9-11 Ten Years Later: Turn Tragedy Into Opportunity – Volunteer!

Alison Thompson, Humanitarian Extraordinaire!

Just before 9-11 I was an investment banker and part-time filmmaker.  When the towers were hit, I grabbed a first aid kit and raced down there to look for them. I lived in the streets for 6 days helping as an independent volunteer at WTC, collecting bodies and washing out firemen’s eyes.  I soon joined the American Red Cross and gave up my film job and lived at the world trade center volunteering for the next 9 months, 7 days a week, 20 hours a day until it was finished.  We were all obsessed with working down there trying to make our city right again.

The events of 9/11 showed me there were larger problems in the world more important than myself. I saw many good things that came out of Sept 11th and the main one was the hope for humanity.  I saw lawyers, bankers, ironworkers, grannies, students and construction workers all working together.  The big lesson I learned that there is room for the independent volunteer to help out and that with these growing disasters and problems in the world that everyone is needed to help in all kinds of ways. You don’t need many skills to hand out water, to listen, or to give someone a hug.

I eventually dedicated my life to humanitarian efforts and am now a full time volunteer. In 2004 the Asian tsunami struck killing over 250,000 people and I raced over there for two weeks as an independent volunteer. I took with me the valuable skills I had learned on Sept 11th and I knew I would be needed. I ended up staying for 14 months running an IDP camp and a field hospital for over 3000 people.

I also started CTEC, which I still run today.  CTEC is the only tsunami warning center in Sri Lanka. After my tsunami trip was finished I had 300 hours of footage taken on my little hand held camera so I made it into a documentary called The Third Wave. Actor Sean Penn saw it and called me asking me if he could take it to the 2008 Cannes film festival. The film was made to help continue to run the tsunami center and also to hopefully inspire people to volunteer. Sean invited me to take 200 young USA volunteers camping around America teaching them about volunteering and we ending up rebuilding in New Orleans three years after the Katrina disaster.

Fast forward to 2010 the Haiti earthquake struck and Sean texted me “Haiti?” and I said, “Yes lets go.” So I found 10 doctors on Facebook and he collected people in L.A and we took off for 18 months to help.  We founded an IDP camp for over 55,000 people and I ran the hospital for the first 5 months. After that, I started my own organization, “We Advance” which deals with gender based violence in Haiti.  I work full time in Haiti and live between NY, Miami and Haiti as a full time non-paid volunteer. I also wrote a book called “The Third Wave” about volunteering.

I now serve as a full time volunteer and am the happiest I have ever been in my life.

Before September 11th I led a selfish ‘me’ ‘me’ ‘me’ life.  Now I am a more forgiving and a gentler me. I have gone off to volunteer long term in 4 disasters and have made a film and written a book so others will be inspired to do it also.  I have successfully run large IDP camps and field hospitals and created a tsunami warning center. I don’t have incredibly large skills but all the little ones have added up.  Through my work I have been able to inspire thousands of people around the world to volunteer.


What is YOUR 9-11 Reinvention Story?


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