- Filed Under
Greensburg residents removed 300 loads of debris on Make A Difference Day. Joining the action, from left: Ruth Ann Wedel and Joyce and Jim Keith. / Greensburg: Eli Reichman for USA WEEKEND
One student "hunted people down" at football games to collect notes and letters. / Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno by Joshua Kessler for US
Paul Newman, founder and president of Newman's Own
Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League
Michelle Nunn, CEO of Points of Light & Hands On Network
Marcia Bullard, president and CEO of USA WEEKEND Magazine
For more information, visit makeadifferenceday.com
Each Make A Difference Day, millions of busy Americans put their lives on hold to help others. Help us celebrate all the great deeds done that day as we present the inspiring $10,000 National Award recipients.
On Oct. 27, 2007, roughly 3 million Americans helped others on USA WEEKEND Magazine's 17th Make A Difference Day, a day of "doing good" that has become a global phenomenon.
Whether they were rebuilding a playground in America's heartland or cleaning up trash along a protected seashore, volunteers proved a universal tenet to be true: It is better to give than to receive.
"For that period of time, it makes the world seem like a better place," says volunteer Michelle Hilliker, 29, of Leander, Texas.
Worldwide, others agree. In the United Kingdom, nearly 60,000 turned out for their nation's largest volunteer day, and in Brazil, almost 3 million took part. "Since we are a developing country, we say if this works in Brazil, it can work anywhere," says organizer Magdiel Unglaub.
Ten efforts have been selected for the prestigious National Make A Difference Day Award. Each receives a $10,000 grant from Paul Newman and the Newman's Own Foundation to give to a favorite charity.
We hope you find their stories inspiring and their altruism infectious.
Greensburg, Kan. Tornado victims reclaim their town
In Tornado Alley, people like Bob Mosier, 76, live with a healthy wariness of spring storms. But on May 4, 2007, Mosier barely made it to an interior closet before the storm struck: "I felt the house lift up and yelled, "It's going, it's going!' "
It was gone. At 9:45 p.m., a 1.7-mile-wide tornado plowed into Greensburg, Kan., leveling everything recognizable -- homes, trees, the water tower.
Some wondered if Greensburg would cease to exist. It's estimated that nearly half the town's 1,400 residents moved away; the rest lived in FEMA trailers. Volunteers and government agencies helped out for months, but by October, they were gone, and much rubble remained. "The piles never seemed to move. It was depressing," says Ruth Ann Wedel, 61. She lost her business, and her home was uninhabitable.
Greensburg needed a shot in the arm. And Wedel, a past Make A Difference Day participant, thought a big bootstrap effort might do the trick. She plotted with resident Ann Dixson and a new action team of locals, then got to work.
On Make A Difference Day, 260 volunteers (including 95 Greensburg residents and 50 Mennonite farmers who brought in needed heavy equipment) removed 300 loads of debris and raised a playground -- swings, a merry-go-round and slides. "At day's end," says resident Jim Keith, 75, "I could see in my mind a whole new town."
Today, Greensburg is rebuilding as a certified "green" city, with eco-friendly homes, businesses and city offices. Mosier is buoyed: "Nothing really happened in this town until that tornado. I facetiously say we were blessed."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Sunflower Resource Conservation and Development Area Inc. to fund the Big Well Preservation Project.
Sinclairville, N.Y. 1 sweet day as 13,000 Scouts reach out
Pint-size Daisy Girl Scouts crowded onto the front stoop and waited for World War II veteran Bob Peterson, 88, to answer the door. "Surprise!" the 13 kindergartners shouted as they presented Peterson with loads of applesauce and goodies.
Such sweet results began with a rotten apple -- well, a yard full of them. For Make A Difference Day, Troop 319 of Sinclairville, N.Y., cleared Peterson's lawn of fallen apples. Secretly, they also set aside good fruit to bake into treats. "The girls loved this," leader Audrey Little says. "They were competing to find the yuckiest apples and also were trying to see who could fill the bushels with good ones."
Across the nation, 13,000 Girl Scouts and adult leaders carried out 1,000-plus projects in 30 states. In just one part of Ohio, 3,145 joined in. The Girl Scouts delivered on their mission to develop girls of "courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place," national spokeswoman Michelle Tompkins says.
Indeed, the world became better in Cross Lanes, W.Va., where Brownie Girl Scout Elizabeth Stoufis, 9, and 12 members of Troop 4880 collected 400 hats for bald chemotherapy patients. "We wanted to make sure people don't feel left out when they are sick," Elizabeth says. "We should be making them feel better."
For Peterson, who lives alone and visits his wife daily at a nursing home, the treats -- and affection -- were touching. "It just made my day."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Girl Scouts of the USA to further their volunteer efforts.
