CIRCLEVILLE — Last year, around the 19th anniversary of 9/11, Noon Rotary invited a guest speaker with a unique 9/11 story to speak about her experience on that day and the power of small communities.
Shirley Brooks-Jones, 84, spoke as one of the “plane people” who were aboard planes that landed at a small airport in Newfoundland, Canada after terrorists hijacked two planes that hit the World Trade Center Towers, a third that hit the Pentagon and a fourth that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. The United States followed by grounding all civilian aircraft and closed United States’ airspace. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day.
She was on her way back from a three-week training in Denmark, stopping in Germany with her friend to see her friend’s daughter. They left Germany the morning of Sept. 11, heading originally for Atlanta.
Brooks-Jones said she and fellow passengers were aboard the plane 28 hours at Gander International Airport while people figured out what to do when the town of Lewisporte came to their rescue and the rescue of the 30 or so other planes on the tarmac. With about 7,000 people on the planes, many of the local towns and villages, like Lewisporte, doubled in size.
“The local mayor had gotten everyone together and talked to all the civic organizations and they opened their doors up to us,” she said.
For the few days, the local residents cooked food, provided shelter and did what they could for those stranded aboard the planes, some of which were from all over the world.
Brooks-Jones recalled one older teenager who was reading a children’s book to a bunch of children and the capacity of kindness of one young boy.
“He had his stuffed animal in his right arm and he was dragging his security blanket behind him, he couldn’t have been five years old,” she told Noon Rotary. “Those were his two most prized possessions, but he was willing to share them because there were people in need.”
After their three-day stay, Brook-Jones said the passengers on their flight home and the people of Lewisporte wouldn’t accept any money. So they decided to create an endowment for a scholarship fund after learning many of the students don’t graduate high school due to a lack of opportunity and needing to get jobs.
“The idea came about to raise some money and help one or two students, but that didn’t seem like enough,” she said.
By the time the plane landed, they had $15,000 in pledges for the endowment and after working with Ohio State University, where Brooks-Jones was a fundraiser, Rotary and other organizations, the fund grew to over $1 million. In the last 19 years, they’ve presented 313 scholarships to students from the area.
Brooks-Jones said her message is that small communities can come together and make a big change.
“It’s about how kindness and people who look at others who are in need,” she commented. “That little boy, who brought his stuffed animal and blanket, I’ll never forget him. He’s now in his 20s.”
Brooks-Jones has returned to the area 30 times since that day and people are very thankful for the scholarship fund. She has since been named an honorary member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, the highest honor in the province.
“They’re wonderful people. I’m so grateful for all the people I’ve been able to meet from around the world,” Brooks-Jones concluded.