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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

An event in San Francisco pairs nonprofit organizations with tech-savvy volunteers to address technical challenges that would otherwise be out of reach for the cash-strapped organizations. (Courtesy of Josh Wolf)

A 'HACKtivation' matches nonprofits serving the homeless with tech talent

By Josh WolfShareable. / 04.04.14

While the tech community continues to be demonized across San Francisco, nearly 100 mostly tech workers acted as angels this weekend [March 28-30] by donating their expertise to a dozen homeless nonprofit organizations.

In a format similar to a hackathon, where small teams form to develop software programs overnight, ReAllocate’s HACKtivation for the Homeless paired nonprofit organizations with volunteers to address technical challenges that would otherwise be out of reach for the cash-strapped organizations.

“Not everybody is being included in how fast things are changing and the benefits of those changes,” said ReAllocate’s Executive Director Kyle Stewart, who cofounded the event with community organizer Ilana Lipsett. “There are opportunities for technology to help inside these established organizations.”

The HACKtivation kicked off Friday night inside the sanctuary of Glide Memorial Church with a series of speeches from both the hosts and organizers. Formerly homeless people spoke of the role that Glide and other organizations played in helping them achieve economic independence, and one of Glide’s pastors told the story of the church’s history. With introductions complete, the nonprofit partners were then invited on stage to briefly describe their organization and talk about the challenge they were hoping to solve over the weekend.

Some of the problems were as simple as building a basic website for a new coalition of nonprofits; but others were more audacious, such as the Larkin Street Project’s request for help developing a mobile-first social network for homeless youth that would connect them to both services and each other.

After about 45 minutes of pitches, the various organizations spread throughout the sanctuary and waited for the “hackers” to choose which project best fit their skills and interests. Crowds immediately sprung up around some of the nonprofits, while others mostly talked amongst themselves until one or two brave souls broke away to assist the projects desperately in need of more manpower.

Though ReAllocate had explicitly called for volunteers from across the city and beyond the tech community alone, I spoke to a small handful of people who said they couldn’t code and seemed to bounce around the periphery before stepping out for the night. Though none of them seemed particularly frustrated, they explained that they weren’t sure how they could plug in to help solve these organization’s tech-oriented needs.

The next morning everyone reassembled at the offices of Yammer, a startup located in Twitter’s Market Street headquarters, and continued hacking throughout the day and into the night. The work then spilled into Sunday as the teams completed their projects, which they presented at Code for America’s offices on Sunday evening.

Homeless Employment Collaborative is a coalition of organizations helping individuals secure housing and employment through a variety of educational courses and other programs.

“After folks have graduated from our program and gotten a job, they are no longer part of our program and they don’t have a lot of incentive to stick around and stay in touch with us,” said Executive Director Karen Gruneisen. “A smartphone with continued data service in exchange for completing a quarterly survey with status on employment and housing can be just the incentive that we need.”

Over the weekend, Gruneisen’s team created an app using Surveygizmo and Twilio to do just that.

Hospitality House runs a community arts program in addition to a variety of other homeless services that allows artists to keep 100 percent of the money raised from the sale of their art. While those sales had previously been mostly limited to gallery showings, the organization created an Etsy store over the weekend to sell the art online.

Project Homeless Connect coordinates a homeless service bonanza a few times a year at the Bill Graham service center. These massive undertakings involve complex coordination of dozens of service organizations and hundreds of volunteers.

Although the organization was already using Salesforce to run their site, their set-up wasn’t very customizable and couldn’t be configured to meet their needs. Over the weekend, a team comprised of volunteers that included Salesforce employees started transitioning the organization over to a new website that will allow volunteers to register themselves – changes that will save time by streamlining the process of coordinating volunteers.

The Homeless Prenatal Program also benefited from volunteers with Salesforce experience. Although their organization had been using Salesforce for 10 years, they continued to rely on an antiquated system that required their volunteers to fill out a form, which would later be typed into the system. Now, the Homeless Prenatal Program has a website that allows volunteers to sign up online.

Until this weekend, Glide Memorial Church had no easy way to collect donations online and no mobile-friendly solutions at all. Now, the church has a mobile-friendly web app that accepts donations via PayPal and the app will soon be configured to work with both Amazon and Google’s payment platforms, while also taking credit cards.

The Larkin Street Project’s vision for a mobile-first social network for homeless youth proved a bit too optimistic for a weekend’s worth of work, but a couple of programmers did set the organization up with an SMS app that allows youth up to the age of 24 to reserve a shelter bed using text messaging.

