April 7-13 is National Volunteer Week in the United States and serves as a dedicated moment for us all to reflect on the selfless acts of kindness that volunteers from across the country, as well as the world, exhibit on a daily basis, and most importantly, recognizing the impact that they make on the world.
From volunteering in soup kitchens to sharing personal experiences from historic events, millions of people from around the world take time out of their lives to give back and be the change that they’d like to see in the world. Having spent the majority of my career in the non-profit sector, I have been in close contact with some of the best people humanity has to offer, and in my current role at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, I have the honor and privilege of working alongside the strongest and most inspiring people on the face of this Earth.
As you may have deduced from my place of business, the volunteers I see and interact with daily are 9/11 survivors, family members who lost a loved one on 9/11 or due to 9/11 related illness, first responders and recovery workers, residents who lived in Lower Manhattan and were displaced by the attacks, as well as the civilian volunteers who just wanted to help in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Being among a community that has a personal connection to the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history and seeing the museum’s volunteers’ resilience and courage to show up every day and share their experience with complete strangers who simply want to gain a human connection to the tragedy, inspires me to be a better person and makes me consider how I can do more to impact the lives of others.
The 9/11 Tribute Museum was founded by the September 11th Families’ Association in 2006 as a place for those connected to the tragedy to support one another and educate a public that, a mere five years following the tragedy, was still looking for answers that you couldn’t be found in a history book. Early museum volunteers led tours around what was still Ground Zero, as the 9/11 Memorial had yet to be built, and shared their stories of personal loss (family members, residents/local workers) as well as their stories of service (first responders/recovery workers) in hopes of healing themselves by sharing their experiences and instilling valuable life lessons gained from their circumstances that people of all ages could take back with them and apply in their communities around the world. Nearly 13 years since opening, the 9/11 Tribute Museum has trained over 950 volunteers who have shared their personal 9/11 stories with over four million people from around the world through speaking the language of compassion and resilience.
Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, has a quote that embodies the purpose of the volunteers at the 9/11 Tribute Museum as he states, “the miracle is this—the more we share, the more we have,” and this rings true to not only the volunteers who share their stories, but also the guests who visit. Visitors often share their stories about where they were on 9/11 and how hearing a personal perspective made the experience more “real” to them. Visitors often note that they leave feeling inspired by meeting someone who has experienced and persevered through unthinkable circumstances and express a strong desire to make a difference in the world. This is the change that volunteers make.
While some people may be required to volunteer due to school requirements or when looking to boost a résumé, by and large, people who are volunteering are doing so to provide for someone or something in need. In my time at the Red Cross, seeing people sacrifice sleep to be on call overnight for home fire responses, to being around teachers who sacrificed pay to volunteer full time to provide music education to students from disadvantaged areas, the goodwill of others is contagious and has always pushed me to personally do more.
My journey to the 9/11 Tribute Museum is serendipitous in a sense, as the first moment I felt the need to help people outside of my immediate circle was as a 13 year old watching the Twin Towers collapse on live television in 2001. Once the fear of the morning subsided, the urge to help burned within me, and as soon as opportunities presented themselves, I did my best to give back. In high school I taught and mentored elementary school students and as an adult I’ve volunteered with various organizations. But nothing I have done compares to what I now experience with the volunteers at the 9/11 Tribute Museum.
In my primary role of finding those connected to the events of 9/11 and introducing them to our program, I learned the true extent of the trauma experienced by this community. Having them grant me the privilege of being a part of their healing process and seeing them come out on the other side of their experience to openly share the most painful, personal moments of their lives reminds me of a quote from Kobi Yamada in which he states, “believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Believe that you might be that light for someone else.” The quote is poignant for a community that still faces devastating health challenges and political fights but sees hope through the sharing of their stories. They are the embodiment of the once often said, “Never Forget,” and they show up, touch hearts and change the consciousness of others by figuratively and literally walking the walk on guided tours.
Although this is a week to reflect, I pose this question to you, “what’s stopping you from doing more to help others?” Saying that you don’t have the time is not an excuse, as many Tribute volunteers still work, are getting medical treatment, and have families yet still find the time to regularly volunteer. Thinking that doing something small won’t make a lasting impact is also not true. You don’t have to build a school to make an impact on kids, coordinating a book donation drive provides tools that will last longer and have a greater impact than any physical structure. There are so many ways to be make a positive change in someone else’s life.
Aspire to inspire and your life will become rich with meaning and the legacy you will leave behind will be greater than you can ever imagine.