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At this year's 2013 National Make A Difference Day Awards Luncheon, we will honor America's top volunteers from the nation's largest day of doing good.

Read about our National Award Winners: Alabama Rural Ministry | The Sundial Men’s Club | National Assistance League | Wen Marcec of Geneva, Ill. | Lions Club – District 22-W | FIRST Robotics Competition, Teams 340 and 1511 | C&S Wholesale Grocers | Nick Lowinger of Cranston, R.I. | Shaquawana Wester of Cookeville, Tenn. | Operation Lorax

Read about our City Award Honorees: Fremont, Calif. | Albuquerque | Kettering, Ohio

Read about our All-Star Award Honoree: Shore Junior/Senior High, Lake Washington, Fellowship, Melbourne, Fla.

National Award Winners

These are the premiere annual awards for outstanding Make A Difference Day volunteer projects. These ten honorees were chosen from the efforts of 3 million people who helped others last Oct. 27. Each winner receives a $10,000 donation to his or her chosen charity from Newman’s Own. And, each winner will be spotlighted in the April 19-21 issue of USA WEEKEND.

Alabama Rural Ministry, Opelika, Ala. For the Alabama Rural Ministry, Make A Difference Day was all about putting faith into action. A total of 72 volunteers tackled dozens of projects across Tuskegee, 28 miles from the group’s Opelika headquarters.

Betty Dozier’s house was among four that received repairs and upgrades from the Methodist community ministry on its seventh Make A Difference Day. Volunteers put up fresh drywall to replace what had to be removed because of mold. “They brought more than hammers and nails,” says Dozier, 54 an Army veteran disabled by osteoporosis. “They brought hope.”

Volunteers also cleaned a neglected park, entertained nursing home residents, prepped a new food bank for opening, and sanded walls at a historic church that will serve as a community outreach center. The next day, 40 additional volunteers — fraternity brothers from Auburn University’s FIJI House — continued the home repairs.

Make A Difference Day grows each year according to ARM’s director Lisa Pierce. It’s also the focal point of Poverty Awareness Week, when Pierce makes her home in a streetside shanty to dramatize the living conditions of impoverished rural residents. October’s campaign raised $31,000 to apply toward the 130 homes on the organization’s waiting list.

Joe O’Neal, a carpenter whose Liberty United Methodist Church contributed 11 volunteers, spent eight hours at the trailer home of a needy couple, patching a floor and building a porch to replace unstable concrete blocks at the front door. “We’re supposed to help our neighbors,” O’Neal says. “That blesses everyone.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Alabama Rural Ministry.

The Sundial Men’s Club, Sun City, Ariz.Retirement isn’t all about poker, bingo and lots of time to drink coffee and read the newspaper. Just ask the fun-loving, big-hearted members of the Sundial Men’s Club in Sun City, Ariz.

For Make A Difference Day, the men, most of them in their 70s and 80s, aimed to hold the largest one-day food drive ever in a retirement community. As far as they know, they did, collecting 11.5 tons of non-perishables — from 9,000 donors — for Valley View Community Food Bank. That’s enough food to feed 657 families for a week.

“A lot of people here live Social Security check to Social Security check,” says president Larry Carr, 73. “They depend on the food bank.”

Details of the collection were provided to the media weeks before Make A Difference Day, and club members spread 6,000 pamphlets around the Phoenix suburb to notify residents.

Working four-hour shifts, volunteers manned collection bins at seven recreation centers and eight golf courses. Donations started pouring in at 6 a.m. Meanwhile, Sundial men on golf carts went door to door collecting from residents in their 90s and 100s who couldn't get out. Plus, more than $3,000 in cash was collected, including $300 at a pool tournament.

The next morning, a truck hauled 23,000 pounds of food to Valley View Community Bank. “I was blown away,” says director Jesse Ramirez. “I’ve been in food banks 27 years and never saw an effort that mighty.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Valley View Community Food Bank.

National Assistance League, Burbank Calif. and nationwide. Remember your favorite childhood book and the way it could fire your imagination, lull you to sleep or comfort you in tough times?

