As Kevin Tuerff knows on a deeply personal level, acts of kindness from total strangers can have an impact that lasts a lifetime. In 2020, the 57-year-old founded a nonprofit charitable organization called Pay it Forward 9/11 in direct response to the extraordinary acts of kindness he and 7,000 other airline travelers experienced when their planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland in Canada on September 11, 2001. “The words ‘United We Stand’ were pervasive across the world in the year following the 9/11 attacks,” Tuerff said. “I believe that by encouraging more acts of kindness to strangers, we can become more unified, not just in the United States but around the world.”
On September 11, 2001, Tuerff was returning to his home in Austin, Texas on an Air France flight from Paris through New York City. Along the way, he suddenly noticed that the plane had started a descent. Checking the GPS screen, he saw that the plane had taken a sharp turn to the north: “It looked like we were heading straight to the North Pole,” he said. “The pilot said, in French, ‘Something, something terrorist’” and then finally in English, “Due to terrorist attacks on the United States, we will be landing in Gander’. And that was it. I didn’t know if Gander was in Iceland, Greenland, or Canada.”
Gander, a town of 9,000 people, has one of the largest runways in North America because it was built by the British and U.S. militaries during the Second World War for planes to stop and refuel. Gazing out of his window during the 15-hour wait that followed, Tuerff watched “a parade of huge planes arriving every few minutes.” The mayor of Gander declared a state of emergency, and while the airline passengers sat in confusion and trepidation, the people of Gander got to work. “It was so moving to realize why we had to sit there for so long. They had to get ready. Nobody expects 7,000 people just to fall out of the sky,” Tuerff said, but the townspeople were mobilized and ready by the time the passengers finally emerged onto the tarmac.
“I can only describe it as a party scene,” Tuerff recalled. About a hundred volunteers, including members of the Red Cross and Salvation Army, greeted them and offered food before shepherding them onto waiting school buses. The people on his flight were taken to a local community college, where they were to stay for the next four days. “It was an amazing experience. I kept witnessing these remarkable acts of compassion,” he said. Townspeople opened their homes for people to take showers. The town had only 15 taxis, so “we got into cars with strangers, and they took us wherever we wanted to go.” Everyone was helped: “No matter who you were, someone was there to help you,” he said.
Creating a Ripple EffectWitnessing the wholehearted kindness of the people of Gander and their unanimous refusal to accept money or even thanks, got Tuerff thinking about good deeds in a whole new way. “I have witnessed that participating in kindness, whether you are the giver or the recipient, can be really powerful, and it has the ability to change attitudes,” he said. On the first anniversary of September 11, Tuerff wanted to do something to mark the occasion and to honor the people of Gander.
Tuerff remembered a movie called Pay it Forward about a boy who starts a movement of kindness by doing three good deeds for strangers and asking them to do the same. “So I stole that idea,” he said. As the founder of a small advertising firm with 40 employees, Tuerff told his staff that they would be closed on September 11 and would instead go out into the community to perform acts of kindness. “I handed out 100 dollar bills and told them to go and do good deeds,” he explained. As they shared their stories later, there were tears of joy: “People expressed how shocked they were at how something so simple, like buying someone a cup of coffee or a transit pass, really impacted them. After the response from my staff that first day,” Tuerff said, “I knew we would do it again next year.”
And so began an annual tradition. By the second year, a lot of his staff had told their spouses and friends, and he started receiving inquiries from other people who wanted to do it too. “We weren’t a charity back then. This was just our company’s volunteer effort,” he explained. Other companies adopted the idea too, and the movement started to spread.
'Come From Away'On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Tuerff heard there was to be a reunion of passengers in Gander. He decided it was finally time for him to go back. While there, he attended several events and gave a number of talks. After one of these functions, a couple approached him. “They said, ‘Hey, we’ve been given a grant by the Canadian government to write a musical about what happened here.’ I thought it was a comical idea but I love musicals and I’m happy to talk to anyone,” Tuerff said. In 2001, just before his vacation that ended so unexpectedly in Gander, he had purchased a new digital video camera. He gave the producers access to his 2001 footage, allowed them to interview him, and then thought no more about it.
“In 2013, they called me and said, ‘Remember those interviews? Well, we wrote a musical, and you’re in it!’” They invited him to the first student production of the musical, “Come From Away,” at Sheridan College outside Toronto. Tuerff asked the producers if they could help him spread the word about his Pay it Forward efforts, and they agreed. They handed out 100 dollar bills to the crew, cast, and band and sent them to perform acts of kindness in whatever city they were performing. “And so the word kept on spreading with the expansion of the musical even into other countries,” he said.
Pay it Forward 9/11In 2020, he registered his charity, Pay it Forward 9/11, feeling that he needed the help of board members and donors. Thanks to a suggestion from someone in Kansas City, he started a new campaign challenge: 11 days of kindness starting from September 1 to September 11. “Last year it really took off,” he said happily. “In 2022 we had people in 42 U.S. states and 16 countries doing good deeds for strangers.”
Both givers and receivers of kindness experience beneficial impacts. As the giver, you receive what is known as the “helper’s high”: a feeling of euphoria that can last up to several hours after performing a good deed. Tuerff explained, “Research shows that if you start doing this on a regular basis you’ll be training your brain to seek out opportunities to do more.” Tuerff has experienced how performing an act of kindness for others can instantly inspire them to go and do the same. “It’s so easy, really, and it doesn’t have to cost anything. When people see others doing it, they think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and they do!”
At the moment, Tuerff’s organization is run by volunteers. He hopes that by the 25th anniversary of 9/11, it will be big enough to be able to employ some staff. “Our plan is to grow,” he said, simply. “There are opportunities for kindness every single day.”