By: Dean P. Johnson
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and the United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Somerset County, PA, left many Americans, especially youth, feeling fearful and powerless. Nineteen years ago, Melissa Helmbrecht sought to do something about that.
Helmbrecht, founder and CEO of Hopeloft, an organization that houses a network of more than 30 members and organizations dedicated to solving serious social challenges, recently spoke about her experience planning the United Day of Service in 2002.
“A feeling I experienced and I know was shared by millions of people was a sense of powerlessness,” Helmbrecht said. “We didn’t understand what was happening, we didn’t understand why it was happening, we were scared and we felt powerless. What seemed important at the time was to give people an outlet to restore a sense of power.”
Helmbrecht said that she didn’t want to focus on the images of planes crashing, but on the ordinary people who decided to do heroic things like those who ran towards the burning buildings and not away, like those on Flight 93 who attempted to regain control of the airplane.
“That’s who we wanted to emulate,” she said. “We can transform 9-11 into a day of service. We can replace those images of terror to images of triumph and hope by having millions of people fan out across America and around the world in solidarity with each other doing volunteer work.”
She saw this as the easiest way to conceptualize this idea was to organize service projects in communities across the nation and around the world. “Projects that everybody could participate in and that would make a difference,” Helmbrecht said.
With little money and no real plan, she and a few others started making phone calls to national organizations, elected officials, even family members. “I called my grandmother here in Bridgton, and she called different churches and we went and talked about this idea of organizing these projects on 9-11.”
In May of 2002, Helmbrecht called Youth Service America, a group that organizes the annual National and Global Youth Service Day, and were invited to go to Washington DC and use their office space and told that Youth Service America would help organize Helmbrecht’s idea of starting a United Day of Service on 9/11.
An encounter in an elevator helped get things started.
“We met someone in the elevator who asked us why we were there,” Helmbrecht recollected. “We boldly told him that we were going to organize thousands of young people across the country and around the world on 9/11.”
The person in the elevator happened to be a representative of the Participate America Foundation, an organization that had been recently charged by Congress to create activities for National Civic Participation Week that would feature events throughout the U.S. from September 11 through September 17, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.
“He thought our project would be an amazing kickoff,” she said. “We hadn’t been in Washington for a day and we had this fortuitous meeting that gave us some momentum.”
With the help of Youth Service America, Helmbrecht and her team began to reach out to youth organizations worldwide.
“We asked them to commit their organization to the coalition to organize the United Day of Service and to organize local projects.”
The group ended up with projects listed in 150 countries with 650,000 registrants, and in order for an organization to register, they had to have at least 20 people committed per project.
“We created simple projects that anyone could do like food collection drives, car washes, and tree plantings,” Helmbrecht said. “The only requirement was that, on 9/11, when they got up in the morning, instead of sitting on their couches watching the images play out, they would go out and emulate those who had sacrificed their lives.”
In order to spread awareness of the project, Helmbrecht called on Hammad Zaidi to help. Founder and CEO of The Lonely Seal Company Group, which includes Lonely Seal Releasing, The Lonely Seal International Film, Screenplay and Music Festival, and the Lonely Seal Traveling Film Festival, Zaidi was asked to produce a public service announcement about the event.
“In April of 2002, I met Melissa Helmbrecht in Washington D.C. and discussed the PSA, but I did not get hired until July 30,” Zaidi remembered. “I thought I was going to get 30 to 42 days to complete the project, up until 9/11, but I was told it had to be written, directed, produced, and delivered by August 8, on 35 MM, with original music.”
The PSA was shot in Elmer, Salem County, on August 1, 2002, then edited in Nashville while the music was composed in Los Angeles, all at the same time.
“We were working 18 to 20 hour days for seven days straight to get it done on time,” Zaidi said
Along with a run-in with a local sheriff who ended up becoming instrumental in finding a shooting location, and a random guitar player pretending that the production was his shoot, the PSA was finished in time and ended up reaching millions of viewers.
“It was wild, it was fun, and it was poignant, all the things that a major event like that should’ve been,” Zaidi said.
The youth service projects culminated in a United Day of Service event held at the Lincoln Memorial on September 11, 2002. And it was ultimately one of the largest youth-led volunteer initiatives in history, drawing over three million volunteers from all 50 states and from 150 countries. 650,000 youth registered to organize and participate in service projects.
That day, the ceremony kicked off with Kelly Clarkson, fresh off of her American Idol victory, singing the National Anthem, and was emceed by actor Sean Astin.
Astin recently appeared on the Kelly Clarkson Show and spoke about the day.
“That was something we were participating in as a positive — making something positive out of a negative and horrifying experience,” Astin said. “That is one of the great things about human beings — we recover, we heal, we find some way to create art, create value, create life out of trauma and tragedy.”
Damian Johnson, then a 10th grade student at Camden Academy Charter High School in Camden, was one of the speakers at the event.
“The day was amazing,” Johnson said. “ I was proud to be part of a great cause. I feel like it made such a powerful impact on the people who attended.”
Rich Nichols, Executive Director of the United Advocacy Group, remembers the day as one filled with mixed emotions.
“The day was encompassed in the dualistic emotion of both painful remembrance and a hopeful future,” Nichols said. “The power and energy of youth vitality focused on a proactive response of volunteerism showed in contrast to a backdrop of a nation that was still recovering from the traumatic loss of terrorist attacks the year before.”
Nichols, who opened the ceremony with a prayer to bring healing, justice and unity for the country, said how amazing it was thinking about the thousands of people who engaged in meaningful acts of service that day.
“It was not lost on me that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had proclaimed his message of hope from those same steps,” he said. “It’s not lost on me today that our nation continues to cry out for hope and reconciliation in the midst of racial division and turmoil.”
Twenty years later, Nichols is still committed to world impact through service.
“I’m proud to head up an AmeriCorps program that continues to believe in the impact that the sacrificial service can have on building a stronger community and nation,” he said. “More than ever, we need to come together as Americans and global citizens to ignite a movement of service to reimagine and foster a caring world.”
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coming next year, Helmbrecht says that we are once again finding ourselves in a turning point in history.
“We are facing an unprecedented threat to our way of life, to our very notion to what it means to be a community,” she said. “Similar to 9/11 and its aftermath, the solution lies in you and I doing whatever we can to help our neighbors.”
Much like after 9/11, Helmbrecht believes that people are again feeling isolated and powerless, so, once again, there is a call to commit to a year of service.
“We’re going to organize service projects, invite people to be a part of them, and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that will be the kickoff of a large scale service campaign,” she said.
Helmbrecht said that there is now a need for people to do more than they normally do to serve their communities.
“We all do things in our communities, we all participate in nonprofit organizations, but we are at a time when what we normally do just isn’t enough,” she said. “There are all these hungry people in the community who have lost their jobs and they don’t have enough food on their table, they think somebody must be doing something. What I’ve learned over and over again is that sometimes you can’t wait for somebody else.”
Over the next year, Helmbrecht will again be working to build coalitions and call for volunteers worldwide for a second United Day of Service on September 11, 2021.
“If we want our community to thrive, we have to do it,” she said. “It takes one to start. It’s ordinary people that make the difference.”
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