A fixture in her Wheaton, Md., community, Kathleen Michels is often seen yanking out invasive plants along a local creek, caring for a nearby community garden, or working with groups she had a hand in forming. This includes her neighborhood civic association and a coalition to "push back against the paving of our athletic fields with rocks, plastic, and pulverized tires"—that is, artificial turf, she says.
Ask the National Institutes of Health neuroscientist, wife, and mother why she starts these and other efforts, she simply says: "It needed to be done." Michels, 52, figures she puts in 40 hours a month volunteering.
You can find many valuable tools online to advance your own cause, such as AARP's Create the Good program. It has created a slew of downloadable how-to guides—from organizing river cleanups and holding school supply drives to helping others get good healthcare.
Marlene Ellis, 56, of Arlington, Va., last fall initiated her own food drive for a local food bank. Thanks to an AARP starter kit that provided suggestions, bags for food collection, and fliers to post, Ellis was able to collect 127 pounds of food in about a week. "I was so happy" when she delivered it to the food bank, she says. "It is nice to see how much I can accomplish on my own."
DIY projects can be time-consuming, so Michels recommends bringing in friends and neighbors to help when possible. "People respond to passion, commitment, and reasoned arguments," she says.
The upsides of self-directed work are immediately apparent. It's "usually more intellectually engaging since you are organizing and problem-solving and doing research" on your own, Michels notes. She believes she is testament that even shy people can tackle and solve problems in the community or the world, saying, "Success breeds confidence."