| WASHINGTON, April 19, 2007 Thousands of school children, community leaders, church members and volunteers throughout the nation are preparing to remember those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and to honor military veterans past and present.
In cities, schoolrooms, church halls and community centers, theyre respectfully organizing plans and identifying routes for their 2007 America Supports You Freedom Walks.
America Supports You Freedom Walks have become a new national tradition, said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. It is important for people to participate so we never forget what happened to our country and citizens on 9/11.
During the first Freedom Walk the Department of Defense initiated in 2005, about 10,000 people came together to walk from the Pentagon to the National Mall.
The Freedom Walk was launched as part of the Defense Departments "America Supports You" program, set up in November 2004 to directly connect military members to the support of the America people. As the program developed, Barber said, it became a tool to help the general public find meaningful ways to support the military community.
Today, more than 250 "homefront" nonprofit support groups and numerous corporations have joined the ASY team to provide countless forms of support to those on the frontlines of the war on terrorism. A complete list of these groups is available at www.AmericaSupportsYou.mil.
Just as the "America Support You" program attracted volunteers, the Freedom Walk concept also resonated with Americans who wanted to physically show their support. Many contacted the ASY program expressing their desire to host their own walks.
The response to the first Freedom Walk proved to be so strong, Barber said, particularly among families who called it a healing experience, that defense officials recognized the importance of extending its reach.
"We knew that we had to share the Freedom Walk with more than Washington, D.C.," she said. "And that is why in 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, we extended the invitation to fellow Americans so they could participate, too."
Defense officials began offering planning guides and information for community leaders who wanted to plan their own Freedom Walks. On the weekend of Sept. 11, 2006, about 15,000 people gathered for the second Freedom Walk in the nations capital. Several thousand people participated in more than 130 walks in cities and towns in all 50 states.
Communities, volunteer groups and schools had organized their own Freedom Walks, each with its own unique concept. Many had military or community speakers, honor guards, guest vocalists, troop letter-writing opportunities and wreath-laying ceremonies. Most participants came out to the events dressed in patriotic colors or carrying flags and banners.
The Freedom Walk was integrated into history lessons and provided a way for teachers to explain the attacks on our country while also facilitating an activity that resulted in unity and patriotism within the school body, Barber said.
This year, more than 130 communities have already pledged to participate in Freedom Walks. Defense Department organizers said they hope to get more than 300 cities to take part in the national commemoration, and now is the time for organizations to begin choosing locations and walk routes, contacting potential speakers and planning special events.
One example is College Gate Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska.
Last year, the school commemorated the 9/11 anniversary with walkers silently circling the school five times, a lap for each year that had passed since the attacks. The students then headed back inside to write an essay about what freedom meant to them. They sent the essays to troops serving in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
This year, school leaders are planning to ask a kindergartener whose father is soon deploying to Iraq to assist in planting a Freedom Tree in honor of all the men and women serving the nation in uniform.
The Freedom Walks arent fundraisers or rallies, Barber stressed. They are expressions of respect and remembrance, and they have the same impact on communities and businesses as they do on schools.
More than 2,000 people turned out in Sebring, Ohio, last year to attend a Freedom Walk, for example. Nine-year-old Colton Lockner decided to organize the event after reading about it in his Weekly Reader.
We are not on the Mall in Washington or on Times Square in New York City, John Smith, Sebrings mayor, said during his welcome to the crowd. We are gathered here in a small village in northeast Ohio. We would not be here today if it werent for a 9-year-old boy who had a desire to recognize those whose lives were lost five years ago today and those serving today to keep our freedom alive.
Lockner, now age 10, has already started planning this years walk by sending out letters and e-mails asking for support.
Every organization, business, church or school can organize or participate in a local Freedom Walk or the national Freedom Walk in Washington, D.C., Barber said. Information is available on the web at www.AmericaSupportsYou.mil.