By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Wednesday marks the fifth observance of Sept. 11 as a federally recognized National Day of Service and Remembrance, but that's news to most people.
Fewer than three in 10 Americans are aware of that designation, according to a survey by Horizon Consumer Science conducted two months after the last year's observance.
Still, more than 100 million Americans marked Sept. 11 - the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks - in some personal way in the last two years, most frequently through prayer or some private remembrance such as a moment of silence, the same survey found.
Those who still carry vivid memories of the attacks recall not just a sense of tragedy but also a sense of pride as volunteers rushed to New York to clear debris, serve meals to rescue workers, write sympathy letters to the victims' families or send money.
"Something changed after 9/11 in the way people give of themselves,'' says Jay Winuk, a co-founder of the 9/11 Day of Service whose brother died in the collapse of the twin towers. Winuk's brother, Glenn, was an attorney in Manhattan and volunteer firefighter who left work to assist with the evacuation.
Winuk thinks the extraordinary outpouring of volunteerism aimed at helping victims of more recent tragedies involving hurricanes, tornadoes and the bombings at the Boston Marathon prove the national mindset is more attuned to spontaneous assistance.
Nationally, an estimated 35 million people performed volunteer work on the 2012 Sept. 11 anniversary, up from 30 million in 2011, according to Winuk.
For people who weren't born in 2001 or were too young to form memories of what happened, such volunteer work is a reminder that the attacks were both a tragedy and, for many Americans, a call to duty.
Winuk and 9/11 Day of Service co-founder David Paine have partnered with school publisher Scholastic Inc. and the Corporation for National and Community Service to provide free lesson plans for teachers to help them observe the Sept. 11 anniversary. About 40,000 teachers downloaded the lesson plan last year.
About half the teachers who used the lesson plan did so in conjunction with a service project for students such as a book drive, food drive or tribute to local first responders, according to Winuk.
Mary Devane, who serves as co-advisor to the community service club at Horace Greely High School in Chappaqua, N.Y. is working to make sure the organization's activities reflect the call to mark Sept. 11 with volunteer work.
"We are creating a week of service,'' Devane said.
Club members plan to volunteer at a Mount Kisco church food pantry on Tuesday, speak at a student government assembly Wednesday and hold a planning meeting Thursday for a project to assist Ronald McDonald House.
Sept. 11 has special meaning at Horace Greely High School because some students and teachers there have connections to people who died in the World Trade Center attack.
Devane thinks service projects may be the best way to remember the date as the years go by.
"For my club, if this works well this year, this could be something we could do every year,'' she said. "I could see this being a kick off and a good tone to set for the school year. I definitely think it could be very similar to the way Martin Luther King Day has become a day of service.''