9/11 Victim’s Son 'Found Inspiration' in Dad’s Death to Help Others: 'I Know the Loss' (Exclusive)

"We can all do good on this day, in one way or another,” Kevin McDonnell, 25, says in a personal essay for PEOPLE

<p>Kevin Mcdonnell</p> Cheryl McDonnell and Michael McDonnell

Kevin Mcdonnell

Cheryl McDonnell and Michael McDonnell

Kevin McDonnell, 25, is an AmeriCorps alum and the son of Michael P. McDonnell, a victim of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In this personal essay for PEOPLE, McDonnell discusses why he encourages people his age and younger to perform acts of service.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, broke gloriously across the East Coast, with clear sunny skies shining brightly over New York, Washington, D.C., and southern Pennsylvania. The imagery, forever captured, shows that morning wondrously bathed in golden light.

It’s such a stark contrast to the horrific events that would follow. The chaos that would ultimately envelop everything and everyone across this country and around the globe. Those horrible acts would take the lives of 2,977 innocent souls. Another 4,000 first responders would later become gravely ill. But my heart pulls toward the estimated 3,051 children who lost a parent on 9/11.

Because I am one of them.

Related: Teen Born 6 Days After His Dad Died on 9/11 Overcomes His Elevator Fears at the World Trade Center

My father, Michael, passed away that fateful day. He worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Only 4 years old, I don’t think I possessed a true understanding of what his loss meant to me at the time.

But others did. The country cried and it mourned. And as the funerals and memorials wrapped their somber arms around the victims, some turned to patriotic cries in support. And some even turned toward hate.

My mother, who just lost her husband, went a different way. From a very early age, mom always framed 9/11 without hate. Those feelings surely washed over her in the aftermath — the hatred and the anger. Like so many others, she carries with her the incomprehensible tragedy and loss of that day. But I think she chose differently because she felt she owed my father something more.

<p>Kevin Mcdonnell</p> Kevin McDonnell with dad Michael McDonnell and grandfather Patrick McDonnell.

Kevin Mcdonnell

Kevin McDonnell with dad Michael McDonnell and grandfather Patrick McDonnell.

She would not allow his legacy to be one that paid that hatred forward. And I find it remarkable that she could turn that pain into something good. I’m so thankful to her.

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As I’ve grown up, her words have guided me. I’ve tried to find inspiration in my father’s passing. That need would eventually forge into an internal compass. My due north—helping others in need. I like to think dad would be pleased. I couldn’t let my father’s death be for naught, his tragic passing be in vain.

I joined AmeriCorps, working with a program in Western New York to help people. It was 2020, with a presidential election, then it was the middle of the pandemic. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized communities everywhere. Before that backdrop of polarization, struggle, and pain, I found service.

Related: The Children of 9/11 Are Honoring the Dads They Never Knew: 'I'm the Last Thing He Left Behind'

I’m older now, and I recognize many, most even from my generation — Gen Z — suffer from a certain detachment from 9/11. They didn’t live through the horrors. They didn’t smell the smoke or pull survivors from the rubble. People my age and younger didn’t feel the tears streaming down as they embraced in a widower’s hug.

But I know the loss, the devastating impact. That massive rock thrown into life’s pond continues to ripple across the water today. We all suffer some ripples in life. For those struggling through poverty, racism, food security, and more, those ripples crash like giant tidal waves upon their everyday lives.

Neither my father nor I wear the cape of a hero. He was not a first responder running toward the burning buildings. Nor did I serve in the military and join that fight. I first served with AmeriCorps as a volunteer paralegal for low-income Western New Yorkers, helping families navigate consumer debt cases. Today I’m a program manager with an AmeriCorps grantee. But even small gestures can make lasting impact.

<p>Kevin Mcdonnell</p> Kevin McDonnell with mom Cheryl McDonnell and dad Michael McDonnell

Kevin Mcdonnell

Kevin McDonnell with mom Cheryl McDonnell and dad Michael McDonnell

Through AmeriCorps service, I found my own way to become a buttress for others against those swelling seas. My ripple for good, a simple act of kindness and help. Service fulfills my mother’s promise. Serving others carries on my father’s name.

This 9/11, I encourage all to serve, even the younger generation that may not have lived through 9/11. We can all do good on this day, in one way or another.

The morning of 9/11 began with light. A golden warm glow, a promise of love. The horrific, hate-filled actions of the few fought to steal away our light. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let our service to others be that love; let our love bring back the light.

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