Like everyone else old enough to remember, I know exactly where I was on the 11th of September 2001. I was sitting on hall duty in Farmingdale High School, New York when the first of a few letters was delivered. Like everyone else who tried to get through, I found the mobile phone lines weren’t working. Kids were pulled out of class, teachers rode the busses with elementary school kids and we all sat in silence for hours glued to the television. Later, I found out that my sister, who traveled on the subway through the Twin Towers station every morning had made it through and a co-worker of hers provided shelter on Staten Island for the next few days. My Dad was in Europe at the time and eventually, through the kindness of strangers, coworkers and embassies made it home from Belgium a few days later. In the years since, at school, we had no morning announcements aside from a moving tribute coupled with a talented singer serenading the school with the chorus of Sarah McLachlan’s, I Will Remember You.
I’m no longer teaching and presently live on the opposite coast, but like millions of others, those moments stick with me and it’s days like this that, no matter where I am, I will ALWAYS be a New Yorker. Fifteen years later, my husband and I honored this solemn day in a different way. This year, I found myself back on a school campus volunteering with The Mission Continues to give back to a local high school community in San Diego.
This was our fourth time volunteering with The Mission Continues. This service organization invites veterans and civilians to give back, and “empowers veterans who are adjusting to life at home to find purpose through community impact.” (missioncontinues) On Saturday, the 10th of September, approximately 100 volunteers met in San Diego. ROTC members, school groups, Team Rubicon members, Fox Sports, BAE Systems, Junior Marines and others, joined The Mission Continues’ volunteers in a 9-11 day of service uniting volunteers around the country in a day of honor, remembrance and service.
At San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School, volunteers worked for hours on a myriad of projects around the school. Large scale murals were created, fire lines got repainted, recognizable school signs were refurbished, an ADA compliant ramp was added to a communal space, life sized games were created for an after school program, brand new picnic tables and pavers were designed and added to a school gathering area and much more was accomplished in a few short hours.
More often than not on these volunteer days you can find Mat building or working in a garden – today it was both. Building picnic tables, creating new space for and adding brand new pavers, he got to work alongside amazing veterans to benefit this 2,000 student high school. In the beginning, you can usually find me at the registration table greeting volunteers, creating name tags, handing out waivers and of course, giving out t-shirts. It’s always a great way to get to know people, provide a first smile and start their day off right. And then, I often help to hand out lunch and typically wind up covered in paint. This time was no different. Needless to say, we always leave tired, dirty, and filled with joy.
As volunteers split up into project groups, work was dispersed, people found their way, and conversations happened. I met another displaced New Yorker who now volunteers as a coordinator for the Young Marines and also works with the homeless population in downtown San Diego. I watched as veteran volunteers smashed concrete to carve out a space for a new access ramp. Countless people, civilian and veteran alike, rolled up their sleeves to do the necessary work. The benefits of the work here today will ricochet for countless students, faculty, staff and community members to enjoy for years to come. Finding purpose, feeling needed, using skills, communicating with others, working as a team – by helping others, the return is tenfold.
After they finished with their first job, a small group of kids from the school’s AOIT (Academy of Information Technology) program returned to look for something else to do. With that small gesture, I already knew we’d get along quite well. They rolled up their sleeves and together we came up with a design for the new pavers. For this teacher/advisor, it felt natural to be working with teenagers again. They were thrilled to work with volunteers (veterans and civilians) and quickly joined in the mission. Not only did they take ownership of their task, but they got to learn to splatter paint for the first time ever….now that’s a crafty creative skill that keeps on giving, right? We even went so far as to add little bird footprints (their mascot is a cardinal) reminding me of the lion paw prints I drew all those years ago at Farmingdale High School. This day brought me full circle for so many reasons.
Volunteering with The Mission Continues has become a part of our journey in San Diego. We look forward to ‘build days’, as it reminds us of all of the volunteering we did together in Long Beach, New York after Hurricane Sandy. The people met, stories shared, work done, differences made and relationships fostered remain in a fabulous memory bank forever. Finding home wherever we roam is significant. Spending the day giving back to a community, making a difference in the lives of kids and working with incredible people – that’s only a small piece of what The Mission Continues gave us today and at each of our ‘build days’. Join the movement…see you at the next event.