I miss my friend Hagay Shefi.
Always a smile on his face, always a new idea he couldn’t wait to share. We were partners in a software company. On September 11, 2001, Hagay was at the World Trade Center to give a talk. He never made it out.
For two years I struggled to find a way to commemorate his life. Like many New Yorkers, I felt a terrible sense of loss yet also an abiding gratitude to the thousands from around the country who came to help at Ground Zero.
Then on November 1, 2003, my five-year-old son, Evan, came running to me. He’d seen wildfires ravaging San Diego on CNN. Evan told me about a girl who lost her Halloween costume when her house went up in flames. “I want to send toys to kids who lost their homes,” he said.
“What if we collect toys from all the kids in the building?” I asked. We live in a 35-story apartment building in Manhattan. Evan’s eyes lit up. In three days we had donations from 100 people. Students and teachers at Evan’s school gave. My wife’s law firm chipped in too.
Evan and I decided we’d deliver relief supplies as well. I rented a 17-foot truck and parked it outside our building. On a whim, I hung a sign on the truck that read, “New York Says Thank You.”
Strangers stopped me as we loaded the truck, New Yorkers with tears in their eyes, asking if they could help.
Back home Evan and I saw there was much more to do. The Gulf Coast was rocked by Katrina. In 2007 a massive tornado practically wiped Greensburg, Kansas, off the map. This spring another twister destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri.
Each September New York Says Thank You sends a group of volunteers to help rebuild a community recovering from disaster. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is this. At each place we’re joined by people from the previous town we helped.
That reminds me we’re all in this together. When Americans lend a hand to one another, nothing is impossible. We’re not about what happened on 9/11. We’re about what happened on 9/12.
Watch an interview with Jeff Parness about New York Says Thank You.
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