Through wars, economic hardship, and even pandemics, Americans consistently resist the urge to turn inward, and instead reach up and out to do whatever it takes to help those in greatest need. Sept. 11, 2001 was one of those moments.
On that day, thousands of innocent souls were lost during attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Innumerable other lives were forever changed after loved ones were senselessly torn away.
However, the heroism of first responders and everyday citizens inspired countless individuals from all walks of life to refocus their efforts on serving others.
Some took the ultimate risk by serving as members of our armed forces. Many donated their time and resources to local organizations. Others chose to meet their community’s needs by serving in AmeriCorps.
Through unity and service, every one of these Americans upheld the virtues of honor, sacrifice, and selflessness—principles that have always been the greatest source of our nation’s strength.
Brendan Butler is an amazing example. He was nearly 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero as he watched our shared tragedy unfold on the TV screen. Brendan subsequently turned his despair into action by serving as an AmeriCorps member with the Central Maryland Red Cross.
Armed with the knowledge that he would be trained immediately and sent to work near Ground Zero, Brendan was dispatched as part of the AmeriCorps VISTA program in Edison, N.J.: a suburb from which many commuted to their jobs at the World Trade Center. More specifically, Brendan served as an outreach specialist and conducted home visits to support victims’ families. Brendan’s time near Ground Zero and his work with AmeriCorps inspired him to pursue a lifetime of service.
There’s also Victoria Sharp, who on 9/11, was serving on her second day as an AmeriCorps member with the Atlanta Red Cross National Preparedness and Response Corps. Her time working alongside first responders and providing support for grieving loved ones in New York and New Jersey compelled the would-be artist to follow a career in disaster preparedness. Victoria went on to pursue a role at the Centers for Disease Control in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.
As Victoria remembers it, “joining AmeriCorps in 2001 was indeed a life-altering experience. It’s a (time) of my life for which I am most proud and will forever impact me wherever I go.”
As we approach another solemn anniversary of 9/11, we should remember the unity, courage and resolve of those days—exemplified by Victoria, Brendan and so many others. Twenty-one years later, Americans are continuing to serve with kindness in ways that unite neighbors in honoring those we lost.
This year, we invite you to join them and seek opportunities to serve together. 9/11 Day of Service & Remembrance projects range from food drives and home repairs to neighborhood cleanups and disaster preparation activities. In many areas, volunteers will choose to honor members of the U.S. military and first responders by collecting donations, assembling care packages and writing thank you letters.
Sadly, over the last two decades since 9/11, another thing has become painfully clear—Americans are increasingly confronting toxic polarization and division. In fact, a recent NBC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans agree the nation “has become so polarized that it can no longer solve the major issues facing the country — and that those differences will only continue to grow.”
We cannot allow polarization to become the defining characteristic of our era. Amid our challenges, we continue to believe that social cohesion is critical to a healthy, resilient democracy — exactly what we worked to nurture and protect in the face of hate 21 years ago. Service fosters a sense of common purpose and helps build strong and lasting interpersonal connections, including with those who may think differently from us.
More specifically, we know that service — a pathway to civic bridgebuilding — helps strengthen relationships between communities, cultivates mutual respect, reduces polarization, and creates a culture of civic responsibility.
We know all of this because we’ve seen it. We’ve seen how service creates opportunities for people to develop bonds of trust through their shared stories. We’ve seen how it strengthens communities and changes students’ lives. And we’ve read numerous reports citing the physical and mental health benefits of service and volunteerism.
When we roll up our sleeves together to do the hard work of rebuilding and repairing, we see each other’s humanity. That’s how, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, we disrupt division, transform communities and strengthen our nation.
Visit americorps.gov/911Day to learn how to get involved in your community on this 9/11 Day and all year long.