10 Service Groups That Are Making a Difference

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

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In heavily black-topped urban areas, where it might not be possible to plant whole stands of trees, the group is experimenting with ways to use technology to duplicate the roles that trees play. In a functioning "community forest," man-made cisterns and permeable paving would do the work of trees in absorbing and conserving water, and drought-resistant shrubs would filter pollution.

"Trees don't just stand there and look pretty," Lipkis says. "They are not only multi-tasking superheroes, they are the basis of our life support system."

[Read How to Make a Career in Public Service.]

8. Senior Sleuths

A recent study showed that about 1 in 5 people age 65 or older in the United States have been the victim of a financial scam. In 1989, to help combat the problem, Florida's then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth introduced Senior Sleuths. Today, over 200 volunteers work in 48 field offices statewide, taking victims' complaints. An additional 3,500 "eyes and ears" Sleuths log telemarketing calls, collect junk mail, and check on unscrupulous pharmacists who cheat them on their medications. Some even participate in stings.

When seniors were being duped into buying expensive water filtration systems, Anne (whose last name is being withheld because she worked undercover), a 77-year-old who stands 5-foot-2, volunteered to catch the scammers. When a salesman showed her a glass filled with the supposedly dirty water coming from her tap (water he had tampered with first), she expressed shock. The huckster proceeded to pitch the unnecessary filtration system, unaware he was being videotaped by police. Instead of making a sale, he was hit with a civil complaint filed by the attorney general's office. In the last three years, the Sleuths have handled 8,880 cases, referred hundreds for prosecution, and recovered $3.1 million for victims, says executive director Don Ravenna. Arizona launched its own Senior Sleuths initiative in 2009, and Mississippi plans a similar program.

9. Year Up

Shortly after Gerald Chertavian began volunteering as a Big Brother to David Heredia, a 9-year-old from a lower-income neighborhood in New York City, he learned firsthand about what he calls the "opportunity divide." Chertavian realized David was talented; he just didn't have "the resources, the experience, and the guidance" he would need to achieve his goals. Over the next 15 years, the two stayed in touch (Heredia is now a freelance animator) even after Chertavian moved to London and co-founded a technology company.

When the firm was sold in 2000, Chertavian decided to bridge the opportunity divide. With $500,000 of his own money and an additional $250,000 raised from friends and family, he started the nonprofit Year Up, a 12-month program directed at 18-to-24-year-olds who are out of work and not in college. Students spend six months learning basic business etiquette, like how to communicate with supervisors, while mastering marketable skills in financial systems or information technology. Graduates then serve a six-month internship with companies like American Express, Bank of America, or Microsoft.

Boston-based Year Up now works with over 1,000 young people a year in eight cities. Close to 90 percent of its graduates land full- or part-time jobs within four months of completing the program, and 26 percent enroll in college within a year.

Christopher Johnson, 25, was unemployed and living in Brooklyn, N.Y., before he signed up for Year Up. After an internship with Bloomberg, the business and financial news company, he was hired as a contract employee. He now works on a management support team at UBS, a financial powerhouse. He will begin college in January. "Year Up gave me more confidence than I ever had in my life," Johnson says.

10. Violence-Free Zone

When a 12-year-old boy was killed in gang crossfire at a Washington, D.C., housing project in 1997, Robert Woodson saw a chance to test principles he'd spent almost a lifetime developing—first in the civil rights movement, then as a community advocate and founder of the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in D.C. "I'd learned that for change to be effective it had to come from inside out and the bottom up," he says.