10 Service Groups That Are Making a Difference

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

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Safe Water Network was founded in 2007 by the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman and other civic and business leaders. (Actress Joanne Woodward recently took her husband Paul's place on the board.) The founders have combined technical, operating, and funding know-how to develop locally appropriate sustainable, scalable solutions, says the group's CEO, Kurt Soderlund.

To date, the organization has introduced safe water solutions into 63 villages in Ghana, India, and Kenya. The villagers themselves must share in the costs, undergo training, and take responsibility for the ongoing operation and maintenance of the systems.

Divyang Waghela, associate program manager of the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, a philanthropic institution that helps fund the initiative, has said the Safe Water Network provides a model that "addresses one of the biggest challenges in countries like India: expecting the community to bear some of the capital cost to ensure buy-in from the beginning."

The group has plans for projects in 40 to 50 additional villages by the end of 2011.

[Read How to Choose the Best Volunteering Option.]

6. Have Justice Will Travel

When Wynona Ward read affidavits from domestic violence victims in law school, she realized "women were being kicked and hit and beaten in the same way my mother had been 40 years earlier," she says.

So, after getting her law degree at age 48, Ward founded the nonprofit Have Justice Will Travel in 1998 to provide free legal and social services to rural, low-income Vermonters who have suffered domestic and sexual violence and have few support agencies to rely on.

HJWT now operates four offices throughout the state. Ward and three other attorneys visit women who can't get to an office or may be ashamed to leave the house; they assess what the women may need, from children's clothes to help with an electric bill. They also provide legal representation and drive clients to the courthouse to obtain restraining orders or to fight for child custody.

Over the past 12 years, HJWT has counseled over 10,000 women. It also offers a program called Women in Transition Life Skills and Mentoring to help clients become self-sufficient by learning parenting and job skills along with money management. "Once a woman leaves an abusive situation, it's a whole new world," Ward says. "We want them to know that there is help out there."

Catherine Kalkstein, director of the Vermont Women's Fund in Middlebury, which has given grant money to the group, says, "HJWT is doing a great job" and "the fact that they will travel is huge for Vermont, given its rural nature."

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates some 1.3 million women fall victim to domestic violence annually. Often, they feel trapped by fear or hopelessness. "We have a unique model, but it works," Ward says. "Since 1998, 90 percent of our clients have not returned to an abusive situation." She is currently writing a program guide that other communities can use.

7. Tree People

In 1970, Andy Lipkis was a 15-year-old at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, 100 miles from Los Angeles. Appalled to learn that smog was killing the surrounding forest, he organized a group of fellow campers to plant sugar pines and other smog-tolerant trees in an unused parking lot and found his calling. "People feel energized when they plant trees," says Lipkis. "It's both recreation and re-creation."

Lipkis founded Tree People, and 40 years and 2 million trees later (each one is given a name as it is planted), the organization has inspired communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles County. The group has been instrumental in projects ranging from an effort to plant 300 Canary Island pines along a 7-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Los Angeles to reforesting the fire-damaged Angeles National Forest.

As Tree People's president, Lipkis frequently speaks to groups around the world about how individuals can become citizen foresters by planting and caring for trees in their own neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, Tree People provides the tools, trucks, and know-how; the neighborhood raises the funds and finds the volunteers to do the work. When people have ownership of trees, they take better care of them, Lipkis explains, and the whole community benefits.