Sarah Bourke, a George Mason University graduate who now lives in New York City, couldn't believe the TV commercial she saw recently. It had the bright colors and punchy music of a department store white sale ad. A woman's voice said:

"It's our big September 11 sale! Take 30 to 40 percent off every item throughout the store! Plus early birds take an additional 10 percent off! . . . Doors open early and stay open late!"

Said Sarah: "I just walked over to my couch and sat down, mesmerized, shocked and thinking this is so wrong."

Then actor Gary Sinise's voice came on: "Let's create a way to remember September 11 before someone else does."

Said Sarah: "I will give the commercial an A for effort -- it certainly got my attention -- but at the same time I almost couldn't remember the organization, just because I was so shocked at seeing it."

The ad is the creation of One Day's Pay -- www.onedayspay.org -- a nonprofit group working to establish Sept. 11 as a national day of volunteering. (The ad isn't being shown in the Washington area. You can see it at www.nycremembers.org/news/service.html. Click on "Video Ad 3.")

One Day's Pay's founders include relatives of those killed on 9/11. The group's president, David Paine, said he understands why the issue I discussed in a column a few weeks ago -- how exactly should the anniversary of Sept. 11 be marked? -- can be so heated.

"The truth is that everyone -- including the family members -- understands that the country needs to move on beyond the tragedy of that day," said David. "At the same time, we need to find a way to never forget 9/11."

One Day's Pay's simple idea: Help others, whether by giving blood, volunteering at a soup kitchen, making a cash donation or any other charitable effort.

"There were two things that will forever linger in our minds and hearts" about Sept. 11, David said. "The first is the horror of it and the second is the remarkable spirit of unity and compassion."

One Day's Pay wants Americans to remember the unity and compassion, not, said David, "the memories the terrorists created."

Rebecca Fitzgerald of Sterling said she has a special way of marking the Sept. 11 anniversary: "It is through honoring a fantastic lady, friend and colleague of mine who not only survived the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center but also the 2001 tragedy with a particularly harrowing story."

Rebecca's friend was in the Trade Center's North Tower when the plane hit. She was able to make it down the many flights of smoke-filled stairs and to safety below before the towers collapsed. Rebecca sends her a thank-you note each year -- "thanks that she lived."

Said Rebecca: "I think we forget what the survivors go through each year. To them, on 9/11, that day becomes fresh and new. By no means do I diminish the loss families and friends will forever endure because of the many tragic deaths suffered that day. I know these people would rather be celebrating a survival than a death. I will forever be grateful that my friend is among the survivors -- and I am thankful I can tell her so every September 11."

Nada Dickerson of Ellenton, Fla., said she has given a great deal of thought to how Sept. 11 should be marked. At first, she thought the day should be sacrosanct, unsullied by frivolous celebrations. She had a change of heart.

"The whole point of terrorism is to invoke terror, take away our freedoms, change the way we live our lives," Nada said. "By purposely avoiding the planning of any celebrations, by changing the date a birthday or anniversary is celebrated because of the events of that day, we are bowing to the wishes of the terrorists."

Nada doesn't think anyone will ever forget Sept. 11. She knows she won't. "If we have something to celebrate on that day -- a birth, an anniversary, a marriage -- more power to us. We can remember the victims and celebrate life and freedom at the same time."

This fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks comes at a remarkable time, a time when David Paine's thesis -- that the worst brings out the best in Americans -- is being severely tested. The thin veneer that holds our society together crumbled in the face of high wind and high water. Can we really count on our government? On each other?

David believes all human beings are good people, and he says that as someone who runs a public relations agency in New York City.

"We all are such wonderful creatures of nature," he said. "We reach out to help. That's our natural way of being. We get so caught up in our busy lives that we forget what's most important."

When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, we were given a big reminder.

People in the Washington area are helping in many ways. Churches are welcoming homeless families. I passed a kid-run Katrina lemonade stand last weekend and a fundraising car wash. My daughters filled backpacks with supplies for the Kantor sisters, three Bethesda girls who are collecting them for children uprooted by the storm.

In a way, Sept. 11 came early this year.

David Paine has one more message: "Support the [hurricane] effort," he said, "but remember you have many needy charities and people in your own town that are looking for help. . . . Their stories may not be as visible as the ones you're seeing on CNN, but they're just as compelling in many cases."

Compelling? That's my weekly online chat, today at 1 p.m. Strangely compelling, anyway. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.