Safe for Women is a new organization led by YMCA volunteers that formed over the weekend to create a new tool that provides anonymous support for victims of rape and domestic abuse through text messaging.

The Bay Area Open Referral Project is a part of a larger effort to put service resources online in a common standards format that will allow websites to deliver this information in whatever format works best. Over the weekend, the team transformed existing data on services offered in the Bay Area into a format that will work with something called the Ohana API, which is basically a standardized format for community service data that was developed by Code for America to create San Mateo County’s version of this resource (SMC-Connect).

Haven Connect is a company currently being developed by Caroline Caselli, a case manager at Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

“One problem that I noticed when I was helping homeless clients in the homeless shelter I was working at was that I was doing all the applications by hand and that was a pain in the butt,” said Caselli.

Over the weekend, Caselli worked with a designer to create a mock-up of a common online application, which could then be filled out one time and used to populate the numerous housing applications that don’t follow any standard format and are submitted on paper.

Market Street for the Masses, the St. Francis Living Room, and ABD Productions/Skywatchers are three separate organizations that either lacked a website or whose site did not meet their needs. At the HACKtivation, each of these organizations worked with designers and other volunteers to create new websites using Wordpress that look professional and can also be updated by the nonprofit staff without significant training or technical proficiency.

“This is really the start of what we can make happen together,” said ReAllocate’s Stewart.

Starting April 16, the HACKtivations will continue as a twice-monthly, four-hour, weeknight hacking session to continue development on these projects and begin work on solving new problems. The April 16 event will be hosted at [freespace], which is located on Market Street at 6th Street.

This article was originally published by Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

'We provide help in a way that inspires people. They don’t stand in a line and become a number,' says Erika Flint, executive director of the Watertown (N.Y.) Urban Mission. (Courtesy of Nicole Caldwell)

Erika Flint knows firsthand about giving dignity to the needy

By Nicole CaldwellTruthAtlas / 04.03.14

[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at]

 A man walks through a set of doors next to an archway with a sign: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.” As he gets a shopping cart, he’s joined by an employee who points out new products and calls his attention to posters depicting portion allotments based on family size. The man pulls a bag of rice, a bottle of juice, a loaf of fresh-baked French bread, shampoo, produce from a local garden, and a can of tomatoes. He is walked to the front of the store, checks out, and takes his bags of groceries home to his family.

This is the new face of poverty: a dignity-driven, choice-based system encouraging individuals to take charge, make smart food choices, and usher in better choices and a better life. This is a world without shame for falling on hard times. This is the Watertown Urban Mission, a nonprofit organization located on Factory Street in the heart of Watertown, New York.

“My mother was one of nine children,” says Erika Flint, 33, who has served as the Mission’s executive director since 2011. “She raised me on her own. And though we occasionally received aid through government programs, most of our help came from churches, neighbors, and family members. The help wasn’t obvious. It didn’t feel like we had no money, or that we were in need.”

That experience is what made the job at Watertown Urban Mission resonate so strongly for Erika. “We provide help in a way that inspires people,” she says. “They don’t stand in a line and become a number.”

The Watertown Urban Mission creates a network of local churches, organizations, businesses, and individuals to help people through difficult times in Watertown and surrounding Jefferson County. The organization was created by three ministers in 1967 interested in banding together churches of all denominations to serve neighbors in need. In 1968, 15 churches pledged their commitment to the Mission—a number that today has ballooned to more than 40 countywide.

The Mission’s programming offers food, clothing, shelter, medicine, vital supplies, and counseling in order to empower people to get back on their feet. None of this assistance is cash-based. Instead, the Mission offers specific items and help to individuals in order to target the exact source of need.

There are six major programs Erika oversees at the Mission: the Bridge Program, a court-ordered alternative to incarceration for those facing legal issues because of alcohol or drug abuse; the Christian Care Center, offering fellowship through daily devotions, bible study, and prayer; Critical Needs, providing emergency assistance such as medications, diapers, furniture, or home repair; the Food Pantry, serving more than 500 families a five-day supply of food every month; HEARTH, preventing and addressing homelessness; and the Impossible Dream Thrift Store, selling donated goods and clothing to the public at affordable prices.

Erika grew up in Croghan, New York, about 30 miles east of Watertown.

