Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

A handful of weeds, a heart full of hope

Nathania'€œTanya'€ Aritao '€™12

Dean Vereene Parnell of the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility (SSSR) has noted that when it comes to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there are those of us who are too young to really remember and those of us who absolutely cannot forget. I fall somewhere in between.

It was nighttime in my native Philippines when the attacks occurred in the United States. I think I had just come home from dance practice. My mom was watching TV. I remember the shock and distress in her voice, how she called us over to see the news. I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, or how two planes could’ve crashed into the building—I was thinking of the Philippine World Trade Center, a spacious but very low building. I remember sitting in front of the TV, watching the footage, unable to equate what I saw as something real, something current. It seemed too much like a scary scene created for a movie. I sensed that what I was witnessing was significant and world changing, but as a 12-year-old at the time, living halfway around the world, I felt ever so removed from the reality of it.

Ten years later, I have a much better grasp of how that day changed everything for the nation in which I now study. However, I still have felt distanced—until this year, when I attended a 9/11 service of remembrance in Cole Memorial Chapel and took part in a local service project, both coordinated by SSSR.

Even though Wheaton has sponsored service projects in remembrance of 9/11 in the past, I had never participated. I’ve always been an active volunteer at home, in the Philippines, but disappointingly I never brought my commitment to service to the community surrounding Wheaton. In my senior year, I finally signed up to work at a nearby organic garden at the Crystal Spring Earth Learning Center, as one of more than 200 student volunteers working throughout the local towns.

As a guest and visitor in this country, when I showed up to the chapel for “Out of the Ashes, into Community: A Service of Remembrance and Hope,” I had arrived with an open heart, hoping and longing to be moved, to perhaps feel more connected to 9/11.

The featured speaker, Cindy McGinty, one of the inspirations for the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance and co-founder of My Good Deed, helped make that connection for me. She lost her husband during the terrorist attacks in New York. She shared her story and how acts of service, both given and received, changed her life. “Just by helping someone, you find that you get more than you give,” she said. As someone committed to the lifestyle of service, I felt the most connected to her when she said, “Look at people who serve and you’ll see content people who love what they do.”

At Crystal Spring, which is dedicated to developing a sustainable way of life that honors the interconnectedness of all things, I thought about her words as I worked side by side with other Wheaton students, pulling weeds by hand from a stream to clear the water’s path. It was amazing to immediately notice the difference we made in the garden, and even more amazing how satisfying a simple act like clearing a stream could feel.

Tragedies happen every day, in big and small ways, and they’re just going to keep on coming. That’s life. But, it is what we do in response to these tragedies that makes all the difference. By reaching out, in my own small way, I felt like this year, finally, I was able to truly connect with and honor those affected by 9/11, with a small act of service and a quiet moment in their name.

Nathania “Tanya” Aritao ’12 is a preceptor, co-captain of the Wheaton College Dance Company, manager of TRYBE, head of the Dance Collective’s outreach committee, managing editor of Wheaton Her Campus online magazine, a Davis United World College Scholar, and president and executive director of the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project, Inc., in the Philippines. 

Photo by Jessica Kuszaj