Remarks at National Day of Service and Remembrance
Today, we know that the threat of violent extremism still remains. And our nation has to be vigilant. We have to be strong in the face of those who would seek to do harm to our people, our nation, and our values. By coming together to honor those who lost and who gave their lives eight years ago, we renew our strength to move forward in the face of both old and new challenges, and we come together to invigorate the values that have defined our country and our people for more than 200 years.
Now, like many of you, I will always carry with me the images and the emotions of that day of what came to be called Ground Zero. But I will also try to focus even more, if I can – as a citizen, and when I was a senator, and now as your Secretary of State – I will focus on the firefighters, and the police and the rescue workers, the citizens, all the first responders from wherever they came, who responded fearlessly to danger on that awful day – the images of them running into burning and collapsing buildings to save the lives of others, of those who climbed the stairs of the Towers to help others escape. They made the ultimate sacrifice. And it is those people – many of your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues – who we remember and honor today, who truly represent the best of humanity. And it is their example that must continue to inspire us all.
With that in mind, we can be pleased and proud that earlier this week – at long last – one of those special heroes, Glenn Winuk, was awarded the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor. (Applause.) And some of you already, you know Glenn’s story of bravery and sacrifice. He was an attorney who had served as a volunteer firefighter for 19 years. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Glenn not only helped to evacuate his law firm’s building across the street, but he raced over to the Towers with his medic bag in hand to try to save others. He died when the South Tower fell.
We are joined today by several members of his family, including his father Seymour, his mother Elaine, and a friend of mine, his brother Jay. To all those who knew and loved Glenn, please know that his story will inspire others to serve and give, to embody the ethos of citizenship and sacrifice that our nation relies upon to help us meet the great and grave challenges we face.
The response of New Yorkers and Americans to the 9/11 attacks were not scripted. They weren’t orchestrated. They were the acts of people who instinctively – reflexively – summoned the best within themselves to help others in harm’s way. And while these were individual acts, they represented a collective and uniquely American characteristic: a willingness and a pride in serving others.
There are so many examples that we could mention of service that we saw after the 9/11 attacks.
When the Red Cross needed donors, people organized blood banks. When our EMTs and first responders needed blankets and food, people gave from their own closets and kitchens. When those who had lost a loved one needed a kind word to break the silence of loneliness, people went and listened and shared. The people of New York reminded all of us in that dark moment that in this time of adversity, even small acts of selflessness give us strength. And that was just the first day.
On the next day and the day after and the day after that, New Yorkers and Americans gave so much from their heart. They gave so much love. They gave more clothes and more blankets. They gave phones and computers so families could keep in touch and students could go back to school. And then they held relief concerts that many of us remember so well. And always, always, offering solace to families in need. In the years that followed, that spirit of service continued as so many people found their own particular ways to serve. Some cleaned up trash in public parks, or re-painted elementary schools and civic centers. Some traveled to New Orleans to help with the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. In short, people from all walks of life served.
And service didn’t end. It didn’t end on 9/11. It didn’t begin there either. But the tragedy of 9/11 helped us to focus our attention on what we really cherish. This country was built and has endured on a tradition of service. It’s a common thread that binds Americans of all generations together. And Americans aren’t waiting for the next tragedy to be compelled to act.
Today, in this audience, we're joined by over 15 service organizations. You’re working to help the elderly and the disabled, to protect battered women, to provide tutors for children in elementary school, to help train the next generation of leaders and public servants. Many of you have started your own service programs. You’ve been moved by the sacrifice of those who lost their lives on 9/11. And I know there are many of my friends and many with whom I had the honor to work with who are part of the network of 9/11 family groups – you have helped countless other families over the years.
For every Glenn, there is a brother like Jay – or a sister, or a son or daughter, or mother or father, or a friend or colleague —who turns your grace out and spins it around the world, creating ripples from what had been overwhelming grief. Jay and his friend David Paine started MyGoodDeed, a campaign to establish September 11th as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. I was very honored to have volunteered along with my staff on behalf of MyGoodDeed, and to proudly support the efforts that it represented by co-sponsoring legislation in the Senate. And finally, it became law in April, when President Obama signed the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act. And many of you lobbied for this legislation. You gave countless hours of effort, and now you are giving life by volunteering in your communities to the concept of what service truly means. And I thank you for your contributions.
This Act, named after one of our nation’s greatest public servants, will help to usher in a new era of service creating volunteer opportunities for 250,000 Americans by the year 2017. It will create a corps of volunteers working on clean energy and education, veterans’ issues, and challenges facing low-income communities.
And today, as part of our first official National Day of Service and Remembrance, Americans are planning to volunteer. And that’s what’s been going on across our country – giving their time through non-profit charities and other service organizations, strengthening our communities. In Chicago, students kicked off a semester-long project to collect 2,974 pairs of shoes to donate to a homeless shelter – representing each person lost in the 9/11 attacks. In Washington, DC, volunteers are recruiting and training tutors for underperforming elementary school students. And in Syracuse, New York, today, the Rescue Mission has served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the homeless. In Austin, Texas, a neighborhood association is out cleaning up the Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary. Two young students in Connecticut set up a lemonade stand to raise money for a uniform drive to help benefit other school children in need. And in Atlanta, a group of citizens put together homemade goody baskets for fire and police stations to pay tribute to our first responders who stand watch and are on duty today.
As individuals and as a country, one of the only certainties that we have in life is the expectation of challenge, whether we are suddenly confronted with a lost job or a disease in our family, a natural disaster in our community, or an act of terror against our nation. In response to adversity, we will rise to the call of service because we discover that we gain more than we give, and because serving is one way to express what it means to be an American.
So let’s go out and serve even more, inspired by today. Take that time to coach a child’s basketball team, or serve on a commission, or run for elected office. We’re helping knit together the social fabric that makes our society stronger and more durable.
And now, in this new century, with all the old and the new threats and challenges we face– some of which we can’t even anticipate or even imagine – we need to rely on the Americans spirit of service eve more.
For eight years, I had the extraordinary privilege of representing this great state in the United States Senate. Now, as Secretary of State, working with President Obama, I have another privilege and honor, to ensure that our country stays safe and secure. We remain vigilant in combating the threat of violent extremism. We’re recruiting new allies and creating new partnerships to go after and defeat al-Qaida and the extremist networks. Through this work – and my travel to other continents – I am acutely aware that in order to be strong abroad, we must be strong at home. So we need you to help us continue strengthening yourselves, our communities, and our nation.
And finally, I want to encourage you to think about ways in which Americans, and those who have settled here from other countries, can contribute on behalf of people living without the opportunities we take for granted. By helping lift the tide for others, we help all boats rise. You can go online to make a small loan that will help a poor woman farmer in Africa buy seeds or tools that will enable her to become self-sufficient and contribute to her family’s welfare. You can make a contribution that brings medicines to a child suffering from malaria or a parent suffering from AIDS, help the young people of our world get educated so they can fully participate in their societies. You can join the Peace Corps to continue a tradition started by President Kennedy almost half a century ago – or join AmeriCorps, a program started by President Clinton 16 years ago.
A world that enjoys greater prosperity will be more stable and peaceful – and that is good not only for Americans and America, but for all of us. So this tradition of service which dates back to the very beginning of our country now has a new impetus. You’re laying a foundation for a stronger, better America, and a future that is worthy of who we are.
So thank you all so much. Thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you for what you’ve done. And may God continue to bless this extraordinary country of ours that has given each and every one of us so many opportunities to serve. Thank you all very much.