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Looking for Hope, a Decade After 9/11

What we need to do to rebuild our nation's foundation

Of the thousands of heartfelt messages and placards on the fence surrounding Ground Zero, one posted by the New York Fire Department's Ladder Co. 20 raised a defiant cry: "You have destroyed our buildings, but not our foundation."

Ten years later, the buildings are slowly being rebuilt by 3,000 workers at the site each day.

Find a 9/11 National Day of Service volunteer opportunity. >>

But how about the foundation? With a fragile economy, a dysfunctional government, devalued institutions and angry, dispirited citizens, our nation's foundation needs some work, too. Our generations, better than most, know the state of that foundation. We have borne the brunt of the Great Recession — our homes have lost value, our retirement savings have shrunk, and the unemployment rate among those over 55 is at historic highs. All the while and in unprecedented numbers, our children and our parents look to us for support.

Looking for optimism? Visit St. Paul's Chapel, the tiny 245-year-old stone chapel across the street from Ground Zero.

Miraculously, as the twin towers collapsed, this tiny chapel survived and overnight became an oasis of hope and rest for thousands of rescue and recovery workers. After arranging the first supper of hot dogs on Sept. 12, the chapel coordinated an effort that grew day by day and organized, cooked and served up to 3,000 meals daily. Eventually, the chapel, with an army of 14,000 volunteers, offered health care, rest and relief — even music. It was a heroic effort. The lessons learned are worth recalling as we seek to fulfill the promise of Ladder Co. 20 and restore our foundation.

Martin Cowart remembers his cousin's phone call for assistance. He's a New York mortgage banker, but he was called because church leaders saw the need to feed recovery workers, and Cowart had worked in a restaurant. Amid the chaos and despair at Ground Zero, during the desperate search for victims and the effort to restore a degree of order and structure, Cowart and fellow workers mobilized and focused completely on helping the workers. "No matter what changed, what the rules were, the common goal was to get these people some food, to get these people to a safe place," Cowart recalled. "It wasn't about being important, or being the boss or being in charge. It was about belonging to a group that was helping other people. It was totally human. It was around the energy. People were able to give up their self-interest and do whatever it took to get the job done."

Today, we have the challenge of restoring a foundation built on our shared history of inventiveness, freedom and sensitivity to others. We have the unique opportunity of developing a society that respects its elders while protecting the needs of our children and their children. Just as the workers at St. Paul's learned, it will take focus, planning, flexibility and resilience. We can learn from them.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, guests will gather outside St. Paul's, look across the street at the World Trade Center construction site and strike a bell. Just like Big Ben and the Liberty Bell before it, the St. Paul's "Bell of Hope" was cast at London's Whitechapel foundry. "The ringing of the bell symbolizes the triumph of hope over tragedy," a nearby sign declares. Take a moment to listen for the sound. Then get to work. Let's get the job done.

Also of interest: More ways to volunteer, make a difference. >>

Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.