Turning 9/11 Into a Day of Service and Remembrance

Kaboom with MyGoodDeed friends2
David Paine (second from right), co-founder of MyGoodDeed, with employees of the law firm Nossaman LLP— Puja Bhatia, Kate Belinski, Sherry Harper and Fred Dombo—on September 11, 2014. MyGoodDeed

Every year, millions of people across the country mark the anniversary of the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001 by volunteering, donating to charities or performing other good deeds. They remember the day of the deadliest terror attacks on American soil and pay tribute to the victims, and to those who rushed to help, by doing good.

"My feeling was that that amount of evil needed an equal amount of good," says David Paine, who co-founded the nonprofit organization MyGoodDeed and helped turn 9/11 into an official National Day of Service and Remembrance.

At the time of the attacks, Paine was leading his own public relations and marketing company. He had just finished packing his suitcase for a work trip to San Diego on that Tuesday morning in September of 2001 when his colleague called and told him to turn on the television. When he did, he saw flames and smoke pouring out of one of the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan.

Later that day, his suitcase and trip abandoned, Paine sat in tears among colleagues at the office, watching a screen that flashed images of the collapsed towers. At first, neither he nor his parents were able to reach his brother, who worked across the street from the World Trade Center. When they did make contact, they learned his brother was safe, but deeply shaken by the sight of people jumping out of the burning skyscrapers.

"I was just stunned and shocked. I felt compelled to try to do something," Paine told Newsweek just before making the trip from California to New York for this year's 9/11 Day, the 14th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. "I think a lot of other Americans and people around the world felt the same – wanting to help and not being able to."

Just a couple months after the attacks, in November of 2001, Paine started working on an idea that emerged from his lingering reaction to the tragedy, and the changes in behavior he noticed around him. He remembers a "remarkable spirit of unity and togetherness that surfaced in the aftermath of the attacks…. everyone all of a sudden became neighbors," he says.

In order not to lose these positive aspects and to foster tolerance and understanding, Paine wanted to turn subsequent 9/11s into days of service, charity and good deeds. He consulted with a friend, Jay Winuk, to "ask him if he felt making 9/11 a day of service made sense to him as a way to pay tribute." (Winuk also had a brother near the towers on the day of the attacks but his story ended differently from Paine's. Glenn Winuk, a lawyer as well as a volunteer firefighter and EMT, had raced into the South Tower to try to rescue people trapped inside and was killed in the building's collapse.)

Our Co-Founders
David Paine and Jay Winuk started the nonprofit MyGoodDeed, which encourages people to volunteer, give to charity and do other good deeds on September 11. MyGoodDeed

In the spring of 2002, Paine started the nonprofit that is now known as MyGoodDeed to help launch 9/11 Day. Soon afterward, when Winuk felt ready after a period of mourning his brother, he joined as Paine's cofounder. They started by reaching out to those at the helm of groups of 9/11 victims' family members, which didn't always agree, to discuss the idea and make sure they agreed it was an appropriate way to mark the event.

Paine says the support was unanimous, and they began lobbying Congress to make it an official day of service, a goal they achieved in 2009. The 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance became only the second federally observed day, along with Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. By 2011, roughly 30 million people were paying tribute through service, at events organized by MyGoodDeed and other organizations or at their own initiative, according to research conducted by Los Angeles-based Horizon Consumer Science. By 2013, that number had grown to 47 million.

"The new challenge for us," says Paine, "is how do we pass the torch to a new generation of Americans who are too young to have any [real] memories of 9/11?" This year, MyGoodDeed and its partners are focusing on the continuity of service and remembrance with the "Born on 9/11" campaign. Citing data from the National Center for Health Statistics, MyGoodDeed says that 13,238 babies were born in the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

"They were brought into this world hope and joy and happiness at a time when there was a great tragedy in our country," says Paine. Advertising firm Grey New York worked pro bono with the nonprofit to find some of these now-teenagers. A handful of them participated in this year's day of service video published on YouTube last month. The campaign "symbolizes so perfectly what we're trying to do with the day," Paine says, in terms of meeting tragedy with charity and hope and engaging a younger generation.

As in previous years, teachers can download lesson plans and materials from the 9/11 Day website that can help them educate students about 9/11 in an age-appropriate way and suggest ways to incorporate good deeds into their classroom activities.

Many major nonprofits, including the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity, provide service opportunities on 9/11 Day, while the 9/11 Day website and that of the Corporation for National and Community Service have databases that list volunteer opportunities on and around September 11. The hashtag #911Day can also help locate volunteer opportunities and the organizers of the day are asking people to use it to share their good deeds on social media.

"Any good deed counts. Do something that helps someone else," says Paine, adding that some of the most touching stories he hears are about small efforts by individuals, particularly young people. For example, Hillary O'Neill—who was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, on September 11, 2001 and is featured in "Born on 9/11"—told Paine recently that she decided to set up a lemonade stand to raise money for charity in observance of 9/11 Day.

"If we all do good deeds on 9/11 it'll add up," O'Neill says in the video. "Doing something good makes me feel good as well."