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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Woodson helped broker a truce between rival gangs, then introduced jobs, training, and education. The neighborhood was transformed by gang leaders who became "crew chiefs" and who, because of their "street cred," could influence younger kids, now in a positive way.
Woodson named the initiative the Violence-Free Zone, and it became one of the CNE's core programs. A community organizer asked Woodson to start a VFZ in a Dallas school, and the program later added 35 other schools in Baltimore, Richmond, Dallas, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. CNE helps manage the sites and provides training, technical assistance, administrative and financial oversight, and links to potential funding sources. The program depends on youth advisers who are chosen from the neighborhood, thoroughly vetted for criminal records, drug abuse, and other issues, and trained with the help of CNE materials. These advisers then act as monitors, mediators, mentors, and role models to other kids.
A Baylor University study of Milwaukee high schools found that the Violence-Free Zone participants had an 11 percent decrease in violent incidents and a 4 percent increase in GPAs, compared to a 15 percent increase in violent incidents in non-VFZ schools and no improvement in GPAs. "Once the youth have something positive to say 'yes' to, it becomes easier to say 'no' to the negative activities that promote violence," says Victor Barnett, executive director of the Running Rebels Community Organization, which oversees the program in four of the schools.
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