On Make A Difference Day, National Assistance League, a Burbank-based service club, aimed to bring that experience to some of our nation’s neediest kids.

More than 3,300 members led their communities in donating 113,101 books. In Las Vegas, volunteers collected 6,289; in Newport-Mesa, Calif., 7,466. Members in Columbus, Ohio, bought 165 new books for foster children. “These kids have nothing,” says the chapter’s Sheri Scott. “We want each child to have at least one precious possession.”

National project coordinator Jane Rosinski (from Charlotte, which gave 3,100 books) tells of a little girl who was thrilled to receive Fancy Nancy, her favorite book. Rosinski sums it up: “This was truly a national event with local impact.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to National Assistance League

Wen Marcec, Geneva, Ill. Wen Marcec fell in love with Appalachia a decade ago as she researched mining for an environmental non-profit she founded. One summer at her free camp in Kentucky, Marcec thrilled a boy with the gift of a fishing pole. “It’s like Christmas,” she told him. “No, ma’am,” he said. “We don’t get Christmas gifts.”

“It broke my heart,” says Marcec, 62.

For five years, her Make A Difference Day gift drive has brightened the holidays for hundreds of kids. Last Oct. 27, Marcec, an assistant preschool teacher, beat her own record by collecting 2,100 toys for 600 kids at four schools in Estill County, Ky.

One hundred twenty-five volunteers, most of them Geneva schoolchildren, rounded up new toys from friends and neighbors or bought toys themselves the week before Make A Difference Day. Project SANTA (Send a New Toy to Appalachia) continued at City Hall Oct. 27, which the mayor proclaimed Make A Difference Day.

In November, Marcec and her husband drove eight hours in a rented truck to deliver the toys.

At Estill Springs Elementary, family resources director Kathy Bradley saw one little girl thrilled to get a Barbie: “It was awesome.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to A Lasting World Inc.

Lions Club – District 22-W, Thurmont, Md.

Lions, Lionesses and youth Leos cleaned roads, ran an organ donation forum and collected for the needy — among more than 70 Make A Difference Day projects in western Maryland’s District 22-W

“We’re Lions. ‘We serve’ is our motto. So we did what we do best, but with new energy and excitement,” says Shirley Long of Thurmont.

In Westernport, Lions partnered with an American Legion post to spruce up a neglected veterans’ memorial. “I saw my uncle’s name on the wall, then my grandfather’s. I didn’t know they were there,” says Lion John Parker. “I teared up. It was like God pulled me there to help.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own is split evenly between Lions Vision Research and Lions Preschool Vision Screening.

FIRST Robotics Competition, Teams 340 and 1511, Rochester, N.Y. Along with algorithms and artificial intelligence, students factored altruism into the FIRST Robotics competition at the Dome Center arena.

As remote-controlled robots shot hoops on a makeshift basketball court, their teen inventors competed in the second Make A Difference Day Mega Drive. Spearheaded by students from suburban Churchville-Chili and Penfield high schools, the drive netted 468 food items and $112 for a food bank; 1,052 children’s books for inner-city pediatric offices; 3,600 pounds of electronic equipment to be recycled; and, with the American Red Cross, 25 units of blood.

Which competition was more fun? “It’s hard to say,” reports Christa Lawniczak, 17, one of 59 volunteers at donation tables. Robot icons raced across a game board Christa devised to track donations from 38 high school teams and their fans.

The volume of TVs, computers, cellphones and printers dropped off for recycling amazed volunteer Brianna Mancine, 16, of Penfield. “It was huge,” she says, filling eight pallets. Victoria Cavaliere of Imagine It Recycling, one of two organizations receiving recyclables, loved the concept of linking the collection with a robotics competition. “Some people don’t know the impact even one phone in a landfill has on the environment,” Cavaliere says. “This helped raise awareness.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Rochester Community Robotics.

C&S Wholesale Grocers, Keene, N.H. For a 10th year, C&S Wholesale Grocers employees put their needs aside to help others on Make A Difference Day. Nationwide, the Keene, N.H.-based C&S mobilized more than 300 workers and their families on 21 projects.

