For many Americans, the life-altering events of September 11, 2001 have been tucked into memory—and in some respects, even forgotten. However, one St. Petersburg couple has made it their mission to ensure that Tampa Bay area residents remember, honor, and support not only those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also America’s wounded warriors, first responders, and their families. The couple are John Stross, co-owner of Leverock’s Seafood Restaurants, and Jo Brower, a concierge medical practice manager.
The idea formed soon after Brower spoke to a friend who was in the process of organizing a prayer breakfast through the St. Petersburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for 9/11 – Patriots Day, 2011. Her friend was overwhelmed and needed help so Brower, experienced in event planning and marketing, volunteered her skills. She went home and spoke to Stross, who immediately liked the concept. Within six weeks they had raised $10,000.
“We first became involved to help her friend,” Stross said. “We did it. We felt good. It would have been easy to walk away after that.” He recalled how the news media paid close attention to 9/11 memorials that year, it being the ten-year anniversary of the attacks. “But what was going to happen the eleventh year, the thirteenth?” Stross asked. “Americans have short memories.”
The pair realized that in only a short time they had made a meaningful difference. Possibilities blossomed within their imaginations, so Stross and Brower took the idea of honoring and helping heroes a step further. They reached out to a small but diverse group of friends to see if there were others who shared the vision.
“It was amazing how everyone embraced it,” Brower said. “They told us how they had always wanted to help, but didn’t know how.”
“We knew we could make this an annual event,” Stross said. “We could successfully raise money, but who were we going to choose to give it to? We decided that the organizations we chose had to be regional; they had to be extremely well respected; they had to highly rated, and their boards of directors had to be available to approach.”
Brower understands what it means to lose a child, and perhaps it is this experience that has helped her to become such a successful part of their organization.
“We all struggled through 9/11, and we all have a story to share about that day,” she said. “My son had considered joining the army. He would have gone to Iraq. I was scared. He didn’t pursue that, but unfortunately I lost him in a tragic motorcycle accident. I personally had experienced loss, so my heart went out to those who have lost such treasures.”
“It’s not about making people sad,” added Stross, “it’s about reawakening patriotism.”
In 2012, working as partners with the DAR, Brower and Stross hosted a prayer breakfast at the Vinoy and netted $70,000, all which was equally donated to Paws for Patriots, an organization dedicated to providing service dogs to veterans, and to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships, counseling and financial assistance to families of special operations personnel who have been killed or severely wounded in battle.
It was the second prayer breakfast in which they had been involved. It was a very successful event, one that was too big for the St. Petersburg chapter of the DAR. So, with the DAR’s blessing, Brower and Stross took over the Patriot Day breakfast, organized a board of directors, and formed a non-profit organization: Remember Honor Support. 100% of money raised through their organization is given to other non-profit organizations to help first responders, wounded warriors and their families.
In 2013 the event created to remember, honor and support was fulfilled not only by way of the annual prayer breakfast, but also the Medal of Honor Luncheon on September 10, as well as a Patriot Day Golf Classic and Celebration. The 2013 event raised $150,000 and benefitted the same two charities as the previous year, and also a third organization―the Gold Shield Foundation, which provides immediate assistance to families of Tampa Bay area’s fallen police officers and firefighters.
The Patriots Day Prayer Breakfast brings together a diverse group of community members, including St. Petersburg’s mayor, combat wounded veterans, police officers, firefighters, civilians, and civic leaders. Each year, patriotism has pulsed throughout the room with American flags, moving speeches, prayers, and an empty table to honor the memory of fallen heroes, leaving a lasting impression on everyone.
“We consider ourselves civic leaders and we want to do our part to make sure 9/11 is not forgotten,” Stross said. “Besides the money raised – and that’s important― it’s about the awareness, and we’re doing a darn good job of raising awareness. What began as a helping hand has become a passion in our life. It’s something Jo and I can do together and involve the community.”
“It’s about the past, and it’s about the present,” Brower explained. “I think people like us need to get out there and bring awareness to our communities. We have to ask ourselves, how are we helping?
By Laura Kepner for Destination Tampa Bay magazine
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