A new Broadway musical is based on the story of air passengers who had been stranded in Lewisporte, Newfoundland and the townspeople who comforted them following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The grateful passengers, led by Shirley Brooks-Jones, created an endowed scholarship fund for high school graduates in the Lewisporte area. Thus began a connection that has spanned two decades and forever changed hundreds of lives.
“My experiences working with the college prepared me for working with these students,” said Brooks-Jones, a CFAES alum, former college administrative assistant and fundraiser for The Ohio State University.
Brooks-Jones was returning home from Europe on that tragic day, among the nearly 7,000 passengers from 38 wide-bodied planes whose flights had been diverted to Gander, Newfoundland.
With flights grounded for several days, the passengers were dispersed to nearby small towns and villages, where denizens welcomed, fed and housed them.
“They essentially shut down their town, came in from these little tiny places and took care of us,” she said. “We didn’t have our luggage or anything.”
That feat of logistics and human kindness in the wake of international terrorism inspired Come from Away, which is now playing on Broadway.
Brooks-Jones, who grew up in Vinton County, Ohio, said she identified with the townspeople, who didn’t have much but shared what they had and refused to accept payment from the passengers.
“Several of us on the plane got together and talked,” she said. “How do you do something for someone who doesn’t want you to? How do you do it to without offending their dignity?”
After being permitted to return to the United States, Brooks-Jones spearheaded the effort to create The Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund, which is housed at the Columbus Foundation. As of next month, a total of 249 high school graduates there will have received scholarships to attend colleges, universities or vocational/technical schools.
“It has encouraged so many kids to study hard and do it.”
During the past 16 years, Brooks-Jones has returned to Lewisporte, Newfoundland 27 times to award scholarships or to commemorate 9/11. She works to promote the fund, which continues to grow. In addition, she wrote about her experiences, and her story is among those appearing in Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul: The Spirit of Canada, due to be released June 6.
“It’s just been an amazing experience. I go back to my work within the college. Working with so many people in so many different areas prepared me for this.”