“It was a very small community,” she says. “When I was little, I thought nothing of going to my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Darlene’s house and having them pull food out of their refrigerator saying, ‘Oh, we bought too much of this,’ or ‘Here, take this home with you.’ They gave us food without making it seem like they felt sorry for us—they didn’t do it like we were starving. And we weren’t—we had this support system.”

Now married with two children of her own, Flint pays her childhood experience forward every day at the Mission. 

“Because most of our funding comes from private sources, we can do what makes sense,” she says. “It’s not a deficit-based approach. At the Mission if you are working, or are trying to get an education, we can help fill in the gaps where you need it to keep you going in the right direction.”

The Watertown Urban Mission negates the Catch-22 of poverty in the United States. Instead of cutting checks or mailing out food vouchers, the Mission works face-to-face with individuals and families. They might help with specific car repairs so its owner can get to work; provide business attire for a job interview; provide medications for someone who can’t afford them; or ensure a child has school supplies.

The Mission empowers people to take responsibility over their own progress. For example, a person who works and is the legal guardian of at least one child is eligible to receive transportation support. The Mission may buy a car worth several thousand dollars and sell it to a person for $600, payable through monthly installments of $50.

We could just give the cars away,” Erika says. “But instead, we enable people to buy their own.”

One woman had a water pump fail this winter at her home. Without money to buy a new one, she was forced to melt snow for drinking, bathing, and dish washing.

“She had no resources,” Erika explains, “but she owned her own home. Her husband had died in that home—she had lived there so long, and she didn’t want to move.”

The Mission wanted to help. Instead of giving the woman cash or even a gift certificate to a hardware store, “We bought her a water pump and had someone install it for her. And in the meantime, we coordinated with a church to bring her fresh gallons of water.” Putting faces to the aid and targeting specific places where help is needed, Flint says, eliminates the risk of mismanagement—for the givers and the receivers.

One man who went through the Bridge Program as an alternative to incarceration said this about the Mission: “This program didn’t just give me my life back; it gave my daughter her dad back.” A mother and daughter going through the Critical Needs program had this conversation within earshot of staff: “Why are we here?” the daughter asked. The mother replied: “So someday you don’t have to be.”

These stories—and countless others—understandably inspire a lot of giving. All donations, no matter their size, are celebrated; but one recent gift was particularly noteworthy.

KB Global Care, the charitable arm of New York Air Brake Company’s parent company, the Germany-based Knorr-Bremse Group, awarded the Watertown Urban Mission $205,000 in 2014 toward the nonprofit’s campaign seeking $2 million to revitalize its Factory Street location and establish an endowment.

“This is the first grant from them to be dispersed in this continent,” Erika says. The grant, which pushed the Mission past its campaign goal a full 11 months ahead of schedule, ensures renovation of the food pantry and thrift shop, upgraded safety measures, improved privacy in consultation areas, the creation of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and lifts, and much-needed renovations such as insulated windows.

Unsurprisingly, what grabbed the attention of those determining grant recipients was this: The Mission helps people get back on their feet so they can take care of themselves.

“The funding will allow us to give people a space they can feel proud of when they walk in,” Erika says. “This works with our intention of allowing people to do for themselves in order to maintain a sense of pride.”

Asked to come up with the most difficult part of this work, she shrugs.

“I don’t think there’s anything difficult about this job,” she says with a smile, “except always wanting to do more.”

• For more information visit the Watertown Urban Mission website.

'I advise my students that if you have a dream, you cannot allow yourself to be distracted. If my students say they can’t do it, I say they can fight like I did,' says Rafiatu Lawal. (Courtesy of Skoll World Forum)

Rafiatu Lawal: education empowers African women

By Rafiatu LawalSkoll World Forum / 04.02.14

Many lives are touched and changed as a result of women completing schooling and taking control of their own financial situations. My life has been transformed, my future is bright, and I have been able to help others because I am educated and empowered. My dreams for the future reflect this experience.

As a young girl, I didn’t dream that I would get a university degree. Due to my family background, I used to go to school with an empty stomach and a uniform that was not presentable. I faced many challenges but I did not give up. As I climbed the educational ladder, I persevered through my problems, and I became the first girl in my family to gain a degree. In my community in Ghana most girls drop out of school, and so a lot now look up to me as a role model.

When I finished school I joined the Cama network. Cama brings together educated young African women and encouraged my leadership and personal skills. It also taught me that we have to be each other’s keepers, mentoring and supporting younger children in our communities to develop. I had the privilege of becoming a teacher.

