Jeff Parness, then a corporate finance consultant, still remembers the shock and pain he felt upon learning that his business partner, Hagay Shefi, had died in the attack on the World Trade Center. He struggled to find a way to honor the memory of his friend and the others who perished that day. In 2003 an idea finally came to him—courtesy of his 5-year-old son, Evan. When the boy heard about the devastating wildfires that swept through southern California that October, he suggested sending his old toys to kids who had lost their homes. Four days and hundreds of e-mails later, Jeff set off across country in a U-Haul truck filled with kid-friendly donations from neighbors and friends. "I put a huge banner on the truck that read 'New York Says Thank You,'" he says. "I wanted to make a statement that New Yorkers had not forgotten the love and support we received from America after 9/11."
Jeff decided to organize the New York Says Thank You Foundation (NYSTYF), a service project that would send hundreds of people from New York City each September to help other communities affected by disaster. Since then some 10,000 people—including firefighters, family members of 9/11 victims, survivors and ordinary citizens—have stepped up via newyorksaysthankyou.org to plant trees, and rebuild homes, churches and even a Boy Scout ranch in tornado-ravaged towns in Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Kansas and Iowa. After Hurricane Katrina, NYSTYF volunteers made 27 trips to the Gulf Coast, and later this year will assist the Build an Ark Animal Rescue Foundation of Ellijay, Georgia, in repairing a badly damaged barn housing companion animals for seniors and the disabled.
Jeff draws upon his vast business connections to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate and individual contributions, which pay for supplies as well as the volunteers' airfare and housing. But NYSTYF is also a family business that involves his wife, Sandy Hauser, and sons Josh, 9, and Evan, now 12. "The boys have grown up banging nails next to New York City firefighters in towns across the country," Jeff says. "As a parent, I want to use 9/11 to teach kids that by being kind, they can transform tragedy into something hopeful. If you can inspire a generation this way, the impact of what our kids will do will be immeasurable."