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Words usually come easily for me, but I’m struggling with this story. I’m wondering just how I can possibly write anything new, how I could possibly say something that hasn’t already been said about 9/11, how I can contribute to what we’ve all read so many times, in so many personal ways.

Over the past few years I have written a different story each 9/11, choosing to make a difference somehow in some little way. I have no personal connection to that day 13 years ago other than what we all experienced together as a country, but by volunteering as part of the Activate Raleigh 9/11 Day of Service — coordinated by Activate Good in partnership with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the City of Raleigh — I felt like I could help take the day back and turn it into something good.

Raleigh’s Activate Good makes “doing good” that much easier, connecting people who want to help with the organizations that need it most.1 Amber Smith started her journey 10 years ago; I discovered her incredible organization in 2012 when I signed up to help Inter-faith Food Shuttle clean up their facility, sweeping up debris and symbolically scraping black paint off windows in the cavernous structure that had once been a rollerskating rink. In 2013, I helped with the City of Raleigh’s employee food drive, hoping to help the one in four North Carolinian kids who are food insecure by packaging the thousands of pounds of food everyone had donated to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

This year I chose to paint on the morning of 9/11, taking time off to join in with several other motivated volunteers to refresh the kitchen in the basement of the Frankie Lemmon School & Developmental Center. Little did I know that we would again be symbolically letting in the light by “painting some sunshine” at the anniversary of one of the darkest hours our country has seen. It choked me up just a little to see they had selected a vibrant, screaming yellow — an appropriate color for that windowless room to cover the seemingly decades-old, tired sage green.

Nearly 1700 people participated in Raleigh’s 9/11 Day of Service, doing good for more than 60 projects, and several hundred of us — kids too, including mine — celebrated our efforts with more volunteerism that night at Red Hat Amphitheater. After a heartfelt welcome by Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Activate Good Chair Nick Turza, Adam Pitts and The Jason Adamo Band entertained us on stage during the “working party.”

Guests donated healthy food at the entrance and mingled in several stations, creatively doing hands-on projects for one of eight worthy projects:
– Sorting/packaging food to fill the truck for Urban Ministries of Wake County
– Writing letters for our troops
– Packaging literacy kits to improve reading with Helps Education Fund
– Creating holiday cards for kids in need with Friends of Wake County Guardian ad Litem
– Crafting “Creature Comfort” toys for rescue animals with Safe Haven for Cats and the Wake County Animal Shelter
– Creating home decor for families transitioning out of homelessness for The Green Chair Project
– Painting pictures to bring cheer to hospice patients with Art for Hospice
– Making blankets and more for the homeless for Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness

I chose to craft holiday cards, first cutting bright green and then sky blue construction paper to fit the envelopes, gluing down puffy pompom balls stacked like a snowman, going heavy on the glitter for snow and imagining that it might bring a smile to someone in a couple of months. After I had been there awhile, they asked for more volunteers to write letters to troops. Honestly, I somewhat reluctantly shifted tables away from the fun creativity that reminded me of Mrs. Munson’s second-grade class, but I knew I should, as a writer and simply because it felt like the right thing to do.

I sat down at the table, wordless then too for awhile, staring at the blank page decorated with the American flag and wondering what I could say that wouldn’t sound cliched or insincere. How can you possibly thank someone, a perfect stranger, for protecting your freedom, your very way of life, in just a few lines?

After a few moments I put pen to paper and the words flowed. I wrote nine letters, each a little different, but all with the same message in the end: thanks for standing up for America, for your sacrifice. And thanks for kicking butt, for us.

I’m glad I finally found my voice. It’s all too important to speak out, on 9/11 or any other day. Freedom wins.

  1. It’s Smith’s hope that more of us become involved somehow, whether it’s in an ongoing role as a mentor or joining an organization or for short-term projects like Activate Raleigh. Right now less than one in four Raleighites choose to volunteer; we can do better.
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