Background/History

From Kevin Tuerff, founder of Pay it Forward 9/11:

"Like many people, I was changed by 9/11. However, I didn’t succumb to fear of new terrorist attacks, perhaps because of the blessing I experienced the kindness of strangers as an American refugee in Gander, Newfoundland (Canada).  This tiny town nearly doubled it's population when 6,579 unexpected guests arrived when US airspace was closed. On the first anniversary of the attacks in 2002, I wanted to go back to Gander as some "come from aways" (stranded passengers) did, to pay back their kindness. But the cost and time for me to travel from Austin to Gander would have been greater than a round-trip airfare to Paris.

Instead, I borrowed an idea from the book and movie Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde. This touching fiction demonstrates how a young boy could start a movement that promoted kindness to strangers. I wondered if there was a way to use that concept to demonstrate my gratitude for Gander. The country was still anxious and angry about 9/11, but perhaps we could give people hope.

 

As a co-owner of a small business with forty employees, I decided to try mandating participation by the staff in doing good deeds for strangers. We would make it fun by breaking the staff into teams of two and giving each team a hundred dollar bill. These teams could then use the hundred dollars for any act of kindness to strangers. Unsure if staff would go along with this, I ran the idea by a couple long-time employees. They wholeheartedly approved. The staff vividly remembered being at the office on 9/11 and the added stress of making sure their bosses were safe. 

We closed the office the morning of September 11, 2002, to allow time for the teams to do their work. Staff members were instructed to anonymously perform random acts of kindness. They were also told to remind people that it was the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and also explain the story of what happened to their boss in Gander. At the end of the day, we gathered in a conference room and each team explained how they spent their money. People got teary-eyed as they talked about the amazing reactions they received when they did small things like buying coffee or giving away bus passes for a stranger. There was something magical when they made that one-on-one connection, just as I experienced when a teenager gave me the air mattress and pillows as an American refugee on 9/11 in Gander.

The first year, two teams of staff remarkably ran into each other at the local charity hospital in Austin. Both had the same idea to visit the maternity ward to support a new mother who was giving birth to a baby that day. The nurses at the hospital told both teams that there were two single mothers who had given birth that day. Both mothers were certain to need the money.

One team purchased a a hundred dollar savings bond and wrote a card stating, “Because your baby is born on a day that will always be linked to a day of tragedy, we’d like you to have something positive you may share with the child in future years.” The other team gave a card and their one hundred dollar bill.

Another team gave their hundred dollars to the owner of a breakfast diner, telling him to use the money to buy the next several checks until the money ran out, probably after about eight tabs. He promised to remind customers that it was the anniversary of 9/11 and encourage them to pay it forward by doing a good deed for a stranger that day.

Another team decided to break the hundred dollar bill into one hundred singles. They paper-clipped a note to each one explaining Pay It Forward 9/11. They went to a busy street corner in Austin and tried to hand the dollars randomly to people in their cars at the stoplight. To their surprise, it was extremely difficult for most people to roll down their window to accept the gift. “What’s the catch?” people kept asking over and over.

Being in the marketing business, we weren’t surprised to find people skeptical of an offer of free money.

 

Others gave an appreciative smile, or choked up tears briefly mentioning they knew someone who died that day. Emergency first responders were always on someone’s kindness list. One team spent their cash buying several tubs of ice cream and delivering them to local fire stations. Donating money IS NOT REQUIRED. There are many acts of kindness which don't cost a dime."

The event spread to other businesses, schools, houses of worship across Austin and across the US and Canada. Even families got involved and made it an annual tradition. What began in Gander in 2001 inspired a ripple effect more than 3,000 miles away, one that continues today. 

In 2017, Gander Mayor Claude Elliott said, "This is a beautiful story of how a seed of love can be planted, and years later it grows into a beautiful, flowering tree." Pay it Forward 9/11 received national recognition by the Ford's Theater Society in Washington, DC and it is featured in a display in a "Seeds of Service" exhibit at the new 9/11 Tribute Museum in New York City.

Learn more about the story of Gander on 9/11