STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You just hear the date, and you remember. Today marks the 12th anniversary of the biggest attack on U.S. soil. Since the attacks, there's been an effort to turn 9/11 into a national day of service, and in 2009, Congress made that official. A couple of public relations professionals have been behind the idea. They say it is now the largest day of service in the country, with more than 30 million people involved.
And as NPR's Margot Adler reports, the organizers have higher hopes.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: It's a place most New Yorkers don't even know exists: the FDNY Fire Academy on Randal's Island, right off the RFK Bridge, once called the Triboro. Private schools play sports here, but there's a huge training facility for the New York City Fire Department. Scores of red fire engines move about, and firefighters train here every day.
Even a group of Marines passes by. But paint is peeling off the doors where the fire trucks are parked. When 200 volunteers in white and blue T-shirts with the words I Will on them show up to paint the academy's insides and garage doors, Deputy Assistant fire Chief John Mooney greets them with a few jokes.
JOHN MOONEY: I can't believe they're coming out here to paint my fire academy.
MOONEY: I can't get the city to do it. You're going to do it for free. But I have to check for union cards.
ADLER: Although David Paine and Jay Winuk cooked up this idea, it took an additional eight years of walking the halls of Congress to convince lawmakers to declare 911 a national day of service. They say more than 30 million people will do something charitable this week, although it may just be giving a donation. But they want more. Winuk, who lost his brother in the attacks, says generations from now, it would be a shame if people only learned of the tragedy of 911, and not how good people of the world responded.
JAY WINUK: We all showed the best of human nature right after 911, and it was sustained for some time, for some months after. And together, we all rebuilt New York and got this country back on its feet, and it was a special time. And we wanted to kind of capture that spirit of compassion in a bottle once a year.
ADLER: After a few speeches, the volunteers are split into teams.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have water over here. Make sure you stay hydrated. There's gloves over here. Grab a pair of gloves.
ADLER: Rollers, brushes and big cans of red Benjamin Moore paint. Jesse Abraham and Mara Soucie are painting the red garage doors.
JESSE ABRAHAM: I've actually never painted before, so it should be interesting.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice, Mara.
ADLER: In another area, volunteers are putting together picnic benches. This is a group of lawyers from Holland and Knight, the company Jay's brother worked for.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, keep going. Keep going. Keep going. A little bit more, if you want to make this part flush.
ADLER: Near by, Diana Caliguiri from Astoria, Queens, is painting a door. She had a vacation day, and thought, why not give back to the first-responders? But when she got here and saw the academy and the firefighters, she was kind of blown away.
DIANA CALIGUIRI: It evokes a lot of emotion. I think just looking around and seeing how these firemen are training and the facility here, it puts you in their world and what has to happen in order for them to do their job for us.
ADLER: David Paine says at the 10-year anniversary of 911, only 8 percent of Americans were aware of this day of service. Now it's up to 30 percent. But it will probably take decades for this to happen.
DAVID PAINE: So the parents say to their kids: So what good deed are you planning today? I really hope it'll be like that.
ADLER: Someday, says Paine, it will just be assumed. The day of service website is 911Day.org.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.