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Tornado-ravaged barn will be rebuilt for rescued animals

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Web Extra: CNN Hero Jeff Parness

(CNN) -- Jeff Parness, a native New Yorker, was inspired by the help his hometown received from other cities in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Today, he honors that support through his organization, New York Says Thank You, which sends volunteers to a different community each year to help them rebuild from its own disaster.

What started as a small group of volunteers from New York has grown into a nationwide movement of "paying it forward." Since 2004, more than 7,000 people have participated in the group's projects.

Parness recently spoke with CNN's Brittany Stahl about the rebuilding project his group is planning for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Brittany Stahl: What are your plans for the next project?

Jeff Parness: We're hoping to rebuild a barn in a small town in Georgia that was destroyed a few weeks ago in a tornado.

There's a very special woman that lives in the barn. Her name is Susan Littlejohn, and she cares for 65 rescue animals in the barn. She and two of her volunteers were feeding all 65 of the animals, and a tornado literally dropped down on the barn and the barn exploded.

Luckily, Susan and the volunteers were fine and all the animals were fine. But she lost everything. So this year, we're going to bring about 300 volunteers from around the country and do a barn-raising in Ellijay, Georgia.

Stahl: What is special about this project?

Parness: Susan's group is called Build An Ark Foundation, and she's dedicated her life and sacrificed so much for caring for animals and using them as a way to inspire other people and inspire volunteerism. She uses the animals to inspire disabled kids and seniors. Troubled youth volunteer at her stables to care for the animals.

There are so many elements to what she does with her Build An Ark Foundation that we realized it's more than just building a barn, it's really helping her to make a greater impact on the world and in her community. You can't help but be attracted to her sense of faith and her sense of humanity.

Stahl: How is rebuilding the barn symbolic for the community?

Parness: Our greatest hope for Susan, aside from rebuilding the barn, is strengthening her ability to sustain Build An Ark Foundation and to continue to care for the animals. I think using the 9/11 anniversary as a backdrop, and using all these survivors from New York and around the country, we're going to bring so many people together that I think are going to come to know and come to love Susan. Our greatest hope is the relationships we create for her will sustain her long after we've gone and finished putting the barn back up.

Stahl: What can people do if they want to contribute to your upcoming project in July?

Parness: In terms of helping, I think we're going to be pretty blessed with a lot of volunteers. We always need sponsorship. So if somebody wanted to sponsor one of our New York City firefighters or other first responders to go help rebuild the barn as something positive to do on the 9/11 anniversary, they can go to our website and contribute and we'd be honored to have their support.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Jeff Parness:
'Paying it forward' after 9/11