10 Service Groups That Are Making a Difference

Examples of noteworthy public service programs that are having an impact.

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Perhaps nowhere does the American character shine so distinctively as in the way individuals take on seemingly intractable problems. Some of the most innovative service programs, including the 10 we highlight below, are particularly noteworthy because their creators refused to be daunted by the breadth of the challenge, the absence of any model to guide them, or even a lack of expertise. As our sampling shows, the efforts of everyday Americans are having an impact and millions are benefiting in the process.

[See a slide show of 10 groups that are making a difference.]

1. International Justice Mission

Engaged with human rights issues as a Justice Department lawyer, Gary Haugen came to a tipping point when he was asked to head the initial United Nations investigation into the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 minority Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutu militias in power. It was an extreme example of what Haugen had witnessed in other developing countries: that having laws against human rights abuses meant little if the poor and disenfranchised did not benefit from those laws. So, in 1997, he left his job to create the International Justice Mission to fight for victims of sexual violence, forced labor, land seizures, illegal detention, and police abuse.

It's a massive task. According to UNICEF, 2 million children are exploited in the global sex trade, while, in his book Disposable People (2004), anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales estimates that 27 million people worldwide are enslaved.

Supported by donations and grants, IJM is chipping away at these grim statistics with its 335 caseworkers, investigators, and lawyers in 14 field offices in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The organization is alerted to crimes by tips from individuals, local authorities, and human rights groups, and conducts its own proactive research. Under a model of "collaborative casework," an investigator, a caseworker, and an attorney are assigned to work with the victim and, where appropriate, to assist authorities in assembling a case that can be pursued through the criminal justice system—even if it takes years. Caseworkers assist victims in rebuilding their lives by providing counseling, teaching them skills, and helping them find employment.

IJM's goal is to make the justice system more responsive to the poor. The results are encouraging. Four years ago, an outside group surveyed the extent to which children were falling victim to the sex trade in an Asian city. After IJM worked with local authorities, a second survey was conducted in 2008 which showed a 70 percent drop. "The bad guys are not that brave," says Haugen. "If they start going to jail, they'll start to leave the kids alone.

[Read How to Avoid Charity Scams.]

2. First Response Team of America

Tad Agoglia hasn't been to his Knoxville, Tenn., office in three years. That's because the 34-year-old and his four-man team constantly rush to disaster sites, where they open roads and provide other urgent services for emergency personnel. The group, First Response Team of America, grew out of a for-profit disaster recovery firm Agoglia formed in 2003. He was usually hired two or three months after a catastrophe. "I looked at the devastation still evident and wondered what it must be like on the first day, the first night, the first week," he says. "I realized that there was a need, and that I had the ability to meet that need. How could I turn my back?"

Agoglia eventually sold his business and started First Response in 2007. Over the next 18 months, the team responded to 19 natural disasters, from fires in California and floods in Oregon to a tornado in Tennessee. Agoglia volunteers his time, but donations cover staff salaries and equipment. The team now uses four customized trucks, high-speed cranes, hovercraft, generators, and water pumps to clear roads, remove debris, and provide emergency power.

In May 2008, the team responded to another devastating tornado, this time in Parkersburg, Iowa. Seven people were killed; 288 homes and 22 businesses were destroyed. Less than 48 hours after it touched down, Agoglia was on the scene. "He just showed up like the Lone Ranger," recalls then-Police Chief Chris Luhring. When the team left 13 days later, Parkersburg was on the fast track to recovery. "We're successful today because of Tad," Luhring says. "There is no way we can ever repay him."