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September 12, 2009

Hillary Clinton, Gary Sinise, Gavin DeGraw and Others Commemorate Service on 9/11

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Last night at the Beacon Theatre in New York, there was a tribute to commemorate the designation of September 11 as an annually observed National Day of Service and Remembrance, as proclaimed by President Barack Obama.  Co-hosted by MyGoodDeed and Service Nation, the evening was a mix of speeches and entertainment. There were musical numbers by singer Anjulie, The Harlem Boys and Girls Club Alumni Choir, John Ondrasik, a rousing number by The Roots and a performance by Gavin DeGraw.  In the audience were 9/11 families, members of service organizations, uniformed firefighters and soldiers.


The keynote address was given by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton:

9/11 will always be a day that represents humanity at its worst and humanity at its best. A day when many of you experienced, senseless violence and tragic, unspeakable loss, but when you also witnessed the heroism, generosity and compassion of our fellow citizens.

In response to adversity, we will rise to the call of service because we discover that we gain more than we give, and because serving is one way to express what it means to be an American.

Secretary Clinton was introduced by Nicole Tsang, the Whole School Whole Child Product Manager of City Year, New York. City Year is an organization that "unites young people of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service, giving them the skills and opportunities to change the world." It was also one of the many community groups that had representatives in the audience.

Though the words of the speakers may have been different, the sentiments were the same:  by helping the less fortunate, Americans will not only feel better as individuals, they will also make America stronger.  Jay Winuk, who lost his brother on 9/11, and his friend David Paine were the founders of MyGoodDeed and the guiding forces behind the idea that the anniversary of 9/11 should be turned into a day of service.

Other politicians who spoke at the event were New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, Congresswomen Doris Matsui, and New York Governor David A. Patterson. 

But as it is at most of these events, the most compelling words came from the family members of some of those lost.

There was Cindy McGinty of Foxboro, Massachusetts who lost her husband Mike and told how her local landscaper, Chris Mitchell took care of her landscaping and yard work, free of charge for eight years.  

She drew a chuckle from the audience when she added, "Fortunately for Chris we moved to Connecticut last December."  Chris Mitchell himself, who was in the audience, drew a standing ovation when Mrs. McGinty introduced him.

His example, she said caused her to get involved in the Massachusetts Military Heroes fund that helps families who've lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Would I have been so involved in helping others if I hadn't lost Mike? Probably not. Would I have been so involved if not for Chris Mitchell showing me the value of helping others in need? Probably not. Is it possible, as horrible as it was, that there are blessings that came from 9/11? Absolutely.

Retired FDNY Deputy Chief Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son was visibly moved by the idea of serving others on 9/11:

For somebody to turn around and to do a good deed in their memory, it's especially warm to the families, to all of us that on that evil, horrible day, that something good can come out of it.

An older lady in red, sitting in the audience was brought to audible sobs when Mr. Riches gave this advice to those trying to comfort family members:

As someone who lost a loved one, a bit of advice to people: you know there will never be closure for us, the hurt is always there. Christmas dinners, he's not there, my son's wedding he wasn't there...don't tell them they're in a better place. This is a better place, they should be here. You're better off just talking to the families, and tell us stories about 'em.

Actor Gary Sinise, a member of the My Good Deed national advisory board and someone who's made many trips to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain and thank the troops, explained why he does it:

For me personally, that terrible tragedy opened my eyes to how vulnerable we can be. And also to how much our country needs all of us to give back something so we might remain strong. From that point on, I was thrust into a level of service and volunteerism I had never known or thought about. That service was a way to heal the terrible pain I felt at what had happened to this nation I love, and to so many of my countrymen and women.

Rachel Jean-Pierre lost her mother Maxima, an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald on 9/11. She attended last night's event with her one year old daughter Madeline. She loves the idea of 9/11 as a day of service.

I'm so for it. It's such a huge impact that it has done on us, that I just feel like it's come to a point where we should remember it not just because of what happened, but because of all the people that helped out.

Another attendee, Denise Gaumer Hutchison said she and her family are involved with programs such as Big Brothers and Big Sister in her home state of Wisconsin.

I work with my children to help them understand how important that whole experience was, and what the value is to our country that we have to stay strong. And that we have to believe in each other, and we have to make a difference with people who can't do the things that we can do.

Heidi Johnson is the Creative Strategist for Service Nation and the founding Creative Director for City Year. She's also a native New Yorker who currently lives in Boston.  "I come for my job but I also come for my heart," she said.

When asked what it was like to help put together an event like last nights' she said:

Always with coalition events, which this really was, people come from very diverse ways of looking at service, and people come to service in different ways.  I am the product of a diverse family, my Mom is white and Jewish, my Dad is black and Christian, so coming to common ground around a vision is something that's been in my history. 

I think the most challenging and interesting thing is, how do you represent the voices but also create a whole.

As an example of the diversity of last night's program, The Harlem Boys and Girls Choir sang, Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," Gavin DeGraw performed his haunting ballad, "Belief" and John Ondrasik sang "Superman (It's Not Easy)."

Finally, Alice Hoagland, Mark Bingham's mother spoke about how when there is a need, no one cares if the person serving that need is black, white, Jewish, Muslim, or in the case of her late son, gay.  Bingham was on Flight 93 which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

As those guys were charging down that long aisle toward the cockpit yelling, "In the cockpit, in the cockpit...if we don't do it, we'll die." As they were yelling that, they were scaring the guys who had control of the plane...and nobody was asking who was straight and who was gay.

Or for that matter if the help is coming from a young, black woman from Brooklyn, Tiffany Tucker who at the age 19 created the young people's empowerment organization, Redemption. Now 26 years old, Tiffany spoke last night about how 80% of the 3000 students who've been touched by her program graduate high school and go on to college.

That's the kind of strength, all the speakers and entertainers last night seemed to be talking about.

Related Links:

The Shape of Memory:  September 11, 2001 by Maria Niles

Remembering 9/11 by Cocoa Fly


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