After an F-5 tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas in May 2007 and destroyed 95 percent of the town, the New York Says Thank You Foundation traveled to the town in September 2008 to help rebuild. While New York Says Thank You volunteers were building physical structures, HOPE was being built one star at a time by child survivors of the tornado.
Stars of HOPE is an outgrowth of the New York Says Thank You Foundation run by the Vincent family from Groesbeck, Texas. After New York Says Thank You rebuilt the Vincents' house -- a home also to numerous disabled war veterans whom the family has taken care of for three generations -- when it was destroyed by a tornado in December 2006, the Vincents were determined to "pay it forward" in any way possible.
Before they knew it, the Vincent family was in Greensburg to help fellow tornado survivors rebuild their community. With wood left over from the construction of the Vincent's home that the family brought with them to Greensburg, volunteers cut out stars and gave them to local children.
On each star the children painted inspirational messages of hope, love and kindness for their families and neighbors. The stars were then attached to wooden stakes and placed throughout the town. Within a span of three days the devastated landscape of Greensburg was physically and emotionally transformed with the help of the children's brightly painted stars.
Since 2007, the Vincent family has tirelessly dedicated their time and energy to helping children in communities affected by disaster to bring color and inspiration to their towns through the Stars of HOPE program. This year on the anniversary of 9/11, the Vincent family along with other New York Says Thank You volunteers were in Joplin, Missouri, helping children and other community members who survived the May 22nd tornado transform the ravaged landscape with 3,189 Stars of HOPE.
The stars will be placed on every corner of Joplin to honor the 3,000 Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks and the 189 members of the Joplin community killed by the May 2011 tornado that destroyed large sections of the city.
It was no small thing to watch Joplin children who survived the tornado painted Stars of HOPE alongside World War II veterans, students from Missouri Southern State University, members of the FDNY, and countless other Joplin residents on the weekend of the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11.
It is also remarkable that, while the majority of the stars were placed throughout the city throughout the course of the weekend, a handful of the extra stars will end up in other disaster-ravaged communities throughout the nation in the upcoming months.
Some of the stars will also be placed throughout Japan this winter when Stars of HOPE and New York Says Thank You take their first international trip to help rebuild hope for the survivors of the March 2011 earthquake.
To me, the Vincent family exemplifies the American spirit. Through their hard work, dedication, kindness and love, they help children to transform communities throughout the nation with simple messages of hope.
Tracey E. Vitchers is the co-founder and national project director for the 9/12 Generation Project, which is the youth education and volunteer outgrowth of the New York Says Thank You Foundation.