Sussex, N.J. Disabled kids reach out to soldiers
Joan Smith's class at High Point Regional High School is special; all 13 students are cognitively impaired, and some have physical disabilities as well. Often, these young men and women are the recipients of charitable efforts, but thanks to Smith, they also give back. Each year, for Make A Difference Day, they hold collection drives for charity.
For 2007, class members decided to help troops serving in Iraq. "They can't even talk to their families. They can't get to the phone all the time," observes freshman Dexter Thoma, 15.
The students chose to collect notes and letters for soldiers to let them know they care. The class manned booths at school sporting events, providing notecards and pens for spectators. When money began pouring in, too, the group decided to use it for prepaid phone cards. Thoma "hunted people down" from his wheelchair at home football games. "It was easy," he says. "Everyone at school knows me."
On Oct. 27, 2008, teacher's aide Janet Witt also set up the class's collection jar and signs at a church prayer breakfast, raising an additional $70.
In all, Smith's class collected 1,700 letters and $3,300 worth of phone cards, which the students sent to Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, then-commanding general of the Multi-National Corps Iraq, for distribution. Many of the soldiers even wrote back. "It was an incredibly thoughtful thing," says Odierno, who visited the school on a recent leave. "These are extraordinary individuals who care about others."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.
Tucson 7,000-plus get healthier at HopeFest
The line began forming around 4 a.m. on Make A Difference Day.
Given a chance to receive free medical screenings, dental care, clothing and groceries, Tucson's working poor weren't going to miss out, even if it meant standing in a chilly desert dawn for a 9 a.m. kickoff. "Tucson is a beautiful place, but there's also a lot of homelessness and poverty," says Libby Wright, a volunteer for HopeFest, an all-day annual Make A Difference Day event that offers services for the needy.
In its 15th year, HopeFest helped more than 7,000 people on Oct. 27, 2007.
Supported by 750 volunteers and sponsored by the Pima Medical Institute, the event provided blood pressure screenings, substance abuse counseling, eye exams, hearing tests and more. "This is an all-volunteer effort, and we really are blessed," says executive director Lisa Chastain, of Tucson's Hope Network.
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to Hope Network Inc./Community Renewal.
Savannah, Ga. 16 churches pray and do together
In 2004, First Baptist Church of Savannah pastor John Finley wondered whether the city's churches could connect for service. He hoped to reach across faiths and races to help the needy. "Isn't that what the church is meant to do?" asks co-organizer Nelle Bordeaux, of Wilmington Island Presbyterian Church. That year, volunteers from seven churches planted crape myrtles at a hospice, gave out groceries and built a Habitat for Humanity House for Make A Difference Day. Flash-forward three years to 2007, and the effort has more than doubled, drawing 150 volunteers from 16 churches to its troop of humanitarian workers. On Oct. 27, 2007, one group planted pansies at The Magdalene Project, a women and children's shelter, while another donated to the blood bank. Others painted the home of Ida Mae "Grandma" Sweatman, who simply says, "It made me feel so good, so joyful, that people cared about me."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Coastal Empire Habitat for Humanity and Union Mission, Savannah, Ga.
Rock Island, Ill. In 17 states, fraternal benefit society adopts causes
Thanks to Royal Neighbors of America, the families living at St. Joseph the Worker House in Rock Island, Ill., feel less like outcasts in their historic 19th-century neighborhood. For Make A Difference Day, Royal Neighbors employees and Rock Island chapter members landscaped, installed a play yard and painted the three-story Victorian a lovely smoke blue. "I think people in the neighborhood felt it was not so great to have a transitional home. We felt like we had a bad reputation," says Keri Manning, who serves on the home's board. But on Oct. 27, 2008, the handiwork of 50 volunteers turned the home into a showplace. "We don't feel like the eyesore on the block anymore," Manning says.
Across 17 states, 600 members of Royal Neighbors, a fraternal benefit society founded to provide life insurance for women, took on 60 projects, from volunteering at senior homes to serving meals to the homeless. "We embrace a day when everyone can volunteer at the same time and make our communities better," says Rita Toalson, of Royal Neighbors.
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to St. Joseph the Worker House for upgrades that will accommodate more families.
Ottawa, Ohio Tragedies unite communities
In August 2007, floodwaters poured into the Ohio community of Ottawa, damaging two-thirds of its homes. For months, volunteers toiled to clear the mess, and just before Make A Difference Day, Volunteer Connection of Northwest Ohio head Bobby Olashuk received a call. "The man said his name, but it didn't register. He talked about how his team of young men wanted to give back, and then I knew," Olashuk says.
