This journey is a story about children wanting to share with children, New Yorkers wanting to say ‘thank you’ for the support we received after 9/11, and all the amazing Americans we have met along the way who are prepared to help their neighbors, wherever they may live.
From October 25th to October 31st 2003, California was devastated by the worst firestorm in the state’s history. 3,600 families lost their homes and twenty-two people perished in wildfires that overwhelmed Southern California from Los Angeles to San Diego.
On November 1st, 2003, my 5 year-old son Evan suggested sending his old toys to the kids in California who lost their homes in the wildfires. Four days, 1,000 e-mails, and nearly 100 volunteers later, I drove a U-Haul truck cross-country with two friends from New York City to San Diego to deliver relief items to the California wildfire victims. We put a banner on the side of our truck that read NEW YORK SAYS THANK YOU.
It was our way of making a statement that, while two years had passed since the World Trade Center terror attack, New Yorkers had not forgotten the love and support we received from across America in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11. And while our truck was only partially full when it left New York City on November 5th, it was completely full when we arrived in San Diego on November 10th. Full of supplies for the fire victims. Full of hope from fellow Americans. And most importantly, full of love.
An army recruiter we met in Pennsylvania gave us all the money he had on him – $4.77 – to help pay for gas for the trip. A hotel employee near Pittsburgh gave us a shovel to take to California as his way of saying “thank you” to his neighbors who had helped him after losing his own home in a flood a few years back. A convenience store clerk at the Jumpin Jimmy’s Citgo in Montrose, Illinois bought $25 worth of toys from her own store with her own money and handed them to us to take to the children in California. And perhaps most touching of all, a hotel manager in Yuma, Arizona gave us his grandmother’s comforter to take to California to literally provide some comfort for the survivors of the wildfires.
Over 500 New Yorkers and Americans from all across the country participated in our initial efforts. And with the help of the Lions Club, the Rodeph Sholom School in New York City, and JetBlue Airways, we were able to outfit a recreation room for the 300 children of Harbison Canyon, CA, a rural community east of San Diego in which 287 of 388 homes burned to the ground in the October 2003 Cedar Fire.
To acknowledge my son and all the New Yorkers and Americans who reached out in this cross-country effort to help our California neighbors in their time of need, the residents of Harbison Canyon, California erected a “street sign” in the center of their devastated town. Pointing to the northeast, it reads:
Evan Parness, New York City, 3,146 miles →
Fundamentally, that sign honors the spirit of giving across this country following 9/11.
The story could have ended there, but it didn’t. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of compassion from so many people who immediately joined our effort. Total strangers in New York came up to our truck with tears in their eyes and thanked us for what we were doing for them. Enabling them to give back as a cathartic vehicle and help others as a way to say “thanks” for the support given us when we needed it most.
And then a few months ago, my 5-year-old son Evan asked me: “Dad, when Josh and I grow up, can we drive the truck if there’s a tornado in Iowa?” At that moment, I knew it was time to try and institutionalize our little effort and thus The New York Says Thank You Foundation was born.
The mission of The New York Says Thank You Foundation is to send volunteers from New York City each year on the 9/11 anniversary to help rebuild communities around the country affected by natural or man-made disasters as our way of commemorating the extraordinary love and generosity extended to New Yorkers by Americans from all across the United States in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11.
None of this would have been possible without the encouragement and assistance from literally hundreds of supporters, across the country. Family, friends, neighbors, our Board Members, and fellow Americans all across the United States.
Welcome to our story of a great American journey.
The New York Says Thank You Foundation
New York City