As a teacher, I find many students who are at risk of dropping out. They face financial and emotional barriers. They are tired because they have been selling produce before and after school. They fall victim to men and are taken advantage of, and their families do not always believe in the education of the girl child.

However, I counsel them and tell them: "I grew up just like you." I advise my students that if you have a dream, you cannot allow yourself to be distracted. If my students say they can’t do it, I say they can fight like I did. Alongside other Cama members, I also discuss the importance of keeping children in school with parents in my community.

Additionally, I love reaching young people on air through the radio. I have presented programs on giving back, spoken to many people, and learned a lot. In this position, I remind young people that although there are many jobs and prospects in the cities, we must always remember the homes where we come from. Although we may leave to fulfill our ambitions, we must come back to our communities and give back, remembering that we must fight for our small corner of the world because no one else will.

I am a woman of dreams, a woman who sometimes comes up with crazy ideas. Today in Ghana many young girls drop out of school, often traveling to the cities in the south to take up insecure employment.

When I was recently with a friend we watched the porters who carry goods for a living in the market – young girls who could not even look us in the eyes. We thought about what would help these girls. They needed education, entrepreneurial skills, and support.

This could have been my life without the chances I have had, and I want to help young women who are out of school to have better prospects than jobs that reduce their dignity and give them no rights. My greatest dream is a future in which all women are educated and empowered, where they can stand up tall, fight for their rights and say, "I am proud to be a woman."

I also dream of disabled people having more prospects. When I see disabled people begging on the streets I wonder what the future holds for them and their families.

There are two Cama members in Tamale who are visually impaired but are well-educated and successful women. One has just completed university and the other is in teacher training college. I believe that if there were more opportunities for people with disabilities to find employment and training, they would flourish. I would like to liaise with my Cama friends and other disabled people to help others with disabilities.

In 2012, I was chosen by the MasterCard Foundation to be a member of its Youth Tank. This introduced me to new people, places, and ideas. I went to the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris where I learned so much.

I came back to Ghana with a passion for entrepreneurship and a belief that if young people want to succeed they have to be creative, take their destiny into their own hands, and build upon their unique ideas. I also learned about the value of social media as a tool for networking, learning, and growing businesses. This has informed the way that I run the business that I have and the advice I give to other young people.

I look forward to learning more from the great experiences of the international community represented at the Skoll World Forum and to making partnerships with those interested in education and economic empowerment.

Rafiatu Lawal is national chairperson of the Cama network in Ghana.

'After delivering meals for Moveable Feast, I am reminded that every person just wants to be loved and has an important story to share,' says volunteer Karen Lange. 'By helping others you actually feel better.' (Courtesy of Talking GOOD)

Karen Lange: volunteering 'helped my soul and heart to heal'

By Andy SeguinTalking GOOD / 04.01.14

Twenty-five years ago in San Diego, Karen Lange was asked by her neighbor, the husband of a woman who had unknowingly contracted HIV, for help. Everyone else had turned their back on the couple and the husband was desperate. Despite only knowing them for a short time, Karen agreed.

The woman was in the last stages of a life, brutally shortened by AIDS. By her side, spending time with her and caring for her, was not her family, not her friends, but her next-door neighbor. In those moments, Karen’s personal purpose in life became clear as she realized the major difference that we as individuals can have on another person’s life. 

After her friend passed, Karen became involved in a local grass-roots organization called Mama’s Kitchen, delivering meals to the critically ill, and eventually becoming a Board Member. She says that she threw her energy in volunteering as a way to “help me feel better after her death and all the pain that I had seen.”

After a few moves around the country, Karen landed in Baltimore. At that time, some aspects of her life were “difficult,” and she was working hard to get “out of a rut.” Despite focusing on eating right, exercising, and trying to surround herself with positive people, she stayed in this rut, until she returned to volunteering.

“It was volunteering at Moveable Feast that finally helped my soul and heart to heal,” Karen recalled. She found in the Baltimore-based nonprofit the same mission as Mama’s Kitchen in San Diego – to provide nutritious food to homebound people living with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening or chronic conditions.

Getting reengaged with this passion helped her to “break the fog” in the rest of her life. She had no idea how beneficial and therapeutic her volunteerism and selflessness would be in her own life.

That is Karen’s true gift – to be proof that giving of our own resources, especially our time, can have a massive life-changing impact on the lives of others, while also showing that volunteering helps you become a healthier, more positive person.

Moveable Feast website

The 10 questions


To treat people the way that I want to be treated and to live, love, and learn each day.