The caller was James Grandey, head baseball coach at nearby Bluffton University. Earlier that year, five of his team's players died when their bus crashed near Atlanta. The community embraced the team then; now it was the team's turn to help. On Oct. 27, 2007, 36 members joined 18 Bluffton Habitat for Humanity volunteers and 161 area residents to help 31 families. "I about cried," flood victim Julia Siefker says. "To have them come here, they who'd been through such a tragedy -- I felt honored and humbled."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Volunteer Connection of Northwest Ohio's flood relief program.
Port Arthur, Texas Giving without having
Fabiola Small, 65, awoke on Oct. 27, 2008, as she does every day, with a to-do list of volunteering activities. Unlike other mornings, this petite woman -- an ex-welder, daughter of a sharecropper and single mother of four -- also would coordinate the efforts of 40 other volunteers for Make A Difference Day.
Small has spent nearly every day of the past 30 years volunteering -- a lifestyle she chose after falling ill and slipping briefly into depression. "I was feeling bad and staying home, but a friend told me I needed to go out and do something for someone else," she remembers. "She saved me."
And on Make A Difference Day, Small helped give a little salvation to about 1,000 people. Small's army, from seniors to youngsters on the Port Arthur Jr. Bees football team, delivered meals, gave free flu shots, distributed clothing to the poor, handed out literature on HIV/AIDS and drug abuse and also cleaned up a downtrodden neighborhood in Port Arthur. "What Fabiola has, she gives," Port Arthur volunteer Brit Featherston says.
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to Port Arthur Jr. Bees, a program of Gulf Coast Pop Warner.
Los Angeles 3,000 kids join hands to better their communities
It's not easy to get teens on the same page. But for "Teen Make A Difference Day," the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, Connect LA and the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department united 3,000 youths from Palmdale to Pomona to tackle 65 projects, helping at least 2,000 Angelenos.
At the Jesse Owens Community Regional Park pool in L.A., 100 youth swimmers collected $650 in pledges and 200 cans of food for the American Red Cross. Eight miles away, John Ortiz, 18, of L.A.'s urban-to-the-core Crenshaw neighborhood, awoke after sleeping under the stars at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and began picking up litter alongside buddies from the Crenshaw High School Eco Club and club adviser Bill Vanderberg. "It's great being out there," Ortiz says. "You don't have any technology around, and you're with your friends."
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation creates volunteering opportunities for young people through the Human Relations Foundation of Los Angeles County.
Killingly, Conn. schools create a bit of heaven for a teacher with cancer
Teacher Judy Quinn's life was on track, with a new job, sweet kids and a cozy house. But in late spring 2007, she got a disturbing call about a mammogram she'd had in February. An audit showed a problem. "It was there, clear as day: Stage 2 cancer," says Quinn, 49. Suddenly, she faced months of treatment with no job seniority and few sick days. The single mom wondered how she'd manage.
Volunteers from her former school system began to reach out. First, Killingly Intermediate School, which Quinn's daughter Carly attends, planned Make A Difference Day fundraisers. Then, Wendy Johnson-Cavar, 41, whose daughter knows Carly, held a benefit dinner. "I couldn't imagine being a single mom and going through cancer treatment at the same time," Johnson-Cavar says. Plans mushroomed, with Johnson-Cavar putting together the dinner and a benefit auction, as staff and students of KIS and Killingly Memorial School (where Quinn once worked) collected money and auction items.
On Make A Difference Day, 200 donors dined by candlelight at a Knights of Columbus hall, while a local garage band entertained. "It was what I picture heaven to be like. It was so joyful, and everyone was happy," Quinn says. The effort netted more than $12,000 -- enough for her to work half-days during radiation treatment and to spend more time with her family.
$10,000 Make A Difference Day grant by Paul Newman and Newman's Own Foundation goes to the Connecticut chapter of the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation.
Encore Award: National award honorees continue to excel.
Nearly five years ago, 135 volunteers in Lynchburg, Va., transformed an abandoned laundromat into a vocational trades center. For their effort, Jubilee Family Development Center volunteers were named one of 2004's 10 National Make A Difference Day Award recipients. In 2007, that same group reached out to help another facility in a similar circumstance: Lynchburg's historically black YMCA had been shuttered for building code violations, and Jubilee Family volunteers wanted to help.
On Oct. 27, 2007, 91 volunteers addressed the problems at the Hunton-Randolph Community Center, fixing windows, repairing tiles, painting and landscaping. "This was a community landmark vital to the neighborhood. I hated to see it closed down," Jubilee executive director Sterling Wilder says. The repairs helped put the center on track for a projected July reopening.
$10,000 donation from the Gannett Foundation and USA WEEKEND goes to the Jubilee Family Development Center.