“It’s become part of our DNA,” says Gina Goff, C&S’s community involvement director. Make A Difference Day is the firm’s biggest volunteer event.

At headquarters, 32 volunteers cleaned and organized the pantry of a Dublin, N.H., drug rehab facility. At food banks in 14 cities, C&S workers painted walls and sorted non-perishables. In Honolulu, 35 packed boxes for the needy at the Hawaii Food Bank.

Assistant director Mary Kelley says the Food Bank of Central Alabama relies on C&S helpers year-round — “Just call them and they’re there” — but “they blew me away on Make A Difference Day” as 50 volunteers from C&S’s Birmingham warehouse filled 4,200 backpacks with weekend food for needy schoolkids.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to GenerationOn.

Nick Lowinger, Cranston, R.I. At age 5, Nick Lowinger started visiting shelters with his mom, an art therapist.

While playing with the kids on one of his first visits, he took notice of how many of them had bad-fitting, disintegrating shoes. Some kids even alternated days at school with a sibling because they shared a single pair.

“Homeless kids deserve shoes that fit and they like,” says Nick, 15, who started his own non-profit, Gotta Have Sole, as a service project for his bar mitzvah. Shoes are donated by companies like Stride Rite and Timberland, or purchased with cash donations ($125,000 so far through his website) at stores such as Walmart and T.J. Maxx.

In the three years since he created his foundation, Nick has supplied more than 7,400 children with brand-new shoes, handpicked for them.

But Make A Difference Day proved to be the high school freshman’s best day ever. In six hours, 78 volunteers filled orders for 496 kids in six states. “It was outstanding,” Nick says. “I couldn’t have accomplished that in a month by myself!”

Twenty-one shelters submitted personalized orders for Make A Difference Day. That morning, Nick, his family, friends and social media followers arranged hundreds of shoes by size on the Lowinger driveway. For each child, a specific pair (say, boys’ high-tops, size 8) was packaged with socks and a personalized card. It was fun but with a serious purpose, says volunteer Harrison Hopfenberg, 15: “Those shoes will be a source of confidence and happiness for the kids.”

Because of that day’s effort, “we were able to give shoes to all 25 families at one of our shelters,” says Jonathan Scott, CEO of Victory Programs in Boston. “One mom said, ‘Now my son can go to day care.’ So often we get rejects, but Nick gives us high-quality shoes that help people feel worthy of the best things.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Gotta Have Sole Foundation.

Shaquawana Wester, Cookeville, Tenn. Shaquawana Wester once stood in line at a coat giveaway. It’s an indelible memory that inspires her to help others now that she’s in a position to give back.

As an AmeriCorps member with the city housing authority, Wester, 36, works with many of the community’s teens. She noticed several had nothing more than a light jacket for winter.

“That inspired my coat drive,” Wester says. “I didn’t know how many I could get, but I had to try.”

Three weeks before Make A Difference Day, Wester put collection bins at the housing authority, two businesses, two colleges and the police department. Facebook and a story in the Herald-Citizen spread the word. Soon, Wester had more than 1,000 coats: “I was overwhelmed.”

Volunteers repaired coats in time for the Make A Difference Day giveaway at the housing authority. All were invited, regardless of income. “Coats were everyplace — stacked on tables, hanging on cabinet doors,” says Wester’s co-worker Becky Hyder, who helped organize. “I thought people would run over each other, but they helped each other look for sizes.”

Wester gave away 200 coats that day. The remaining 800 coats spread warmth at a rescue mission and a mobile clothing unit.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Cookeville Housing Services Corp.

Operation Lorax, Ellensburg, Wash. Dr. Seuss’ Lorax spoke for the trees. So did the kids of Operation Lorax, who hiked through mud and ash to help plant 1,000 ponderosa pines on Make A Difference Day.

“It’s not good for animals or people not to have trees. We wouldn’t have oxygen,” says 8-year-old Chloe Hall of Cle Elum, one of about 100 volunteers, half of them children, at the event.

