Community Service Projects to Remember Victims of 9-11

May 1, 2002       Matthew Sinclair      

The collective psyche of the United States was altered on September 11, 2001. By the same date this year there will also be thousands of physical changes in memory of those lost that fateful day.

It’s possible that hundreds — even thousands — of projects in the name of the victims of the hijackings and attacks will be completed before the calendar year ends.

The Unity in the Spirit of America (USA) Act, cosponsored by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), is intended to encourage participation in what Stabenow compared to the victory gardens that were planted in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. At a press conference announcing the plan, she said victory gardens were the source of about 40 percent of the nation’s produce at one point. “The victory gardens gave all the people of the United States a tangible way to be involved, to support the war, and to show their unity and their resolve at that important time,” she said. “So that’s what we want to see happening with the USA Act and our projects.”

Stabenow said the USA Act is about harnessing American passion, goodwill and compassion and the desire to help. “We want to dedicate at least one project,” she said, “for every one of the victims, and make sure there is a living memorial in the name of all those who lost their lives so tragically on September 11.”

The actions taken by the volunteers are intended to serve as living memorials, which would enable the sense of healing across the country and also improve local communities. A Michigan resident, Bob Van Oosterhout, emailed the idea that became the USA Act to Stabenow, according to the senator’s office. “The seeds of hope, courage and unity that were sewn throughout our nation on (September 11) have not disappeared,” Van Oosterhout said at the press conference. “Those seeds have germinated and developed strong, deep roots and the USA Act gathered support and was passed into law this winter. It is fitting that the first sprouts appear as the cherry blossoms are coming.”

President Bush has gone on the road touting volunteerism and the USA Freedom Corps, but it is an organization founded on his father’s watch that is coordinating the “official” legislated volunteer response to the attacks on U.S. soil and the war on terrorism. The Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network (POL) will oversee the volunteer projects around the nation in tribute to all individual victims of the attacks tied to the USA Act.

POL will put together a searchable Web-based scrapbook of post-project reports of reflections from volunteers and photographs. The foundation will also issue certificates for each completed project and to the families of the honored victims.

Bob Goodwin, POL president and chief executive officer, predicted there will be thousands of service projects in every state. “As the public seeks to make sense of the horrific events of September,” Goodwin said, “rejuvenating community life, nurturing and fostering connections between people, transmitting needed skills and services to people in need, we’ll all help to insure that the victims will be long remembered even by those who may not have known them directly and personally.”

The act specifies that projects must be carried out by nonprofits including faith-based organizations, businesses, or political subdivisions of a state. POL would consider those projects that “advance the goals of unity and improving the quality of life in communities,” according to the act. Individuals can submit their own idea via 1-800-VOLUNTEER, (1-800-865-868337) or contact their local volunteer center or POL to develop a project. If families do not want to participate and have their loved ones remembered in projects, they can opt out.

Service projects need to be registered with POL to be considered part of the USA Act and need to be completed by November 30, 2002. “If every project was registered by September 11 (2002), that would be a good, likely and sufficient amount of time” to complete projects registered even by the one-year anniversary of the attacks, he said.

By late March, Disney had been announced as the first major corporate funder of the project, with $1 million in cash and another $1.5 million in in-kind contributions. “We think there’s at least a couple (other) corporate funders that will come on board as well,” said Goodwin. He added that local communities are likely to contribute as well, though the federal government will not. “We don’t have a full and expansive budget yet.”

According to information on the POL Web site, the bill calls for the foundation and the Volunteer Center National Network (VCNN) to identify and organize at least 5,000 volunteer projects across the country by 9/11/02 and each in tribute to one of the victims of the attacks. Yet, Goodwin expects far more than that figure to reach completion.

He explained that there could well be several projects in the hometown as well as other projects in other states in memory of the same person. For example, if a person was active in a local Little League as well as a church, a civic group and another volunteer organization, all four might work to commemorate their fallen comrade in different projects specific to their organization. “We could end up having scores of thousands of activities,” Goodwin said. “One person could end up motivating many groups to conduct a program in their (name).”

There will be a small family advisory council of approximately half a dozen family members of victims. Though the council won’t have any authority, per se, its purpose will be to make sure projects maintain appropriateness and taste. “Given the sensitivities of the disbursements of funds,” Goodwin said, “we simply wanted to be sure the families had the chance to provide their own ideas on the conduct of the service projects.”

The database of the victims is under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense, which is legislated to provide the information to POL for the USA Act. POL will set up a Web site devoted to the USA Act, and families will be encouraged to provide biographical data for the victim database. Goodwin said he expects the database to be coordinated with the American Red Cross in New York, where issues last fall over the database led to the resignation of Dr. Bernadine Healy as ARC president.

The USA Act was approved as an amendment to the fiscal 2002 Defense Appropriations Bill (H.R. 3338) and signed into law on January 10. Goodwin said other organizations that will help on this project include Communities in Schools, United Way, Habitat for Humanity, the Connect America partners, Salvation Army and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Volunteers through the Corporation for National and Community Service are also being invited to participate, according to Sandy Scott, spokesman for the agency.

A press release from POL included a statement from President Bush. “The Points of Light Foundation embodies America’s spirit of volunteerism and the goodwill of its citizens,” he stated. “Our nation will counter evil with good, defeat terrorism by routing out its perpetrators and comforting its victims, and continue to answer the calls of people in need.”