Response to 9-11 making a difference

Those that overdosed on television news coverage leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9-11 may have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to remember, reflect and look to the future — all while standing shoulder to shoulder with members of the Elk River community.

There were many that by the eve of the anniversary had all the images and words they could take. The thought of another program, television or otherwise seemed like one too many after all their eyes and ears had taken in during the days leading up to the anniversary.

Those that still had not had enough and grabbed Kleenex on their way out the door or simply wanted to be there at Elk River’s 9-11 program and open house will not regret attending. The program was filled with powerful speeches, including a surprise revelation for many in attendance that day that Elk River’s own fire chief had worked at Ground Zero less than a week after the terrorist attack. It’s not something that Chief John Cunningham shared with a lot of people. He’s waited for the right opportunities to present his story, a small but important splinter of the fallout from that fateful event.

Working at Ground Zero was a life-changing experience for Cunningham, who was 21 years of age at the time, and the other men he worked alongside.  There was more said between them in the drawn out moments of silence  than when the banter common among firefighters flared up. And when Cunningham and his best friend, Dominick Briganti, walked away from it all on an eerily silent New York City street a tidal wave of emotion came rushing over them. 

Can you imagine having just experienced what they did and being the only two people walking down a New York City Street and then turn a corner to see the boulevard lined with flag-waving Americans holding signs of thanks?

“Don’t thank me,” Cunningham said to himself. “I’m not a hero.”

Cunningham and Briganti were just there for the people who weren’t coming home. And that’s what makes them heroes in my eyes, and it’s the reason a small boy broke from the crowd to present firefighters Cunningham and Briganti with a ribbon that reads simply this: “Who you are makes a difference.”

That’s true of all of us, and it’s why Cunningham chose to hand out ribbons at the anniversary program at the Elk River Public Safety Complex. 

The ribbons are the product of Difference Makers International. 

The organization’s goal is to have 300 million people worldwide honored with a “Who I Am Makes A Difference™” Blue Ribbon by 2020!  

The organization’s mission is to give children and adults of all ages life skills educational programs so that they become  confident, creative and successful citizens able to transform mediocrity and negativity into a world of possibility, pro-activity and prosperity.

The terrorist attacks on America, including the World Trade Center, were atrocities, but America’s response — and the response of people like John Cunningham — sets America apart from much of the rest of the world.

Who we are and who John is truly makes a difference. I’m glad I was there to hear his message and to help him carry it forward. By doing that we are able to move forward in a way that honors those people who didn’t walk away from those atrocities and those who are still paying the price for them. Jim Boyle, editor (Editor’s note: Anyone who wants to know more about Difference Makers International can check out the organization at If you want to help the organization reach its goal, email them at [email protected])