10 Service Groups That Are Making a Difference

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


3. Unite for Sight

Jennifer Staple-Clark was a student at Yale University when she realized that 36 million people around the globe had gone blind needlessly, so in 2000 she founded Unite for Sight to do something about that. "There is such an incredible need worldwide for eye care," says Staple-Clark. "But there are also enormous barriers like inability to pay, lack of access, lack of information, or fear."

She started by sending volunteers from Yale into the community in New Haven, Conn., simply to educate people about the importance of regular eye exams and the free screening programs offered by professional organizations. After graduating in 2003, Staple-Clark expanded this model to other universities across the country. Now, thanks to recruiting efforts and word of mouth, there are over 1,000 volunteers in more than 50 university chapters throughout North America in what's called the Community Fellows program, one of Unite for Sight's four divisions.

Internationally, the organization partners with local ophthalmologists in Africa and Asia to coordinate outreach to rural communities for patients unable to afford or access a clinic. Unite for Sight provides vehicles to transport patients, offers grants to hire additional nurses, and pays the clinic bills for those who can't. "Cataract surgery on average costs $50," says Staple-Clark, "but if you're living on less than $1 a day, that's really insurmountable." The group's Global Impact Corps trains volunteers to assist international medical professionals by administering eye tests and distributing medications.

An annual Global Health and Innovation Conference and a Global Health University provide income that covers administrative expenses and contributes to international programs. Other funding comes from donations and grants. "One hundred percent of all donations go directly to providing eye care for patients living in extreme poverty," says Staple-Clark.

From its beginnings in a student's dorm room, Unite for Sight has provided eye care for more than 1 million people, including more than 35,000 sight-restoring surgeries.

[Read Making Public Service Work From Home.]

4. St. Bernard Project

When Zack Rosenburg, 37, and Liz McCartney, 38, returned home to Washington, D.C., after volunteering in post-Katrina New Orleans, they were haunted by their experiences. They had seen the devastation firsthand; in the city's St. Bernard parish, 27,000 houses were destroyed and 67,000 people left homeless. The two quit their jobs and returned, determined to help the rebuilding effort. But with no experience in construction, Rosenburg, an attorney, and McCartney, who had run a community technology center, soon realized that their talents would be better used in organizing volunteers and fundraising. In June 2006, the couple founded the St. Bernard Project, where today Rosenburg is CEO and McCartney is director of development.

The nonprofit can transform a gutted house into a livable home in just eight to 12 weeks for an average cost of $15,000. To date 312 homes have been completed. The owners pay what they can afford, and SBP helps with the rest. Every day between 100 and 200 volunteers from all over the world are in the field working on 30-plus job sites. The group receives donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Staff and supervisors are paid through AmeriCorps. Recently, SBP created a wellness and mental health clinic to help residents deal with long-term problems stemming from disasters like Katrina and the recent BP oil spill.

Amelia Elzey is an SBP beneficiary. After a contractor disappeared with the down payment she had given him to restore her damaged home, she was out of money—and hope. Then she saw a news segment about SBP and applied. When she got the OK, "it's like if there was a big old brick weighing down on you and someone takes it off," she recalls. Elzey moved back into her home in May.

5. Safe Water Network

Almost 1 billion people around the globe lack access to safe water, but now Rajitha Perumarla, a 30-year-old mother in the village of Nizampalli, India, is not one of them. Last April, a Westport, Conn.-based nonprofit organization called Safe Water Network inaugurated a safe water station in Perumarla's village. These stations serve as central water kiosks where purification technology has been installed. Perumarla and other community members pay 4 rupees (about 9 cents) per 20-liter (5-gallon) container, more than enough for a family of four's daily use.