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Turning Tragedy Into Something Positive

by Jay S. Winuk

This post originally appeared on the HandsOn Blog.

Somewhere along the way, we all face tragedy in our lives. Few are spared. People handle tragedies, though, in different ways. I often marveled at but was somewhat puzzled by those who found ways to turn personal tragedy into something positive. But now I understand.

My life changed forever on that sunny September 11 morning in 2001. My brother Glenn Winuk, a partner at the large law firm Holland & Knight LLP, was murdered by the terrorists who attacked our nation by flying planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Situated just a block and a half from the site, Glenn helped evacuate his law offices, then raced toward the South Tower to participate in the rescue effort. He died when that building collapsed. Glenn’s partial remains were recovered about six months later, a borrowed medic bag by his side.

For almost 20 years Glenn was a volunteer firefighter and EMT in our home town of Jericho, NY. He had also served as a fire commissioner and as an officer of Engine Company 2, and was highly decorated. Specially certified in building collapse rescue training, no one was more prepared to race into those towering infernos than my kid brother, dead at 40.

Firefighters are a special breed. We all know that. Not everyone has what it takes to do what they choose to do for the rest of us. What struck me, always, about Glenn and any other firefighters I’ve met along the way, is their absolute passion for the job. They simply love it. Despite all the risks, all the hard work, all the uncertainly about their fate, they just love it. It’s quite extraordinary, really.

What amazes me most about firefighters, volunteer and non-volunteer alike, is that they do what they do for people they do not know. And that is indeed impressive, given the risks they face. Many of us help others, but most do so without risk to life and limb.

Glenn lived his life in service to others – not just as a firefighter, but also as an attorney and an all-around good guy. After he died, I gave a lot of thought to what I could do to most appropriately honor him.

When my friend and colleague David Paine called from California a few months after the attacks to tell me about his idea, it was as if it was scripted. “Let’s work together to make 9/11 a national day of service,” David suggested, so that people will never forget how good people of the world responded when our nation was wounded. And off we were.

Today, after more than eight years of advocacy by the organization we founded called, MyGoodDeed, 9/11 is federally designated as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. This, thanks to the hard work of many in the 9/11 community; a wealth of corporate, nonprofit and other supporters, including Points of Light Institute and HandsOn Network; and the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama, who signed this bi-partisan legislation into law in April 2009.

Engaging in service or good deeds on the anniversary each year in honor of those who perished or rose to help is truly an extraordinary phenomenon. Millions of people from all 50 states and countries all over the world now mark September 11 in service to others, with acts small and large. The ways that people participate are countless, creative and meaningful. All who visit our web site at 911DayofService.org can connect with and support charitable causes in numerous ways, as well as post their own personal good deeds. There’s nothing quite like it.

And this summer, with the help of some terrific partners, we launched a one-of-a-kind free online education curriculum so that grade school students everywhere can learn the lessons of 9/11, including about how the tragedy inspired generosity and good deeds. The program helps facilitate the teachers’ and students’ own good deeds in their communities, and thousands have already signed on.

As the ninth, and then the 10th, anniversary of 9/11 approach, I’m reminded as I am always this time of year about the millions who stepped forward to help in the face of tragedy for months after the attacks. Not just the highly trained first responders like Glenn, but people from all walks of life, regardless of age, sex, religion, ethnicity, economic status, geographic location, political preference and other factors which frequently separate us. Then, we were one people, and surely we can be that way more often — not just on 9/11 but throughout the year and throughout the years.

So go visit our web site at 911DayofService.org. Sign on to do a good deed and encourage others to do the same. Make a difference in someone’s life by turning tragedy into something positive. Thank you!

Jay Winuk is the co-founder and Vice President of MyGoodDeed, 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance and the President of Winuk Communiations Inc.

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