Davis Birmingham, 17, was just a toddler on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes — crashing two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and another in a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day and over 6,000 injured. 

“I was born in 1999, so I was really young when that happened,” Birmingham said. “But there were people on the block who got together and wanted to do something about this. Since then, I’ve grown up in it.” 

Birmingham is a resident of the 700 block of Bonnie Brae in River Forest, where neighbors banded together a year after 9/11 to start LemonAid — an annual fundraising drive that raises money for local charities and service organizations with a focus on children. Each year’s LemonAid event is held on the anniversary of Sept. 11. 

Now an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, Birmingham is one of many Bonnie Brae youngsters who have “grown up in it” — not the lived experience of 9/11, but its aftermath: the days, weeks, months and years after the attack, when values like neighborliness, unity and charity were illuminated by searchlights and blasted from bullhorns and TV news broadcasts. 

“It’s such a blessing to grow up on a block like this,” Birmingham said. “There’s so much love on this block. You can feel it.” 

In its first year, LemonAid raised $400 for the Oak Park-based Hephzibah Children’s Association. Last year, two organizations — PING! and the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry — received over $40,000 from LemonAid. Since its founding, the annual fundraising drive has raised over $200,000 for charities and organizations that serve children. 

“The donations have grown exponentially,” said Patty Henek, one of LemonAid’s main organizers and now a village trustee. “Typically, our goal has been to match or surpass what we raised the previous year. Every year, we’ve been able to do that.”

According to the organization’s website, more than 80 residents of the tight-knit block help plan the annual fundraising drive — most of them children. Each year, two teen co-chairs are selected to spearhead the effort. This year, Birmingham is a co-chair, along with Emily Edmunds, 15. 

The two were responsible for facilitating the nominating process, setting up meetings, making phone calls and sending emails, and visiting the organizations that Bonnie Brae residents select to receive the money. 

“Every year, the process starts really early,” said Edmunds, who has been involved with LemonAid since she was 8 years old. “Almost right after we finish the LemonAid of the previous year, we start the process over again.”

The process is also rather democratic, Edmunds indicated. 

“We start by allowing people on the block to nominate charities, or some organizations will come to us asking to be considered,” she said. “The whole block takes a vote to narrow down the candidates we like. The ones we select will then present to the block and we’ll do another round of voting to pick up to two organizations we’d like to donate to.” 

This year, Bonnie Brae residents selected Kidz Express, a roughly 20-year-old mentoring nonprofit based in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Kidz is the first Austin organization to receive the LemonAid funds. 

“Kidz Express is really special,” Edmunds said. “They stood out because in their presentation they talked about kids helping kids. That really stood out to us and went along with our cause.” 

Douglas Low, executive director of Kidz Express, said the organization targets its services to kids in south Austin, pairing at-risk young people with mentors who are only slightly older and who have triumphed over similar pains and struggles. Those mentors are paid around $3,000 a year. 

If LemonAid matches the $40,000 it raised last year, Low said, his organization will be able to hire at least 10 more mentors. This year, he said, the organization anticipates serving up to 100 kids. He hopes to double that number in the next three years. The LemonAid money should help, he said. 

“We’re very honored to be chosen by [LemonAid],” Low added. “When we presented to them, we talked about the challenges our kids face on a daily basis in terms of violence, gangs and education issues. I think that resonated with them. We’re trying to help kids make better choices when confronted with challenging circumstances.” 

This year’s LemonAid event falls on a Monday, Sept. 11 from 3 until 7 p.m. People can also donate online at http://9-11lemonaid.com.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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