AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – In a few days people across the country will commemorate the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As so many remember that tragic day, Tunnels 2 Towers is encouraging people to come together, learn the history of the monumental day, and help raise money for the organization to use to assist the military and first responders. Augusta University has partnered, once more, with the organization to host the 2022 Tunnel to Towers 5K Run and Walk Greater Augusta.

Brad Means: Let’s start with Tunnel To Towers. John Ryan is the co-volunteer director of that organization. You’re going to see some images in this interview from Cornelia Ryan and Sadie the sweet, sweet dog, who is the official mascot really of the Tunnel To Towers walk/run in Augusta, right? I mean Sadie’s the face of it.

John Ryan: Absolutely. She is. She’s the face of it.

Brad Means: John Ryan, so are you. And your efforts make this thing happen each and every year, it’s getting bigger and better. I want to thank you for what you do, and I wanna give my love to you and all your people up in Queens, New York.

John Ryan: Thank you.

Brad Means: Everybody okay up there last time you checked?

John Ryan: Everybody’s good. Yes sir. Thank you very much for those kind words.

Brad Means: Absolutely, let’s give the viewers a little sense of how this Tumble To Towers foundation started. It goes back to 9/11, 2001, and it goes back to the efforts of a hero. Give me like the 32nd version of how his memory is always honored.

John Ryan: So Stephen Siller, one of many heroes on 9/11.

Brad Means: Yeah.

John Ryan: Stephen’s story is unique and inspiring in that his efforts to just get to the twin towers so that he could enter and save lives was noteworthy, and that he needed to run through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel because the island of Manhattan had been closed. And so that effort in itself, donning protective gear, air pack, 60 some pounds of protective equipment, and then running through the tunnel to the towers where unfortunately with 342 of his brothers he perished. And his family in an attempt to honor him and the other responders that were lost that day, and all Americans frankly, started the Tunnel to Towers Foundation shortly thereafter. And initially the foundation was designed to support catastrophically wounded warriors from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And did a wonderful job with that, raising millions of dollars to build smart homes specifically built around the needs and the limitations of a particular warrior.

Brad Means: Yeah, I wanna talk about those smart homes in just a second.

John Ryan: Sure.

Brad Means: But first, so has it expanded to first responders in general, as well as our military heroes?

John Ryan: It has, thankfully the campaigns overseas have wound down and the need to support catastrophic wounded warriors has waned a little bit. And so the foundation has taken on an additional cause to where they now support first responders injured or killed in the line of duty domestically. So all across the country, they’ll step into a situation where a spouse has been saddled with a mortgage situation or financial burdens because their loved one was killed in the line of duty protecting the community, and the foundation will pay off the mortgage and support the first responder families in that regard.

Brad Means: Tell me more about the criteria. Obviously one criteria speaks for itself, if somebody is killed. What about injury? Are there certain levels of injury where you would say, “Okay yes, you qualify.”

John Ryan: Yeah, so the foundation is extraordinarily magnanimous and liberal in its application of its monies and its support. So there are necessarily qualifying triggers, if you would, to get support. It’s just really dependent upon the individual situation and they’ll step in and they’ll support really anyone that has a need.

Brad Means: I know those smart homes that y’all provided were huge for our military men and women. Are y’all still doing a lot of smart homes these days? And if so, kind of describe what that is. Is it completely automated?

John Ryan: So dependent upon the… So yes, they are still building and delivering smart homes to wounded warriors And really the home is built around the needs and the abilities of the particular warrior. So if a man or woman that was injured in the line of duty has particular limitations, mobility issues, maybe they need a doorway more wide, accessible by ramp. Things in the kitchen sometimes can be difficult to access for someone that has mobility issues. So they’ll design the home around the needs and the abilities of a particular individual, which I think is wonderful.

Brad Means: Have you had a firsthand opportunity to watch somebody go from being perhaps overly dependent on others, because they’re in a traditional home, and then you watch their life change.

John Ryan: Yeah, and it’s really noteworthy, right? It’s something you don’t forget, and it changes lives and impacts people in positive ways. And then the impact moving forward that that person can then reengage into society and become a meaningful, contributing member in society. And all of that is because of the work that the foundation does. So it’s really wonderful.

Brad Means: And so for the people watching right now, are these benefits that you’ve described just for local folks, or do people from all over the country come to you or is there a branch where they are?

John Ryan: So there’s Tunnel To Towers affiliates all over the country. And it is a domestic nationwide program. And they’ve helped folks in Georgia, and they’ve helped folks in all 50 states. So really it’s all across the country.

Brad Means: Right, so we’ve pictured this beautiful Saturday September 10th morning hopefully, with tons of folks at AU taking this walk and then what happens, their registration fees, their donations go into a big pot and pay for everything you’re talking about?

John Ryan: Correct.

Brad Means: Yeah.

John Ryan: So there are a number of different initiatives that the foundation champions. The run/walk series is just one of them. They have tower climb series across the country. There’s a myriad of ways for folks to get involved and support the foundation. And then the monies, yeah, they go into a great big pot, and then the board of directors at the foundation determines how to support and how to give back to the communities.

