ELLIJAY, Ga. --- New York City firefighter Mark Medina spent months sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001, pulling out body parts for hours each day.
A decade later, he's building rather picking through debris.
Medina traveled to Ellijay in the north Georgia mountains this week to work alongside hundreds of disaster victims from across the country. They are building a barn for an animal rescue destroyed by tornadoes in April. The project is part of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, which sends firefighters who survived the terrorist attacks, emergency workers from Hurricane Katrina, and survivors from tornadoes and wildfires in several states to help rebuild after other disasters.
The barn-raising for the Ellijay-based Build an Ark Animal Rescue, which was destroyed by tornadoes April 4, is the 11th volunteer project by the New York foundation.
"You put your arms around somebody and say, 'Don't worry. It's going to be OK,' " said Medina, who retired this year because of injuries. "You feel so lost, so hopeless, and all of a sudden people show up and then you're like, 'Oh, my God. We're going to get through this.' "
THE GROUP IS about half disaster victims and half volunteers, some of whom hear about the foundation's work and just show up, organizers said.
The foundation was started in 2003 by venture capitalist Jeff Parness to help pay back the kindness the country showed New York City after the attacks. Along the way, the foundation has collected volunteers from each disaster it has helped -- from the California wildfires to a tornado in Greensburg, Kan., that nearly destroyed the entire town.
Susan Littlejohn, who runs the rescue, said she's been working on a "shoestring budget" for years but now will have the facilities to do much more -- from birthday parties for needy children to petting zoos for nursing home patients. Littlejohn, along with two volunteers and more than 60 animals --from pigs to goats to doves -- survived when the rescue's barn collapsed after it was hit by two tornadoes at once.
Littlejohn said Parness called her shortly after the storms and told her his plans to rebuild the barn. A few days later, he traveled to Ellijay to go over plans.
Parness' foundation is building a massive barn with a living space for Littlejohn on the site where her rescue was destroyed. The volunteers are expected to work through Sunday.
THE NEW YORK SAYS Thank You Foundation was the brainchild of Parness, whose 5-year-old son told him the family should help other disaster victims. In 2003, they drove a trailer full of clothes, toys and supplies to California to give to wildfire victims.
Since then, they've built barns, gazebos, homes, community centers and a chapel in towns across the country. The projects grew from 14 volunteers to more than 2,000 each year.
The volunteers bring with them one of the large American flags found at ground zero, asking people in each community they visit to repair the holes by sewing in parts of other flags that survived other disasters. The piecemeal flag will eventually hang in the memorial being built where the twin towers once stood.
Parness calls the foundation's work "the ultimate vindication" for the terrorist attacks.
"It's this huge dysfunctional family reunion of disaster survivors," said Parness, whose business partner died while giving a lecture on the top floor of the trade center. "No matter what the tragedy is, when people come together, nothing is impossible."