Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How It Started...

Kindhearted souls spread good cheer
Anyone could be a recipient of an act of kindness today
By Andrea Ball, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 11, 2003

(AUSTIN)—Something special could happen to you today.

A stranger could buy you breakfast. A passer-by could hand you a bus pass. An anonymous admirer could send you a gift basket or a $100 gift certificate.

Don't scoff. For Kevin Tuerff and his 40 employees at EnviroMedia, Sept. 11 is a day for performing acts of kindness.

Today, as the country marks the second anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Tuerff and his staff will distribute more than $2,000 in anonymous gifts.

"I think the whole idea behind this is that, hopefully, it inspires other people to do something nice," said Tuerff, president of EnviroMedia, an advertising agency for environmentally friendly causes.

This is the second year the company's employees have hit the streets to surreptitiously commit acts of goodness. And they won't be alone. Other groups, inspired by EnviroMedia's idea, plan to spend the day spreading their own cheer.

Beth Atherton, director of Insure a Kid, which helps families get affordable health insurance, intends to surprise a dozen of her staff members with a free lunch.

"What I hope is that they will feel special and acknowledged for their generosity," she said.

Today's good deeds are inspired by the people of Gander, Newfoundland.

On Sept. 11, 2001—the day terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field—Tuerff was returning home from a vacation in France when his plane sharply veered off course.

Startled passengers listened as the pilot announced that their plane would not land in Newark, N.J., as planned. The United States had been attacked by terrorists, the pilot told them. Forbidden to enter American airspace, planes were ordered to land at the nearest airport.

Tuerff's flight, along with 37 others, landed at Gander International Airport.

"They wouldn't let us off the airplanes," Tuerff said. "We sat there for 24 hours."

Meanwhile, Canadian officials prepared to help their town's 7,500 unexpected guests, said Gander Mayor Claude Elliott.

Travelers exiting planes were greeted with sandwiches and fruit. Churches and schools were transformed into temporary shelters. Families invited strangers into their homes.

Over the next five days, the Salvation Army served 245,000 meals, Elliott said. Gander residents arrived at shelters with sandwiches, cookies and casseroles. They brought pillows, blankets and clothes.

The stranded passengers could not even walk to the local Wal-Mart without drivers stopping to offer them rides.

"We did the only thing we know how to do, which was to comfort them, console them and show them love," Elliott said.

Last year, Tuerff decided to honor Gander by dividing his staff into several teams of two, handing each team $100 and allowing them to spend several work hours doing something nice in the community.

One team bought breakfast for everyone at Juan in a Million on Cesar Chavez Street. One gave a $100 grocery gift certificate to a single mother laid off from one of her three waitress jobs.

Another team gave $100 to Florence Ponziano, the founder of Comfort House, which provides food, day care and emotional support to children in the Montopolis neighborhood.

Spend it on yourself, they told her.

She didn't. She spent it on the Comfort Home food bank, buying enough supplies to feed 50 seniors for a month, she said.

"It did so much for us," she said. ". . . I just figured angels gave me a gift."

This year, a New York-based nonprofit asked Americans to honor those killed in the terrorist attacks by volunteering in their communities each Sept. 11. The effort—called the National Day of Service—begins this year, and the group's goal is 30 million participants by 2010.

Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm, will participate today by cleaning and painting at Austin Sunshine Camp at Zilker Park.

Tuerff hopes such efforts continue to grow.

"Everybody's lives are so frantic and busy. Often it takes a jump-start to remind us about the importance of being kind to strangers," Tuerff said. "It doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make an impact."

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