks, the born-and-bred New Yorker, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, was stunned as the day’s events unfolded on TV. Paine, who owned a marketing company, was frantic, too, as he watched the Twin Towers collapse, since his brother Andrew worked at the World Trade Center site. Andrew Paine was able to escape, however.

But Paine’s friend and fellow MyGoodDeed co-founder, Jay Winuk, lost his younger brother Glenn in the attacks. Glenn Winuk was a partner at the downtown Manhattan law firm Holland & Knight, but he was also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, specially trained in rescue operations.

After helping to evacuate his law office, Glenn Winuk raced into the South Tower to participate in ongoing rescue efforts, and perished in the line of duty when the building collapsed. His partial remains were discovered months later with his first response medical kit by his side. 

“Helping others in need is a very appropriate and meaningful way to honor the victims of 9/11,” said Mr. Winuk, the executive vice president of MyGoodDeed, in a statement. “As were so many of the victims, Glenn was a very giving and community-minded person. I’m grateful that millions of people acknowledge the lives they led by marking the day with charitable action.”

In 2002, Paine and Winuk began urging their friends to join them in charitable service as a way to commemorate 9/11, launching a website. For Winuk, it was a way to honor and remember his lost brother, as well as a way to heal.

They promoted their idea for years. In 2009, they were able to help convince Congress to declare 9/11 as a national day of service as part of the revisions to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

“Both of us were inspired by the way the country came together after 9/11,” Paine says. “That was the big motivator for me. I had never seen it before – everybody working together as neighbors. We stopped worrying about our differences for quite a while, people weren't Republicans or Democrats, they were just human beings.... It was such a remarkable sense of unity, and it was almost as if we got a glimpse of what the world would be like if we just worked a little more closely together as people.” 

But it wasn’t until the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 that the idea took hold throughout the country. Through advertising, fund raising, and cultivating partnerships with faith organizations, other nonprofits, and employers, MyGoodDeed burst onto the national scene in 2011 when it helped organize 33 million volunteers and donors that year, which reached 47 million in 2013, according to independent research conducted by Los Angeles-based Horizon Consumer Science. 

Since the federal establishment of the National Day of Service, Horizon’s research, too, has tracked an increase in the number of American adults observing 9/11 “in a special way,” including prayer, private remembrances, as well as charitable activity. While 46 percent reported observing 9/11 in a special way in 2012, the number rose to 53 percent in 2013.

“You would have thought it would go in the opposite direction as time passes,” says Paine. “But the day of engagement appears to be bringing more people in.”

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