I see people in a different way, a more sensitive way now. After delivering meals for Moveable Feast, I am reminded that every person just wants to be loved and has an important story to share. Each time food is delivered to one of our clients they are reminded that someone loves and cares about them enough to bring them one of the most basic needs for life – food. Because that food is delivered with lots of love, hugs, and a listening ear, it brings them hope. I also try to carry this reminder into my everyday life when I deal with other people I encounter, despite the circumstances in a person's life, to remember that everyone at the core wants to be loved and valued.


I am reminded about what is truly important in life. I hear stories from our clients about what truly matters. I get important perspective. Volunteering for Moveable Feast actually helped me to get better after a difficult time in my life – giving to others actually helped me to heal. I worked hard to get out of a rut, exercising, eating right, surrounding myself with positive people, but it was volunteering at Moveable Feast that finally helped my soul and heart to heal.


I am very impressed with Bill and Melinda Gates and the work done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation believes that all lives have equal value. They work globally in many important areas, including HIV, as well as domestically, mostly in education.

What impresses me and makes them living heroes are the stories I read on-line about Bill and Melinda's "can-do" spirit in tackling some of the most difficult problems in the world. It is very inspiring to hear their positive stories. If I could, I would ask Bill and Melinda to come down to the Moveable Feast kitchen in downtown Baltimore to feel the energy of the kitchen first hand while watching hundreds of nutritious meals being prepared by volunteers and staff collaboratively. Then I would ask them to go on a delivery route with us to see the people we serve and hear some of the challenges they face daily. At the end of our time together, I would want to have coffee with them and ask if there are any ways that we could improve the services to our clients, to learn from them and share experiences.


The gift of time. Moveable Feast is primarily a volunteer-run organization with very few full time employees. We provide no-cost meals to individuals in every county in Maryland, and we are always in need of kitchen volunteers, drivers, event volunteers – the volunteer opportunities are endless.

We welcome individuals with all kinds of skill sets to help. We have people volunteering their time to help with new technology solutions to make us more efficient to volunteers who make batches and batches of cookies for a special treat for our clients – both are equally important and very appreciated. But time is scarce for everyone – there are myriad ways we can spend our days – so more time from more people would really help us to feed even more people that need our services.


Do you realize the immediate difference you can make in the lives of so many in your community when you volunteer and give what you can? Do you realize all the ways volunteering helps you to be a healthier person? 


Learning Lessons. Life can be tricky and hard and wonderful and amazing, sometimes all at the same time. But I try to take lessons away from each experience in life. I say to myself, "Ok, that experience was horrible," or "That experience was wonderful," but in each case, I ask myself, "What did I learn that I can use positively in the future?"

I have found that if I try to learn from each experience in life I can take a bit of positive away, even from the most difficult situation.


I am obsessed with the capabilities of today's smartphone. I love taking and sharing pics immediately with family across the miles, I love checking the weather, and I am thrilled to have GPS at my fingertips because without it I am a bit directionally challenged! (to name just a few reasons...)


There is so much focus on wellness in the media today. We all are trying to eat better, exercise more, and take better care of ourselves. Interestingly enough, becoming a citizen philanthropist is an easy way to also take care of yourself. By helping others you actually feel better. Philanthropy helps to release all those good chemicals in your body that contribute to wellness. Helping others, volunteering – it just makes everyone feel good!


QUESTION: What is the first time you remember helping someone else and what did you do? ANSWER: When I was in middle school, I remember spending lots of time with a young girl, Laura, who had cerebral palsy. I remember how much the parents appreciated me playing with her and making her happy. I remember that even though she could not physically control her body, there was so much in her eyes. I think this was the very first time as a young person that I truly saw the value in helping others.

This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, visit this link.

A homeless man sleeps using his recycled cans as a pillow at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. Providing housing specifically for homeless people could save taxpayers millions of dollars, a new study suggests. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

If homeless people had a safe place to live, taxpayers could save millions

By Liz DwyerTakePart / 03.31.14

In a world where money talks, evidence that putting a roof over someone's head is a boon to city budgets could be the incentive cities need to build housing for the homeless. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte's Department of Social Work have found that housing constructed specifically for homeless people saved the city millions.

Providing housing at an 85-unit facility called Moore Place resulted in 447 fewer visits to emergency rooms and 372 fewer days spent in hospitals, The Charlotte Observer reported. That alone saved the city $1.8 million—which makes plenty of sense. When people aren't exposed to danger from criminals or animals, and they don't get sick from sleeping in a doorway on a cold night, they're bound to be healthier.

