Transforming 9/11 into Acts of Kindness, 1 city at a time

Six hundred!

That’s the number of friends who showed up in the heart of Detroit to redirect their “9/11” energy toward fixing up venerable old Clark Park—and a whole host of other neighborhood centers throughout Detroit as well. Learn how this was done and you may want to do it yourself next year!

Most of our readers don’t live in Michigan, so here’s a bit of background about this famous setting: A century ago, Clark Park was celebrated as a cultural jewel, bequeathed to Detroit in 1888 by John P. Clark, a successful commercial fisherman, real estate tycoon and Great Lakes ship designer. In its prime, Clark Park boasted meticulously tended flower gardens, a fountain, a children’s center, a pond for toy boats and many other amenities. Detroiters were so proud of the place, they mailed picture postcards to friends to show off their idyllic setting. Today, in sharp contrast, Clark Park barely surves in the midst of a big, diverse community near a vibrant “Mexicantown” commercial center with terrific restaurants—because all those families and restaurants are situated in a city with barely enough money to mow the city-owned grass let alone care for a city-owned park. In some years in recent memory, Clark Park has fallen on such hard times that the city has nearly shut it down due to dangerous, unkempt conditions. Now, imagine the problems found in managing Clark Park peppering dozens of other neighborhood centers throughout this major American city. Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done!

Gail Katz and other community leaders decided to make a difference this autumn. Gail is the co-founder and head of WISDOM, the nonprofit organization that created this “Friendship and Faith” book and this ongoing Internet effort to collect stories from women across the U.S. Today, Gail shares her “9/11” story about friends gathering to help a great, but sadly ailing city—and the success of a program known as “A-OK.”

This is Gail Katz story …

This year, to remember what happened on 9/11/2001, we dedicated ourselves to Acts of Kindness, a national community service initiative. In Metro Detroit, this vision moved organizations from across Metro Detroit to engage volunteers in a variety of community service.

The Acts of Kindness (A-OK) mission is to transform 9/11 from a day of mourning into a day for people to come together and work side by side to make their community a better place to live. With this new approach, 9/11 becomes a day to learn about each other’s interests, families, faith traditions, and a day in which we can find our commonality as human beings. As we work together, we reduce myths and stereotypes about the “other,” and increase respect and understanding.

I heard about this Acts of Kindness initiative from my interfaith sisters in Syracuse, New York. Women Transcending Boundaries decided to spread the word about their plans for A-OK, and their enthusiasm lit a fire in my soul.

I announced this idea to the Education Committee of the InterFaith Leadership Council here in southeast Michigan, and it wasn’t long before we were connected with the Clark Park Coalition, WISDOM, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), City Year, 1 By Youth, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, the Michigan Community Service Commission, and Leadership Detroit as our main partners, bringing along with us help from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, among others.

Our partnership got a late start. We came together in June for a September 11th and 12th event. But I was amazed at what was accomplished by working with such a dedicated committee. This was a very diverse committee made up of young and not so young—Muslims, Christians and Jews—men and women—retirees and employees—Black folks and White folks—all of us plowing ahead to make A-OK Detroit a success.

And listen to what happened!

On Saturday, 9/11/2010, 600 volunteers showed up in Clark Park in southwest Detroit. 600! There were Christian teens from all over Michigan, City Year volunteers galore and folks who had read about this event in the WISDOM newsletter. Some volunteers came from great distances to join us—all the way from Grand Rapids, Brighton and even northern Michigan. We had families come with their sons and daughters, and we had grandparents bringing their grandkids. After the opening ceremonies under beautiful clear skies, we deployed folks to 11 sites in a 4-mile radius of Clark Park in southwest Detroit to mulch and weed, plant flowers, trim bushes, board up decaying buildings, pick up garbage, paint over graffiti, clean up playgrounds for children—the list was so long!

Christian teens from small towns in Michigan got to interact with Muslims and Jews, eat Arabic bread and Latino baked goods for breakfast. They got to see the diversity of southwest Detroit, a mixture of races and ethnic backgrounds. Members from the First Congregational Church of Royal Oak came down, and spread the word among other affiliated churches in Michigan. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan put out the word to their communities, and many Muslim families and children joined us. Because Saturday 9/11 was the Jewish Sabbath, it prevented many Jewish families from joining us on this day, but overall A-OK definitely expanded our vision of community!

And from our blue skies of the morning, we experienced the rains of the afternoon. Our big closing ceremonies in Clark Park had to be revised to an indoor sharing of A-OK cake and tacos, along with the good vibes of having made a difference and new friends in southwest Detroit.

Sunday, September 12th was different. From the 600 volunteers of the day before on 9/11, we had about 30 dedicated folks show up for the second day of service. We sent everyone about five miles away to the Mercy Education Project (MEP), which serves a culturally diverse population of more than 100 girls and 140 women from Metro Detroit each year by offering an after-school tutorial program, a summer enrichment program and literacy development and adult basic education for the women.

We were delighted to meet Amy Amador, the Executive Director of MEP and Sister Maureen Mulcrone, the Director of Development and Marketing. They got all the volunteers busy immediately with moving furniture, painting the walls, scrubbing down the pods and chairs—and weeding the outdoor gardens.

It became clear to those of us connected to WISDOM that this was an organization that we, as a women’s interfaith non-profit, could partner with to work towards the empowerment of women in Detroit. And so we WISDOM women celebrated this fact with Amy Amador. What fun!

We returned home very tired but very high after a busy weekend of community service and interfaith and intercultural interaction. We have made a difference in southwest Detroit, but this cannot be just a one-time event. We must maintain our relationships and move forward to break down our cultural and religious segregation. The A-OK committee is working to do just that—getting more people together to talk, break bread together, perform community service together, and find out what we all have in common.

Our hope is that the A-OK idea moves far and wide across the U.S. so that Detroit and Syracuse aren’t the only major hubs of A-OK activity in 2011 and beyond! If you read this story and want to create an A-OK project in your part of the U.S., visit our WISDOM website contact page and tell us what you’re planning! We want to help you spread this idea to touch as many lives as possible.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe. (See link upper right.) Share these stories with friends. (See links below.)

(Originally published at

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