5-year-old behind 9/11 charity grows up, speaks out

Evan Parness was only 3 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and he started that day like he had many others: by watching "Sesame Street" with his little brother. Then the news interrupted, showing footage of planes; a worried call came in from a family friend; and  Evan, his parents, and their neighbors soon rushed to the roof of their building and looked downtown, toward the plumes of smoke.

"I still remember that to this day," says Evan, who's now almost 13. "I thought there was a fire downtown. I was ignorant to what actually happened."

In the days that followed, firefighters and volunteer aid workers from around the country flooded to Ground Zero to offer relief to New Yorkers in mourning. Evan's father, Jeff, had lost a close friend and business partner in the World Trade Center attacks. For Evan, the outpouring of kindness from total strangers was a bright spot in the city's darkest hours -- one that he and his dad would not forget.

[ Photos: Images of 9/11 memorials across the country ]

Two years later, Evan, then 5, was fighting with his 3-year-old brother, Josh, about who deserved a new stuffed bear their dad had given them to share. When the argument subsided, Evan sat down with his dad to watch news reports of wildfires in Southern California. "There was this little girl on the news, and her house got burned down -- her whole house wasn't there," says Evan, still sounding shocked by the realization. "I was thinking, 'That girl has nothing and we're fighting over this stupid toy. Why do we even need it?'"

Evan offered to donate his own toys, which only moments before had seemed so important to him, to the young victims of the wildfires. Maybe it was a flicker of the memory of so many people coming from across the country to help New York City right after Sept. 11 that made Evan do it. For Jeff, it was more than a flicker. It was his way of returning a huge favor. A former venture capitalist with a knee-jerk impulse to think big, he enlisted New Yorkers around the city to join in the donations. Four days and almost 100 volunteers later, Jeff was driving a U-Haul truck across the country with a special delivery for victims of the California wildfires. Across the side of the truck he placed a banner that read, "New York Says Thank You."

Eight years later, New York Says Thank You is a volunteer organization 7,000 people strong, offering aid to disaster-stricken communities throughout the country. In a pay-it-forward model, each community NYSTY helps has the chance to return the favor by volunteering in relief efforts for the next community in need.

[ Donate: You can aid disaster-stricken communities by giving to New York Says Thank You ]

In 2004, Jeff returned to San Diego with 14 New York volunteers in tow to help rebuild homes that were lost in the fires. In 2005, he recruited 30 New Yorkers and several Californians he met the year before, to help rebuild homes for families in the tornado-stricken town of Utica, Illinois.

Since its inception, the organization has restored homes and shelters in more than 10 struggling communities and spawned an additional community-driven campaign to restore and showcase a tattered flag that flew over the wreckage at Ground Zero in 2001.

As director, Jeff leads the fund-raising and volunteer-organizing efforts for NYSTY's annual rebuilding projects. His family members -- wife Sandy (who's an attorney), Evan, and Josh -- all join the retreats, which are usually set in the two to eight weeks leading up to Sept. 11.

In July, they headed to Ellijay, Georgia, to rebuild a rescue shelter for farm animals; it had been torn apart by a tornado. "Josh is now chairman of the children's building committee, teaching other kids on the trip how to use the tools," Jeff says. "He's been using power tools now since he was 5."

Evan, however, has maintained his role as chief inspiration. He has been interviewed by news channels, had a street named after him in a California town, and was featured in a documentary about the organization that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

But for Evan, who seems to understand the gravity of suffering well beyond his years, the work is the real payoff. In 2006, he joined his dad and 600 other volunteers to rebuild a chapel destroyed by a twister in DeGonia Springs, Indiana. Last year, they corralled more than 1,000 people to help rebuild homes in Mena, Arkansas, after a tornado ripped through the town. He's held lemonade stands to raise money for supplies and recruited close friends for weeklong rebuilding projects. On one trip to Slidell, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina hit, he helped rebuild a home for a 6-year-old boy with leukemia. "I met him a few times, and I felt really sad for him," says Evan, his voice growing quiet.

[ Photos: Gallery of 9/11 rescue dogs ]

On the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, Evan, Jeff, and a team of NYSTY volunteers will head to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, with a unique gift. They'll plant 3,000 Stars of Hope, hand-painted wooden stars emblazoned with messages of encouragement from fellow disaster-stricken survivors in other communities. The stars are meant to add color and spirit to the areas that were hit the hardest.

For Evan, September marks another milestone: his bar mitzvah. He's focused his studies for the Jewish rite of passage on the mistakes of the past and how to learn from them. "If there's another genocide in the world, we have to speak up," Evan says. There's an urgency verging on frustration that lights up his voice.

It's an unexpectedly mature response from a 12-year-old who has just been asked about his birthday. But Evan's natural empathy, nurtured by eight years of helping disaster-stricken kids his own age, has set him apart from many of his classmates. "Some get it, and some don't," he says. "But my best friends appreciate [the organization]. I have one friend who comes on our trip every year."

While Jeff hopes to keep New York Says Thank You going for another 10 years, Evan doesn't plan on taking over as director. When he grows up, he wants to be an archeologist or maybe an architect. When asked if building homes has inspired his interest in architecture, he pauses for a minute to consider it. No, he says, and redirects his answer to a larger, more important question -- the one he should have been asked. "I think what's changed me after 9/11," says Evan, "is just knowing there is always hope, and people out there who care for you."

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