In times of unprecedented chaos, it is almost an anomaly to find people still willing to show a bit of kindness. It wasn’t any different in the aftermath of the news of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. This was in the midst of veritable stories of xenophobic attacks and targeted human rights violations against Muslims skyrocketed days and months after the tragic attacks.
However, the exceptional story of Kevin Tuerff’s unexpected experience of kindness on that dreadful day ended up birthing a movement focused on paying acts of kindness forward.
On his return to the United States from Europe, after a vacation on Sept. 11, 2001, Tuerff’s plane was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, as his America-bound aircraft was diverted amid fears of more terrorist attacks. Tuerff said although it took him seven days to get home, he was thoroughly amazed by the show of kindness and compassion displayed by the people he met on the island.
Tuerff, a principal of his own Austin Texas-based environmental communications firm, was among 7,000 air travelers that landed on that day in Gander, a town of about 9,000 residents in the Canadian province.
Reports say, residents quickly mobilized to help feed, house, and even clothe the stranded passengers – opening their community to people they didn’t even know. This immediately got Truerff thinking about ways to replicate such an act of kindness in his small town in Texas. Even in ambivalence, he became keen on seeing if people would be willing to help strangers if the population of their town suddenly doubled.
In his search for results, Tuerff started a pay-it-forward initiative at his firm, giving his employees money and time away from work to go out and complete random acts of goodwill in their community to honor the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The effort grew and within two years, more businesses, companies and people wanted to participate and receive the blessing Tuerff likes to describe as the “Helper’s high.”
Two decades later, Tuerff leads a global initiative, PayItForward911.org, which he says has sprouted kindness efforts that to date is operating in 46 different states and six countries.
This year, on the 21st anniversary of the terrorist attacks, his group’s efforts are expected to exceed previous ones, especially with the involvement of thousands of people, including Dell Technology employees in 22 countries around the world.
In the U.S., on the morning of September 1, volunteers from St. Francis Xavier Catholic parish, Xavier Mission, employees of Gallin & Son, and Starbucks distributed free coffee to random strangers in Manhattan’s Union Square. This kickoff marks an 11-day kindness spree with schools, teachers, students, and communities responding to this year’s theme of not only kindness but creating unity. Tuerff said the current climate of discord across the nation makes the unity message timely.
He told the local media “We are at the point where we can’t argue our way with facts and we need to get people to come back together.”
“This is one person at a time, and it isn’t going to solve everything, but I have seen the ripple effect in action, how people feel when they do something good for someone else, and I think we need that right now” he concluded.