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The Nation

On a Day of Bad Memories, They've Found a Good Way to Remember

Two friends, one of whom lost a brother on 9/11, are urging people to do a helpful deed.

September 08, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Jay Winuk's brother Glenn died on Sept. 11, 2001, trying to help others escape from the World Trade Center, so Winuk knows the fifth anniversary may rekindle feelings of terror and loss.

But he would rather it revived the widespread compassion that blossomed after the disaster, so he is asking people to do one simple thing that day: a good deed.

He and David Paine, a friend in Newport Beach, have started a website, mygooddeed.org, where people can register their plans or get ideas, and they have asked President Bush to declare Sept. 11 a day dedicated to community service.

Some of the early pledges include free Spanish lessons for New York City firefighters. Airline attendants plan to send school supplies to Iraqi children. And Colorado lawyers will harvest food from a community garden to donate to a charity kitchen.

"Most people don't know how to deal with this day," said Winuk, 48, who runs a communications firm in New York. "When they learn about this concept, a lightbulb goes off. It seems like an appropriate and honorable way to pay tribute to those who were lost and gave their own lives to help other people."

Winuk and Paine started their effort in 2003, under the banner of "One Day's Pay," which asked people to give a day to pay back their communities, or to "pay forward" a good deed. They changed the name this year to clarify that they were asking for action, not money.

The idea is spreading, with the help of radio and television ads read by actor Gary Sinise, sites at MySpace.com and America Online, and a video by Bon Jovi.

The founders hope for at least 3 million visitors to their website by next week, based on recent traffic. About 10% of the people who visit the site pledge to perform a good deed -- about 80,000 so far. But Winuk said reports showed that many visitors acted on the idea without documenting it online.

"They can register their pledge anonymously, and if they don't want to, that's OK too," he said. "Our goal is the result, and that is people lending a hand to those who need them."

Their research shows that about 70% of the people who register have never volunteered, but many keep on volunteering.

Many of the pledges are small and individual.

Sharyn Jenkins in Stafford, Va., whose birthday is Sept. 11, is reclaiming the day by baking cakes for the local sheriff's department. Marie Varricchio is going to ride her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles to benefit the Arthritis Foundation.

"What happened on 9/11 had an extremely lasting effect on me," Varricchio said. "Is it a day of mourning, a day of remembrance or a day of hope that someday things will get better for all? Instead of just hoping, I want to take an active part in helping, one step at a time, one person at a time, one dollar at a time, or in this case one mile at a time."

But why make a public pledge?

"This gives people a chance of doing something personal, unique to them," Paine said. "But coming to our website also gives them a sense of being counted, being part of a movement, a chance to publicly proclaim their sense of sympathy and compassion."

One of them is Beau Bassett, a youth leadership trainer in Anchorage, who has organized a bike rally from the local firehouse to the police station to benefit the Red Cross.

Bassett said he was struck by the diversity of people who died on Sept. 11, and even in Alaska, the tragedy felt close to home.

"Everyone can relate to someone who died in those tragic events," he said. "So then the next logical question is, what can I do in remembering that person that helps another?"

Paine and Winuk find special pleasure in similar efforts that have linked with their website to help the idea build momentum.

One group, New York Says Thank You, pledged this year to rebuild a church in Indiana that was destroyed by a recent tornado. Every Sept. 11 since 2003, the group has organized New York firefighters and others to help a community that has been struck by disaster. And every year, those who received help lend a hand on the next project.

On Sept. 11 at the Indiana church, there will be volunteers from a fire-damaged area near San Diego, a tornado-swept town in Illinois, and the fire chief from New Orleans.

"We're just paying it forward for what everyone was doing for us in New York in 2001," said Jay Parness, founder of the group.

The organization is supported by nearly every Sept. 11-related group of survivors and family members, who do not always agree on how to commemorate the tragedy.

Winuk said that when Paine called him with the idea, it resonated because he thought it was exactly what his brother Glenn would have wanted.

Glenn, a lawyer who had been a volunteer firefighter, grabbed equipment from a fire crew and died helping people escape when the World Trade Center's south tower collapsed.

"That day brought such an overwhelming sense of devastation for so many people, but it also brought that spontaneous outpouring of community, of compassion and caring," Winuk said. "It showed what we are made of, and we want to rekindle that sense of unity, if only for one day a year."

maggie.farley@latimes.com

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