ePromos Talks To Jeff Parness, Founder And Chair Of New York Says Thank You

Today, members of the ePromos team are offering some helping hands to New York Says Thank You Foundation (NYSTY). The organization, a 100% volunteer-based nonprofit, helps rebuild communities around the country that have been impacted by disaster.

The focus for its annual 9/11 Anniversary Project is right in ePromos’ backyard – in Long Beach, the Rockaways and Staten Island. Volunteers from ePromos’ New York office and people around the country are coming together to rebuild 10-15 homes over the weekend. ePromos is also donating 500 custom t-shirts for volunteers to wear during the rebuilding projects.

“This is the biggest project we’ve done, and I’m in awe,” says Jeff Parness, Founder and Chair of NYSTY.

If you’re not familiar with NYSTY, the story is fascinating. And nobody tells it better than the man who started it all: Jeff Parness. See our interview with Jeff here, and check out our blog next week for photos from the job site.

Jeff Parness, New York Says Thank You

Photo credit: CNN

What inspired you to start NYSTY?

It was a very personal reason. My friend and business partner, Hagay Shefi, was killed in the attacks. He had a wife and two young kids. That changed my life forever. I’ve thought about Hagay every day and what we could do to commemorate his life. Two years later in 2003, my 5-year-old son, Evan, was watching CNN and saw a news report about wildfires in California. He looked at me and said he wanted to send his toys to the kids who lost their toys in the fire.

Within three days we had volunteers. I put a big sign on the side of the truck that said: New York Says Thank You. It was my personal way of paying homage to Hagay. As New Yorkers, we’ll never forget what others did in our time of need. From that simple suggestion of a child, we’ve grown into the largest volunteer service organization dedicated to remembering what happened on 9/12. That’s what it’s all about.

What do you want people to know about NYSTY?

The fundamental message is not about 9/11 but about 9/12. It’s a powerful message. No matter what the tragedy, whether its wildfires, shootings, tsunamis, no matter how bad the tragedy, the sense of compassion and kindness is so much more powerful.

NYSTY started with disaster relief, and now we’ve created an education division: The 9/12 Generation Project where kids are learning about NYSTY through a beautiful educational movie. Teachers teach citizenship and how a child’s idea can turn into a national pay-it-forward service movement. We set a goal of a million and a half children to be touched by the project.

How is your family involved in the organization? Did your son design the t-shirts that ePromos made for the volunteers?

Both my sons, Evan and Josh, have grown up in the organization. Evan, the older, is very artistic. It was a few years ago that he came up with the logo of the statue of liberty holding a hammer. He took that logo, and in his own artistic sense, he wanted to acknowledge all the other cities that were helping. He drew beachy letters to convey New York and beach communities.

We’re so appreciative that ePromos turned it into a professional graphic. I wish I would have had a picture of his face when he saw it. It’s very personal to our family.

NYSTY has helped rebuild all over the country – how do you decide which projects to take on?

Over the years, I’d answer the question by saying I watch The Weather Channel and I’d wait to hear about some small place that got whacked. The secret sauce is that traditionally we go to small towns. These people are blown away. They think: Wait a sec, you’re going to bring NYC firefighters to us to help us?

This year, unfortunately, the decision was made for us. Hurricane Sandy was Katrina in our region. Most people don’t fully understand it. There were 650,000 people who lost their homes. These families are living elsewhere and struggling with the rebuilding. There were over 2,000 NYC firefighters and cops who lost their homes.

We were starting to plan a trip to go to Japan to help in tsunami relief, but when we realized just how many first responders lost their homes, we knew we had to help them. We made the pledge to rebuild 200 homes of first responders. So far, we’ve completed 65. By this weekend, we’ll be up to 80.

What happens after you select a project? 

NYSTY has become a family reunion. We have 9/11 survivors, and we have an extended family of disaster survivors from all over the U.S. With Hurricane Sandy, it’s been different and it’s been challenging. Normally we’ll do a big barn-raising and put up a big structure. For example, we went to Botno, North Dakota, and built a ski lodge.

It’s one thing to bring volunteers and build one big structure. With this it’s different. You have 650,000 of your neighbors who lost their homes. This year, we reached out to the commissioner’s office and said: If you could quietly publicize to have first responders who lost their homes register with us. I said there weren’t any promises, but we can see what we can do for them. We’ve had close to 300 families register with us. This is the first time we’ve taken applications. It’s been prioritizing based on who’s in the greatest need and who’s in a position for us to help now.

How many volunteers have participated in NYSTY’s rebuilding efforts?

More than 40,000 people have volunteered in any number of our projects. We’ve done one major rebuilding project a year since 2004, but a number of sites we’ve done as many as 14 service projects connected to the main project.

What do you think inspires volunteers to give their time and work so hard?

What makes NYSTY unique is that virtually all of our volunteers are survivors: 9/11, cancer, Katrina, domestic violence. They find it empowering to volunteer with us. That’s what makes NYSTY really special. It’s always been about helping people pay it forward.

You have more volunteers from outside New York than from the city itself – what does this mean to you?

This was never about New York – it’s always been about America. When I started this, I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I thought: We’ll do a little trip and bang nails for a day. I realized it kept growing, and it was about letting people go into these tiny towns and change people’s lives. They just become part of your family. What’s so humbling is that we have a lot of volunteers who don’t have much money, and they make sure they save their vacation dollars to be with us because they want  to be with their family.

What’s it like on the site of a project?

It’s total chaos. People can always find me easily – I’m the guy walking around in cowboy boots, shorts and mardi gras beads. It’s like a party. People are so happy to be with each other. People are hugging and crying and laughing and hammering. It’s been about the people and bringing them all together. Even a blind person will realize this isn’t your average construction site – it’s a family reunion.

Why do you think the organization has been so successful?

Two things: #1 is that everybody knows where they were on 9/11 and how powerless they felt. We deliberately chose to focus on the positive and to honor that day through service. It creates such a powerful, positive energy. #2 is that sometimes if you make it easy for people to step up and volunteer, they’ll be there for you. Because of this energy of empowering volunteers, there’s a momentum that I never could have imagined.

You’re at the helm of NYSTY – what’s the organization’s biggest challenge?

Me getting out of the way! I was the chief cook and bottle washer doing it all on my own, and we’ve been so fortunate to build such a great staff. We have people in Arkansas, Texas, Iowa – all over the U.S. To have this virtual organization and to have it gel together so well is amazing. As the founder of an organization to be able to trust your people and know you’ve been blessed with the right people and to step back and see the vision and passion drive them .

What has been the most humbling part of your journey with NYSTY?

Being around people with such deep faiths and strong convictions who have experienced such enormous tragedies – just to be next to them. They’ve gone through so much and they’ve let us into their lives and into their healing process. That’s been extremely humbling.

What has running NYSTY taught you? How has the organization changed you?

It’s interesting because we’re not a faith-based organization but the people who are involved have strong faiths and spiritual backgrounds. I always say I’m a nice Jewish man who builds Methodist churches with Amish people. You can’t help but say to yourself: What’s my purpose? Why did God choose me for this particular position? So many people have been able to answer the question: What’s my divine purpose? I’ve really found myself in this. I’m only 48. As a dad, from a purely selfish perspective, it’s been wonderful to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. It’s not about us – it’s what we can do for someone else.

What’s next for NYSTY?

We’re going to keep trying to build homes every single weekend until we get to our 200 goal. It’s going to be at least another year. As long as people want to volunteer and donate money, we’re going to keep at it. With our education division, there will be almost 1,000 schools across the country that air our video and get kids active. What’s next is up to everyone’s imagination.

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