RECOMMENDED: Homeless in Europe

Law enforcement costs were also reduced. Providing housing to Moore Place residents resulted in an incredible "78 percent drop in arrests and 84 percent fewer days spent in jail."

Moore Place accommodates men and women who represent the millions of Americans affected by stubborn housing and employment problems that took hold during the Great Recession in 2007. They are folks who were living paycheck to paycheck, got laid off, couldn't find another position, and so lost their home. There are also residents who struggle with mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions.

Although other housing facilities often require tenants to be sober before moving in, Moore Place is grounded in the "housing first" concept. The idea is that individuals with mental health or addiction issues are more likely to be able to deal with those issues if they have a stable home base.

RECOMMENDED: Homeless in Europe

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts the number of homeless last year at 610,000 people. Homelessness dropped 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, but given the cuts to food stamps and expired unemployment benefits, officials expect homelessness to become much worse in 2014. There's also the reality that those numbers don't include people crashing on relatives' couches or sleeping in their cars.

This isn't the first time giving people homes (instead of leaving them on the street or throwing them in jails) has seen success. A similar project in Colorado converted a correctional facility to housing for the homeless, and the same positive results were borne out. 

Now that the Moore Place model has proved itself, government and nonprofit agencies plan to work together to offer "incentives to encourage more permanent supportive housing projects for the chronically homeless."

• TakePart staff writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives.

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Doug Friedlander helped found the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County, an area of Arkansas with a 32 percent poverty rate. (© Louisa Bertman)

Why Doug Friedlander moved from New York to the Mississippi Delta – and stayed

By Anne FordThe Rotarian / 03.28.14

In 2004, Doug Friedlander quit a lucrative career in software to join Teach For America. The born-and-bred New Yorker found himself teaching high school science in Helena, Ark., a town with a poverty rate of 32 percent.

After he and his wife realized that the local children needed more opportunities than the classroom alone could provide, they helped found the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County. Friedlander, a member of the Rotary Club of Helena, is now director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce.

THE ROTARIAN: What’s life like in Phillips County?

FRIEDLANDER: Well, it’s in the Mississippi Delta, which is one of those places that need help but don’t get any press. It’s been as bad off as post-Katrina New Orleans for four decades.

Back when agriculture was king, we were the hub of a 
prosperous region. Mark Twain even wrote about Helena in Life on the Mississippi; he said it 
“occupies one of the prettiest 
situations on the river. ”

Our community has incredible architecture, culture, and history, but it’s been in a 40-year recession and has lost about half its population. I liken it to Cinderella: It’s from a good family, it took a precipitous fall, but it’s ready to be dusted off and taken to the ball.

TR: How did you decide to 
help found the local Boys and Girls Club?

FRIEDLANDER: During my Teach For America days, my colleagues and I would work with our students to build them up and get them on the right track. We would see progress, and they’d come back the next day as if nothing had happened. We realized that we were walking up the down escalator.

Our community doesn’t have a movie theater. It doesn’t have a mall. It doesn’t have a skating rink. It has little in the way of positive opportunities for youth. We realized that a Boys and Girls Club would help our kids socialize and mature in the presence of good role models.

We met some people who had the same idea, and together we launched the campaign in January 2006 with a speech at the Rotary club. Everything exploded from there. A Rotary member offered us a building to use as a temporary location, and he ended up joining our board. We opened that June.

We’ve raised $2 million and built a state-of-the-art facility. We have more than 700 members, and we see about 250 kids a day.

TR: Any suggestions for Rotarians in similar communities?

FRIEDLANDER: My wife and I wouldn’t be in Phillips County if it weren’t for Teach For America. I would encourage Rotarians to reach out to people involved in Teach For America, because given the right opportunities, they might stay in your community and become part of your leadership infrastructure.

TR: What’s your advice for newcomers to an area that needs some help?

FRIEDLANDER: Having an attitude of respect and humility 
is rule No. 1 – not coming in like a superstar. Rule No. 2: Volunteer constantly and show up religiously. In any community, there’s only a small subset of people who show up and 
do things, and when they see you showing up, they’ll start 
to see you as a brother or sister.

And the third thing is: Share credit. Make other people look good.

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.

