Think “Sept. 11, 2001,” and community revitalization probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But for more than a hundred paint-brush-toting, shovel-wielding volunteers in Prince George’s County, giving back Tuesday was their way of saying thanks for the sacrifice of those who died in the terrorist attacks.
The volunteers gathered early Tuesday, chit-chatting over coffee and doughnuts outside the Eastern Avenue Apartments, a low-income housing complex in Seat Pleasant and the site of the day’s work.
Some noted that the crisp fall day was eerily similar to the weather 11 years earlier, when four airplanes were hijacked and intentionally flown into targets in New York and Washington, as well as a Pennsylvania field. Others exchanged stories about what they’d been doing when they heard the news of the attacks: heading to work, sitting in class, working out.
At 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, organizers led a moment of silence.
Then, it was time to get to work.
Volunteers from organizations such as the Mission Continues, Volunteers of America and AmeriCorps dug up weeds, cleared fallen branches and collected debris. They planted flowers and poured mulch over the playground. They painted staircase railings and common areas.
“Where are my really artistic people?” called out Phil Bauer, the man leading the painting of a community room. “Because I want the mural on that wall to look awesome. Let’s rock and roll.”
Bauer, a 36-year-old veteran, trekked down to Washington from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to participate in the Seat Pleasant event. He said that volunteer efforts like this one are, at times, “the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Bauer enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, a day that he said only reaffirmed his decision. He began basic training in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq the following year, but his military career was short-lived.
“On Nov. 2, 2003, I was shot down in a Chinook helicopter just outside of Fallujah. There was a 200-foot ‘bounce,’ as I like to call it,” he said, “and the wreckage caught fire with me underneath.”
Bauer survived, but returned to the United States with a laundry list of ailments: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and below-the-knee amputation of his right leg.
“I spent the next five or six years of my life trying to destroy myself one way or another,” Bauer said. “I pretty much lost everything I cared about: my wife and kids, my job, my community. For nine months, I was locked in my bedroom.”
Bauer said an integral part of pulling himself out of “that hell” was volunteering with East Coast Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit that uses at-risk youths to train service dogs, and the Mission Continues, which links veterans to volunteer opportunities and also helped organize Tuesday’s event.
“The process of giving back helped me find my purpose again,” he said. “Those civilians, those first responders who put themselves at risk on 9/11 — they were trying to help the community. What better way to give back than to honor that civic duty?”
The revitalization of the Eastern Avenue Apartments was one of several similar projects nationwide, in Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis and New York.
It also kicked off a nine-month-long renovation process for the entire complex, which is made up of aging concrete structures that Bauer likened to a “military barracks.”
Tuesday’s event took care of the exterior, while a grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development will allow each of the building’s 88 units to undergo a $55,000 renovation.
According to Annette Anderson, the property manager, the improvements to Eastern Avenue Apartments reflect the changes she sees going on in the neighborhood and the county, which has gained notoriety as the site of criminal activity and homicides.
“I’ve been here three years, and it was nothing like it is now. It was a drug-ridden community. There were open-air drug deals,” she said, waving her paint brush emphatically. “Now we have police patrolling. We have cameras. We have a really nice community here now.”
Ronald Butler, an Eastern Avenue Apartments resident of six years, agrees. “The area has changed,” said the 59-year-old Butler, steadying himself with a cane as he slowly rolled a coat of paint onto a pillar. “It’s changed a lot. They’re chasing out all the bad elements. I think when we’re done renovating over here, all the bad elements will be gone.”
Despite Anderson’s and Butler’s enthusiasm, any change will likely be gradual. Hours earlier, about a mile away in Capitol Heights, 18-year-old Marckel N. Ross was fatally shot while walking to school.
Tuesday morning, volunteers worked inside and outside the complex. It didn’t take long before Eastern Avenue Apartments’ new face began to show.
“It’s amazing when you get a small army of people, motivated and working towards the same goal,” Bauer said. “It brings up those feelings that we all felt in the days after the attacks — feelings of community, support and love.”