Americans Volunteer to Honor Sept. 11 Victims

Those looking for new ways to express their patriotism might consider signing up to volunteer in honor of a Sept. 11 victim.

The Unity in the Spirit of America Initiative (search) -- sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation (search) -- ends May 3, at the close of National Volunteer Week. It calls on Americans to do community service in the names of one of the more than 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Four-year-old Juliana McCourt, who died on United Flight 175 with her mother Ruth, became the poster child for the effort.

"Her spirit was so incredible,” Juliana's father David McCourt told “What killed Ruth and Juliana started a generation ago with seeds of hate in what were then children, as opposed to Juliana who was taught compassion toward all people."

McCourt said his wife and little girl embodied everything the 19 hijackers did not: acceptance of others’ differences, kindness and love.

"We have a responsibility to get involved in actions that promote harmony, peace and understanding -- especially within children,” he said.

So far, 4,128 projects involving more than 300,000 volunteers in all 50 states have been registered with the organization, said Kimberli Meadows, director of media relations at the Points of Light Foundation. The organization's Web site offers a list of suggested community service activities and names of Sept. 11 victims who can be honored in name by the services.

"It’s been overwhelming,” said Meadows of the response. “We think it was a tremendous success.”

Though the registration deadline was officially in March, Meadows said people can still participate if they want to.

"It's the one thing everybody can do,” Meadows said. “It doesn’t require any money -- just time and the talent to help others. Many of the people who perished were volunteers, and we’re just continuing their legacy, picking up where they left off.”

Meadows said those who have signed up are planting memorial gardens, preparing care packages for soldiers, mentoring children, running clothing and food drives and doing similar community service projects.

The USA Initiative was signed into law by President Bush in January 2002 as a part of the post-Sept.11 foreign operations appropriations legislation.

"What’s really special about it is that it’s a living memorial,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s a wonderful way to honor those who lost their lives."

The program began as an idea of a constituent of Stabenow’s in Michigan, who said he wanted to volunteer in the name of one of the thousands who died in the terrorist attacks last Sept. 11. He suggested the project become a national effort.

"People are so appreciative of these ways to remember their loved ones,” Stabenow said. “It’s a way to unify Americans and demonstrate our spirit of giving."

The goal, according to Stabenow, is to leave behind tangible evidence of the volunteer work by doing something that improves the community, or is ongoing, like rebuilding a park or getting involved in a book drive for a local library.

"We’re looking for projects where we have a lasting symbol,” she said.

Meadows said that all the information about Sept. 11 victims posted on the Web site was provided by their families, and the foundation has worked closely with its legal department to make sure privacy doesn’t become an issue.

"Families have the absolute choice to have their loved ones honored in this manner,” she said. “No one is up on the Web site unless family members gave us permission."

And, she added, no one has complained that the effort is exploiting the tragedy or the people who were lost.

"We wanted to avoid any hint of that and make sure we steered clear of that impression,” Meadows said. “That’s why these projects don’t raise money for anything."

Theresa Riccardelli, whose husband Francis Riccardelli worked as a Port Authority manager at the World Trade Center and died in the attacks, said the USA Initiative is the perfect way to keep the memories of the Sept. 11 victims alive.

"This is such a proactive thing to do to make the world a better place in somebody's memory," she said. "My greatest fear was that the world was going to go on and forget about him. That would be a tragedy."