Calling for kindness
‘Let’s not let the terrorists own the day,’ says Kevin Tuerff in his book inspired by his stranding in Gander
Returning home to Austin, Texas, after Sept. 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff had changed. Having been an airline passenger forced to land after the terrorist attacks happened and U.S. airspace was closed, Tuerff could easily have come home jaded, disheartened, angry and frightened.
But he returned with a fuller heart.
Tuerff had been one of almost 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Gander in the days after 9-11, and despite the terror and fear in the world, he experienced something positive that he carries with him to this day.
“We were treated to the most amazing kindness from the people there,” says Tuerff, who is the inspiration behind character Kevin T. in the Broadway musical “Come From Away. “We weren’t the legal definition of refugees, we were seeking asylum in Canada, but we had no food, no shelter and no information, and the people of Gander and all across Newfoundland, they provided that willingly, openly and in remarkable ways.”
On the first anniversary of 9-11, Tuerff closed the doors of his environmental marketing firm, paired up his employees, and gave each pair $100 cash. He told them to go and spend it on acts of kindness, then come back in the afternoon for a meeting to discuss what they had done.
Some bought coffees or bus passes for strangers. One team broke the money into 100 singles, clipped a note to each dollar explaining what they were doing, and handed them out on the street corner. One team bought a $100 savings bond and brought it to the maternity ward of a local hospital with a card: “Because your baby is born on a day that will always be linked to a day of tragedy, we’d like you to have something positive you may share with the child in future years.”
“One of the staff took $50 of the $100 and went to a tire repair shop,” Tuerff says. She said, ‘I want to pay for however many repairs this will buy.’ She had actually paid for seven people to get their flat tires fixed.”
A year later, after the local news ran a story on what Tuerff and his employees were doing, Tuerff got an emotional voicemail.
“A man had called. He said, ‘What you’re doing is remarkable. I was having a bad day, a terrible day, I had a flat tire and somebody paid for it. It really changed my life,’” Tuerff says. “I couldn’t believe it. You know what that cost? $7. And it made a difference in that guy’s life. It made a difference in the lives of our staff, too.”
Tuerff made the project an annual event, and established a movement, Pay It Forward 9-11, to encourage others to do the same, not only on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but every day. He has written a book, “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9-11,” and in it he details not only his experience in Gander, but the ways he has turned the 9-11 tragedy into something positive, with the goal of getting others to do the same.
Tuerff was back in Newfoundland last month, where he crossed the island on a book tour and gave presentations on the value of being kind to strangers. A number of community groups, schools and churches as well as individuals pledged to join the Pay It Forward 9-11 movement and undertake activities and acts of kindness today.
Acts of kindness needn’t be expensive or extravagant, says Tuerff, who now lives in New York but was back in Texas over the past couple weeks, assisting with relief efforts after the flooding there.
“There are simple things that some people may do all the time,” he explains. “Maybe letting someone cut in front of them in traffic or opening a door for someone. If you want to truly make a human connection, try buying a cup of coffee for the person waiting behind you in line or maybe anonymously picking up the tab for someone’s breakfast.
“Let’s not let the terrorists own the day by talking about and showing images of terror again. Let’s make it a day of hope and service and helping others.”
Kevin Tuerff has returned to Gander many times since 9-11, and delights in giving back to local residents with small acts of kindness. Last month he was in town and helped serve breakfast to residents as part of Gander Day celebrations.