'This is one person at a time, and it isn't going to solve everything, but I have seen the ripple effect in action,' said Kevin Tuerff.
Kevin Tuerff was on his way back home to the United States after a vacation in Europe when the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. All aircraft bound for America were diverted amid fears of more terrorist attacks, including the one he was in. More than 7000 air travelers landed in Gander, a town of about 9,000 residents in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, where local community members quickly mobilized to help feed, house and even clothe the stranded flyers. "It took me seven days to get home, finally, and after that, I continued to be blown away thinking of the kindness and compassion of the people on that island," Tuerff, who was a principal of his own Austin, Texas-based environmental communications firm at the time, told PEOPLE.
Touched by the way the residents of Gander opened their homes to people they didn't even know, Tuerff couldn't help but wonder if a similar town in Texas would do the same. "I wasn't sure," he said. "I like to tell people, if the population of your town nearly doubled in an instant, would you bring people into your home and let them take showers? Total strangers? These people really demonstrated compassion." Inspired by their generous hospitality and kindness in his time of need, Tuerff launched a pay-it-forward initiative at his firm, giving his employees money and time away from work to go out and complete random acts of goodwill in their community in of honor the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Within the next two years, this effort grew to include more businesses, companies and people who sought the blessing that Tuerff likes to describe as the "helper's high." Today, two decades later, Tuerff's efforts to spread kindness is a global initiative called PayItForward911.org that operates in 46 different states and six countries. The charity organization is expected to make its biggest impact yet this year—on the 21st anniversary of the terrorist attacks—with hundreds of thousands of people, including Dell Technology employees in 22 countries around the world, taking part in the #11DaysofKindness campaign.
Starting on the morning of September 1, volunteers from St. Francis Xavier Catholic parish, Xavier Mission, employees of Gallin & Son and Starbucks will distribute free coffee to random strangers in Manhattan's Union Square. Over the course of 11 days, the group will spread its message of kindness and unity across schools and communities, which Tuerff says is of the utmost importance in the current climate of discord across the nation. "We are at the point where we can't argue our way with facts and we need to get people to come back together," he said. "This is one person at a time, and it isn't going to solve everything, but I have seen the ripple effect in action, how people feel when they do something good for someone else, and I think we need that right now."
Tuerff and his fellow passengers' unforgettable experience in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was adapted into a Broadway play called "Come From Away," which has evolved over the years and spawned productions around the world. "The growth of our effort can be tied to the expansion of this story," Tuerff said. "I'm so proud and grateful for all of the people I've never met who do this." As part of the #11DaysofKindness campaign, some will donate blood while others register as organ donors. People can also buy coffee or food for the person in line at a coffee shop or restaurant or pay for someone's tank of gas. "We're teaching a young generation about the importance of kindness and showing that to strangers," said Tuerff.