Deborah Jiang Stein speaks in the prison yard at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. 'What if 1 percent of these inmates furthered their education or helped their children take a different path? People can change – look at me!' she says. (Courtesy of Deborah Jiang Stein)

Born in prison, she's back behind bars on a mission

By Sherry AmatensteinTruthAtlas / 03.27.14

[This article first appeared on TruthAtlas is an online news source featuring multimedia stories about people and ideas making the world a better place. Learn more at]

In front of a packed house, Deborah Jiang Stein had just confessed to running drugs up and down California and Arizona 20 years earlier when an audience member shouted, “You do know you’re in a prison and there are federal officers in the halls!”

Deborah laughed in recognition. The author of "Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison" and the powerful follow-up, "Prison Baby," she was born addicted to heroin. Now in her fifties, she spent her first year of life at a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, with her birth mother before being put into foster care and then adopted by a white couple in Seattle when she was four.

Despite having loving adoptive parents, her Asian features left Deborah feeling like an outsider, and when she was 11, she found a letter in her adoptive parents’ bedroom revealing her origins. “I knew I was adopted but had no memory of prison or my birth mother,” she says.

Rather than confess her traumatic discovery to her parents, she dove into an emotional polar vortex. “A therapist later told me I suffered from PTSD and Reactive Attachment Disorder,” she says, “which happens when young children do not form a healthy emotional attachment with their mother.”

Deborah spent much of her teenage years in a drug-fueled haze. She took crystal meth and heroin, committed armed robbery and cash machine schemes, and even used her body to smuggle cocaine-filled balloons across the country.

What caused her to ditch “the bad life, while I still have a life,” as she detailed in "Prison Baby," was a horrible incident where a woman she was with stabbed a “scrawny, white guy with a four-inch buck knife” who was subjecting Deborah to unwanted advances. The man lurched away, clutching his bloody shirtfront. Years later, Deborah remains haunted that she doesn’t know if he survived.

After “white-knuckling” her way through withdrawal, Deborah began the process of healing—one that included reconciling with her adoptive parents, earning a Bachelor’s degree in economics, and, after 20 years of requests, receiving permission to visit the prison that was her first “home.”

Tragically, Deborah discovered that her birth mother had died from throat cancer, but that she has a half-brother, Nick, who is now part of her life.

Given that 7-10 percent of women are pregnant when sentenced to prison, and that 2.7 million minors have a parent in prison, Deborah’s experience was unfortunately all too common. Research indicates that 70 percent of the offspring of those incarcerated wind up in prison as well. It is not uncommon for three generations of women–mother, grown daughter, and the baby born behind bars–to become ensnared in this tragic cycle.

Over a decade ago, Deborah used her unique talents to begin offering writing workshops in women’s prisons. There, she discovered talented voices clamoring to be heard.

“Women in prison are a disappeared group, and the majority is sentenced for substance abuse and domestic violence offenses,” she says with an emotional sigh. “I want people to notice these women are not scary. They are wounded human beings who need compassion and life tools.”

Both are offered through The unPrison Project, or UPP, the nonprofit organization Deborah created in 2012 to empower women in prison. Since its formation, she has presented workshops to 15,000 female inmates, reaching 400 to 2,500 women at a time, in 10 states. Wardens in an additional 28 prisons in states including Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and New York have invited her in to speak. Her reputation continues to grow as speaking requests pour in from prisons overseas.

These institutions often house schools, as children stay with their mothers there until they’re 12 years of age.

“I visit prisons to present my core values: Everyone is loved, everyone is valuable, everyone has skills they don’t know are marketable. For instance, if you can lead a gang of 10, you have a high threshold for risk-taking–an essential quality for an entrepreneur,” she says. “What if 1 percent of these inmates furthered their education or helped their children take a different path?” She grins at the thought. “People can change–look at me!”

Long-range goals for UPP include creating programs like “Mother Mail,” where schools will mail monthly packages of children’s photos and letters to their imprisoned mothers, who then write back. Another goal is to create post-release resources, aided by volunteer counselors, therapists, educators, and spiritual leaders in the prison communities. In the pipeline are plans for a college scholarship foundation for the daughters of incarcerated women, too.

Projects that are crying out for immediate funding include the manufacture of a custom Goals Planner; inmates would use it to track their progress and aspirations in the areas of education, mental health, and substance-abuse treatment. Deborah is planning an all-prison book club as well. “Wardens have been requesting 100 donated copies each of 'Prison Baby' for their libraries before I come in to talk.”

Incarcerated women are responding to Deborah’s passion and message.

