Volunteers try to recapture post-9/11 unity

She was just a girl when she heard it on TV — the notion of "people getting together" to do something relevant and helpful after the traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001. And Alee Pagnotti listened. Now, 10 years later, the law student is still living that notion — and trying to recapture the feeling of giving that followed those dark days.

At dawn Sunday, she joined hundreds in a northern Nashville neighborhood to build seven new homes for families — a dividend in brick and mortar of the towers that fell hundreds of miles away and a decade in the past.

"This is a good reminder to keep that spirit alive," Pagnotti said.

Across the nation, Americans built homes, shined fire trucks, cleaned parks and, again, gave blood on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, trying to recapture the good-will, can-do spirit that people say they lost in the decade since the attacks.

About 200 Habitat for Humanity volunteers stood in the front yard of one of the little, pastel-colored homes; volunteer. Jason Johnson sang "God Bless America" on a front porch, an American flag hanging from the rafter. The neighborhood was filled with the sounds of hammers, generators and saws as the volunteers worked.

The National Day of Service and Remembrance was launched in 2002 by family members of Sept. 11 victims. With projects in all 50 states, the goal was to honor the victims and turn the tragic anniversary into something positive. President Obama spent time with his family working at a soup kitchen in Washington on Saturday, encouraging Americans to find ways to serve.

Americans renovated community centers, cleaned public parks and again, gave blood. In Richmond, Va., folks shined fire trucks. Hundreds of pints of blood were donated in Brooklyn, Mich., people donated hundreds of pints of blood. In New York City, volunteers gave kids school supplies and free haircuts. Volunteers in Raleigh, N.C., painted city playhouses.

More than 800 volunteers lined up in Boston to put together care packages for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world, filling cardboard boxes with socks, hand sanitizer, chewing gum and personal messages.

"It's a nice outlet on a day like today," said Helen Herzer, a coordinator at a Boston historic society. "It's a gesture of community service as well as doing something nice for a soldier who isn't enjoying a beautiful day in the United States like we are today."

David Paine, president and cofounder of My Good Deed, a nonprofit promoting the day of service, estimated that 33 million Americans planned to observe the anniversary by volunteering or doing some form of charity.

In the days and weeks after the 2001 terror attack, Americans who didn't live in the places directly affected — New York, Washington, D.C. or Shanksville, Pa. — felt impotent. Folks wanted to help. They stood in line for hours to give blood, although there were few 9/11 victims to give it to, and described feeling united with fellow Americans.

"As unfortunate as it was, it seemed like it put us all back into the frame of mind that life wasn't just about me," said Yvette Windham, a 44-year-old volunteer from Nashville. "This is the least that we could do."

Sam Sommers, a professor of social psychology at Tufts University, said it was easy for Americans to come together after 9/11. Less than a year before, the country seemed fractured by the contentious 2000 presidential election. But after 9/11, he said, it was easy to come together in a crisis. Years of war, economic crisis and pessimism hasn't inspired the same feelings, he said.

"We're facing threats at home right now, different kinds of threats, economic, threats have done the opposite, that haven't unified us," he said.

But Friday night at a New York City firehouse benefit, singer Jon Bon Jovi was nostalgic for a different spirit.

"I want the country of Sept. 12 again, when everybody came together," he said.

One of the seven homes being built on Sunday, went to Edwin Lewis, who paused from helping with some dove-grey vinyl siding to remember where he was 10 years ago: watching the burning World Trade Center on television. He thought it was a movie.

He noticed the unity immediately after, but also noticed how it lagged in the ensuing years.

Now, Lewis is hopeful, both for his and his country's future. He never thought he would own his own home, and he's just a few weeks away from moving in.

"My mother once told me that America is the land of opportunity, and I believe this home proves that," he said. "For people to come out here when they could be at church of watching football, that says a lot.

"I hope we see more of it."


Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Boston and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Tamara Lush has been traveling the country writing about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.