Brad Means: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about the stair part. Because I know that’s a component of some of the other events nationwide. Any difficult hills or challenges? Should people who are thinking about taking part have a certain skill level of walking or running?

John Ryan: Absolutely not. We’ve designed our event to be as inclusive as we could possibly make it, and we’re continuing in that quest to make it more accessible and therefore be more inclusive as the years unfold. So it’s almost entirely flat, and it’s a very fun, beautiful, easy course to navigate. It’s welcome to competitive runners, it’s welcome to non-competitive runners and walkers, people pushing baby carriages, anyone with mobility issues. We want everybody in the community to have a place to come. And fellowship and remember 9/11. There’ll be a beautiful ceremony at eight o’clock in the morning that the city of Augusta will have speakers and noteworthy guests will be there. President Keel from the University, or someone from his cabinet will speak. We’ve got the Marshall, we’ve got someone from the Sheriff’s office, the fire chief. So we kick off at eight o’clock with a 46 minute long ceremony.

Brad Means: Yeah, appropriate.

John Ryan: Then at 8:46, we start the 5K, and it’s just a great way to spend the morning.

Brad Means: When that first plane hit the north tower.

John Ryan: Yes, sir.

Brad Means: What about companies, corporations, churches, what have you. What can you say to them about making the most impact?

John Ryan: So as far as being involved with the-

Brad Means: Yeah.

John Ryan: Yeah, so there’s a never ending need, unfortunately, for the ways that the money is spent on our first responders and wounded warriors. So anyone in the community that wants to be a supporter and to be a sponsor, please reach out, and we’ll find a way for your resources to be put to the best use. We’ve had several sponsors that have been with us all six years that we’ve been doing this. And so we really appreciate our sponsors and we’re constantly looking to develop and maintain new relationships, and just let this thing grow in the way that it’s intended to serve,

Brad Means: Well, I mentioned Sadie the dog at the top of this interview, and that probably answers this question. Can pets take part?

John Ryan: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Yeah.

John Ryan: Absolutely. Bring out the pets. It’s a entirely inclusive event including pets and it’s just a fun day.

Brad Means: How are the Sillers doing. Stephen Siller left behind five children, a wife. He was supposed to just be hanging out playing golf that day. Do you hear from them these days?

John Ryan: So Frank is very engaged.

Brad Means: His brother?

John Ryan: Yeah, Frank, his brother is very engaged, reaching out to all of the network of affiliates across the country to ensure that we have the support that we need to further their cause. It’s a tremendously supportive organization. Cornelia and I hear from them a dozen times throughout the year. There’s always something in the mail from the foundation, from Frank. A telephone call, et cetera.

Brad Means: He knows about Augusta.

John Ryan: Oh yes. Absolutely.

Brad Means: What’s the sense that you get out there? Probably my last question really, from people young and old when it comes to 9/11. To me it seems like two seconds ago, as a native New Yorker. It probably does to you too. How about America? How are we doing as far as remembering that moment? Those days?

John Ryan: That’s a tough question.

Brad Means: Yeah.

John Ryan: So in one regard, we’re doing well, right? Because you’ll see that there are events, but in another regard it seems like the further away we get from 9/11, 2001, we have new generations coming up that don’t have firsthand experience or memory of that, and it takes an additional proactive effort to try and ensure that we introduce to them, the coming generation, what this is all about, why it’s important, that we’ll never forget, but they don’t have the memory. And so we need to instill the apolitical patriotic, I don’t wanna say requirement, but-

Brad Means: But you’re right, you need to just look at it. Yes, that was an event that’s indelibly marked in our minds, but it’s also a catalyst for the cause that you’re behind right now. And even if you have no clue what 9/11 is because maybe you’re just a 20 year old, then at least support this, go walk, go help our heroes.

John Ryan: Yeah, and we’ve got opportunities for folks to learn out there, right? So it’s, again, a morning of remembrance, a morning of fellowship, and there’ll be displays and discussions on what does 9/11 mean? And why do we remember this every year? And why is it important? And why do I see this number 343 everywhere? And what is this all about? So it’s… We’ve strived for six years to make it the focal point where the whole community can come together and remember 9/11 together. And so that’s what we’re proud to offer up on September 10th.

Brad Means: Well, I can’t thank you enough. September 10th, as John mentioned. Eight o’clock in the morning is the start time. Learn about what happened 9/11, 2001, and then at 8:46, start walking. Let’s bring in a ton of resources for y’all to keep going strong. Thanks for what you do.

John Ryan: Thank you so much for having us.

Brad Means: Absolutely. Cornelia, Sadie over there. You saw them. We thank them as well. Information on the walk is gonna be coming up right here on your TV screen, as well as on our website. First 20 people to sign up get 50% off of their registration fee with one word, MeansReport. Remember that. We’ll put that info up as well. On behalf of the Sillers and the Ryans, thanks everybody.