Our first-ever Summer Leadership Challenge is in the books, and it was nothing short of transformative! Designed for high school students and facilitated by a core group of 9:57 Project Veterans, this program delved into leadership, service, team building, and the uniqueness and power of the Flight 93 story. The beautiful setting of the Warrior Retreat at Bull Run provided a perfect opportunity to learn and serve with one another, and we cannot overstate how grateful we are to the good people at Willing Warriors who hosted us for the week. We could not have asked for a better partner!

Throughout the week, students had the unique experience of engaging in immersive leadership workshops led by experienced Veterans. These sessions covered a range of topics, from service and resilience to effective communication and problem-solving under pressure. The skills that they worked to develop will support them now and in the future as they were challenged to not just learn about leadership but to live it out as well.

To that end, students participated in a variety of service projects around the grounds at the Warrior Retreat. They worked to remove large limbs, branches, and other debris following a large storm, wrote thank you letters and notes of support to Veterans and their families, sorted t-shirts for an upcoming fundraising event, and hid painted rocks for children of warrior families to find during future visits to the retreat. These activities not only reinforced the importance of service but also fostered a sense of community and responsibility among the students. Our students were also given the unique opportunity to visit with Terry Shaffer, the fire chief at the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department. Terry and his crew are the embodiment of service as they pulled 15-hour shifts in the days and weeks following 9/11. Their crew was one of the first on the scene that day, and they continue to serve the town and surrounding areas on a volunteer basis today.

One of the most moving moments of the program was our visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial on the final day of the week. We were honored to be led by Debby Borza, mother of the youngest passenger aboard Flight 93, Deora Bodley. Standing on hallowed ground, we reflected on the actions of the brave 40 passengers and crew who sacrificed their lives and saved our Capitol and hundreds of lives in Washington, DC. As we walked through the museum and memorial grounds, we were reminded of the resilience of the human spirit to stand up for what is right in the face of adversity. Debby has a dedication to ensuring that the story of Flight 93 lives on through the next generation, and we were honored to have played a role in support of this noble mission.

Finally, in a fitting tribute to the legacy of service exemplified by the heroes of Flight 93 and our nation’s Veterans, each student was given a challenge: to design and carry out a service project of their own creation in the next 12 months. The projects that our students designed were as diverse as the participants themselves, ranging from organizing community clean-up events to supporting local animal shelters. Through these initiatives, the students will work to not only honor the memory of those who came before them but also demonstrate their commitment to making a positive impact on their communities. With the support of The 9:57 Project, they will continue to be mentored in this process over the course of the next year.

The 2023 Summer Leadership Challenge was a resounding success, fostering leadership, service, and remembrance. The combination of workshops, service opportunities, teambuilding exercises, and the solemn yet inspiring visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial created an unforgettable experience that serves as momentum as we begin to imagine growing this program to positively affect more young leaders. As we reflect on this new program, we are reminded of the impact that can be realized when we empower our nation’s Veterans to continue their service through sharing the story of Flight 93 and working with youth to develop leadership skills. When asked about what he learned during the program, one student summarized a profound idea in a wonderfully succinct way: "I learned that leaders aren't born and that you can make steps to become a leader no matter how far along in life you are."

We could not agree more, and we are honored to play a role in empowering Veterans to build young leaders who positively influence those around them.

Peter Findler


Highlights from the 2023 Summer Leadership Challenge


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