The idea: to involve kids in restoring a forest ruined by August’s Taylor Bridge Fire, which burned 23,500 acres. Like anyone else, “kids like to feel they’ve made a difference,” says project coordinator Christina Escobar, an AmeriCorps member with the Red Cross in Ellensburg.

The Red Cross provided 6-inch seedlings and 12 volunteers, and partner Washington Conservation Corps supplied shovels and expertise. Families planted as many seedlings as they liked, “until we ran out of trees” at 5 p.m., Escobar says. Chloe, her mom and sister planted 50. With help from grandma Patty Schafer of Yakima, 2-year-old Elijah planted three trees. “Someday he can visit that forest and say ‘I helped grow that,’” Schafer says.

Volunteers painted bushy Lorax mustaches on the kids and declared them protectors of the trees. And they were smiled ear to ear.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to the American Red Cross.

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City Award Honorees

USA WEEKEND, with the Corporation for National & Community Service and Newman’s Own, salutes volunteer efforts led by three cities. Each wins a $10,000 donation from Newman’s Own. They are:

Fremont, Calif. The city’s Human Relations Commission recruited a record 1,339 residents for 76 projects in its 11th Make A Difference Day. In a city where 167 languages are spoken, “it’s the one day when people put aside cultural differences” to help their neighbors, says coordinator Christine Beitsch. Volunteers tackled 76 projects, including school and park cleanups and performing car maintenance for single moms.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Fremont Family Resource Center

Albuquerque. Led by the city’s Open Space Division and the non-profit Nicodemus Wilderness Project, 41 volunteers scrubbed graffiti off boulders, planted shrubs to fight erosion and rounded up trash at Piedra Lisa Canyon. It was the group’s 13th Make A Difference Day, and “our city is better off for it,” says Mayor Richard Berry. The cleanup helped keep Albuquerque “one of the premier outdoor cities in the country.”

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Nicodemus Wilderness Project

Kettering, Ohio. For 19 years, “Make A Difference Day has been a staple of our community,” says City Manager Mark Schwieterman, who helped 200 people clean up Richman Heights. The event kicked off a Cities of Service initiative to revitalize one neighborhood each year.

$10,000 award from Newman’s Own goes to Kettering Parks Foundation

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All-Star Award Honoree

This award recognizes a past national honoree who continues to excel on Make A Difference Day. Online voters chose the winner:

Shore Junior/Senior High, Lake Washington, Fellowship, Melbourne, Fla. After a popular P.E. teacher and cross-country coach was diagnosed with a fatal degenerative disease last spring, longtime Make A Difference Day volunteers at two schools knew what their next project had to be: a 5K run to raise money for his care and raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

After Jason Whitworth, 41 — already incapacitated and struggling to breathe — “made a difference to so many people teaching for 16 years in this community. We needed to make a difference for him,” says Mary Loschiavo, a coordinator of October’s Make A Difference Day event, the 15th for Melbourne Central Catholic High and St. Joseph Catholic School in Palm Bay. The schools won our national award in 2003 for a 300-volunteer shore cleanup. For “Jason’s Run 5K,” they teamed with Lake Washington Fellowship, Whitworth’s church, and West Shore Junior/Senior High, where he coached last.

Hurricane Sandy threatened to wash out the run at Central Catholic. But the storm had moved on by afternoon, when more than 500 people ran or walked in Whitworth’s honor. “Former students came from all over the state. Parents, colleagues — everyone turned out” for the run and a fundraising dinner afterward
provided at a discount by Carrabba’s Italian Grill, says Loschiavo. Whitworth, who
called the start of the race from his wheelchair, “was all smiles.”

Between the run and dinner, $25,400 was raised to defray medical bills and adapt Whitworth’s house to his needs. The coach, wife Gayle and their two children were in awe. “I was so touched to see how much people cared,” Whitworth says.

$10,000 award from the Gannett Foundation and USA WEEKEND goes to the ALS Foundation, Florida Chapter

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More In Make A Difference Day

Make A Difference Day, the largest national day of helping others, is sponsored annually by USA WEEKEND Magazine and its 800 carrier newspapers. Make A Difference Day takes place on the 4th Saturday in October each year.