The patriotism was palpable at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Let Us Do Good Village, a first-of-its kind community in the nation — where mortgage-free homes will be provided for catastrophically injured veterans, and for surviving widows and small children of fallen members of the military and first responders.
The subdivision of more than 100 homes is planned off Parkway Boulevard, in Land O’ Lakes, on 75 acres donated by the Esther and Harold Mertz Foundation to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
Tunnel to Towers, established 20 years ago after Stephen Siller perished on Sept. 11, 2001, will provide the mortgage-free homes.
“The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was started in memory of Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who laid down his life while saving others on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Bradley Blakeman, who served as master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking event.
“Stephen, with 60 pounds of gear strapped to his back, raced by foot through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he gave his life, saving others,” he said.
Blakeman was working on the White House staff on 9/11, as a chief scheduler for President George W. Bush.
Blakeman also had a nephew who died in 9/11, after rushing to Ground Zero to help others.
Like Stephen Siller, Blakeman said his nephew’s body was never recovered.
“The Siller family didn’t want to stay consumed in the darkness and tragedy of that day, but chose instead to honor heroic sacrifices that were made by all 2,977 who lost their lives that day in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“The Tunnel to Towers Foundation promised to never forget,” Blakeman said.
“This Let Us Do Good Village is just one example of the many good works that Frank Siller and the foundation has done all over our country.
“This village, the first of its kind, will create a community of families who will share a special bond together, who understand better than anyone what it takes to keep our nation and our communities free,” Blakeman said.
“It will be more than houses. Along with over 100 brand new mortgage-free homes, the Let Us Do Good Village will feature world-class amenities, will have an indoor basketball court, a pool, a tennis court, an ADA-accessible gym, a theater, an outdoor playground, a game room and so, so much more,” he said.
Another speaker, James S. “Hammer” Hartsell, drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd, when he said: “I feel bad for the rest of America who’s not here today, right here, right now. I feel sorry for them. This is where we need to be as Americans, right here, right now, today.”
Hartsell, who is the executive director of the Florida Veterans Administration, extended his thanks to the many veterans and active service members at the event.
“Thank you for these motorcycle riders over here who are protecting our flag and protecting our nation’s honor,” Hartsell said.
“Thank you for that color guard that drove up here from MacDill.
“I want to thank the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents — who brought kids here today. They need to see this and what we’re doing today because this is what makes America great. They won’t forget what they see and hear here today,” said Hartsell, a veteran of 37 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Recipients of Tunnel to Towers’ help also spoke.
One of those speakers was JoAnne Campbell, who was visibly emotional. Her husband died from a 9/11-related illness.
“We’ve lost people that we’ve loved so dearly, and we felt the pain of losing them and the grief that follows. But through that despair, Tunnel to Towers has helped remove some of the financial strain from me and my family.
“The gratitude that I feel for what they have done cannot be put into words,” said Campbell, whose mortgage was paid off by Tunnel to Towers.
U.S. Army Sgt. Bryan Diberian, who will receive the first Smart Home in the Let Us Do Good Village, spoke, too.
He sustained injuries when he was on patrol in Afghanistan and stepped on an improvised explosive device in July 2011.
“The Siller Foundation was pretty much there by my bedside,” he said. “They sat me down for lunch one day and they told me they’re going to build me a house. It changed my life. It really did.”
Another speaker John B. Grandoff III is on the board of directors for the Esther and Harold Mertz Foundation, which donated the land.
“St. Francis of Assisi is the enduring inspiration for Stephen’s foundation, and he was the guiding light to the Siller family in their times of need and sorrow.
“St. Francis truly inspires the Esther and Harold Mertz Foundation in its mission,” Grandoff said.
Frank Siller, CEO and chairman of Tunnel to Towers, greeted the crowd by expressing his gratitude for being together to celebrate the beginning of the Let Us Do Good Village.
“Can you believe it? You tell me that God doesn’t work in wondrous ways. Is this not a day that God has made?
“This is a day that brings the goodness of America together. Think about it. Think about it,” he said.
Siller reminded the crowd: “We live in this country because there’s such a tremendous sacrifice for us. Not just our military, but our men and women who protect us every single day, our police officers and our firefighters.”
Beyond providing mortgage-free homes, the Let Us Do Good Village will create a unique sense of community.
“This village will be a safe haven for the people who are going through the same thing in life,” Siller said.
A 10-year-old who lost his mom or dad will be able to talk to another 10-year-old going through the same thing. The same is true for a husband or wife, whose spouse sacrificed his or her life, he said.
“You know how important that is, to be able to sit with somebody that’s going through the same thing?” he said.
Siller said his parents died when Stephen was only 10, and he recalled his youngest brother telling him he wished he had not been born.
He told him not to say that, that someday he would do something really special.
“I think Stephen’s destiny was 9/11. I think he was put on this earth to run through that tunnel, to save people’s lives, so that we could start a foundation, so that we could help the greatness of America — those who are willing to die for you and I every day,” he said.
While the groundbreaking was a day of celebration, Siller reminded the crowd: “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
He also encouraged those gathered to follow this teaching, of St. Francis of Assisi: “While we are here, while we have time, let us do good.”
Revised December 16, 2021