“She offers proof that the cycle of addiction can be broken and surpassed,” said one inmate at Albion Correctional Facility in New York of Deborah’s visit, “as well as confirmation that success is still an option.”

In addition to the prison workshops, Deborah is a keynote speaker at conferences for professionals working in law enforcement and corrections, foster care, and mental health services. “Doing this work has helped me forgive myself,” she admits. “I used to think the stuff that happened to me was because I was bad.”

Another reason her mission is so successful is that, as a single parent to 13- and 18-year-old daughters, she understands the stresses of raising children on her own. She made sure her girls never had to spend a day wondering if their mother loved them. Still, there is a new worry: Deborah has been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, an incurable liver virus. “So far it’s incurable,” she says optimistically.

If anything, this news has added to her sense of mission. “I feel healthy,” she adds. “It’s not a death sentence but adds to my awareness that time is limited.”

Hopefully Deborah’s work will have a lasting impact on how incarcerated women and their children are treated.

“My work is the ‘fault’ of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who invite me in as an example of a ‘bad girl gone good," she says with a wry smile. “Prison is my birth country. Going back has freed me.”

The unPrison Project is seeking checks and/or PayPal donations, donated Delta frequent flyer miles for travel to the prisons (each visit costs $2,500), and donated copies of "Prison Baby" for the UPP book club.
 Checks and other correspondence can be mailed to
 The unPrison Project 
8014 Olson Memorial #153
Minneapolis, MN 55427. Contact Deborah Jiang Stein at

'They were opening up opportunity in America. Now we’re doing it on a global basis,' says David Robinson of his parents, baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel. David Robinson now operates a farmer-run coffee cooperative in Tanzania. (Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince)

Son of baseball great Jackie Robinson finds Sweet Unity in Tanzania

By Cathyrn J. PrinceCorrespondent / 03.26.14

David Robinson takes his coffee the way he speaks: plain with just a touch of sweetness to get the conversation going.

The youngest son of Jackie and Rachel Robinson was on the tail end of a three-week trip to the United States and Canada to meet with investors and coffee roasters for his Sweet Unity Farms coffee.

Located in a remote corner of southwestern Tanzania, the 300-farm coffee cooperative gives small-scale farmers access to the international coffee market. It’s Mr. Robinson’s way of brewing up social justice and consciousness.

“It’s tragic that there are so few farmer-direct coffees in Africa, but it’s very tough,” Robinson says. “We’re competing with established brands that are on the tip of your tongue. You hear the jingle and see the logo in your mind. So it takes a bit of time to question if there are alternatives, to ask if the coffee is directly sourced.”

Tanzania sells about 50 million pounds of coffee a year to coffee-shop chains such as Starbucks and Peet’s. But Sweet Unity is the only finished branded product from the East African country to be sold directly in the US, Robinson says.

Sweet Unity’s direct-trade system means that its farmers elect other farmers to hold various positions, including chairmen, clerks, and bookkeepers. When payments come the cooperative decides on projects to undertake, from solar panels for electrification to water-management systems for better irrigation.

Soon Robinson will be back home in Tanzania accompanied by his mother, Rachel. She’s keen to hug her grandchildren and walk through the village’s new educational center.

The $60,000 educational center is the latest accomplishment of the cooperative. The center, which took five years to build, joins a primary and a secondary school already built through the cooperative.

Robinson started Up-Country International Projects to market Sweet Unity Farms gourmet coffee in North America. The coffee is available for purchase on and is sold in some US airports, including many in Florida, he says.

The cooperative produces 120,000 to 140,000 pounds of coffee annually. The yield depends on the rains, and the rains are coming later every year, he says.

“If that rain doesn’t come, you’re looking at a percentage or two of your harvest drying up on the tree every day,” Robinson says.

The cooperative recently built a rainwater catchment that holds 900,000 liters (238,000 gallons) of water. Farmers attach jugs to their bicycles or load oxcarts with containers to fetch the water.

Each time he visits North America Robinson is reminded of water’s abundance and easy availability there. He wishes the same for those living in his part of the world.

Robinson also hopes more Americans will consider buying direct-source products from countries that need water or electricity. Using that income "those countries can get as much water as the rest of the world,” he says.

Robinson grew up in Stamford, Conn., and attended New Canaan Country Day School. When he was 15 his mother took him to Africa. His father stayed home. The trip touched Robinson deeply.

“It was the trip as a whole, not one specific thing, that gave me an innate impression of something I wanted,” he says.

After graduating from high school Robinson enrolled at Stanford University. But he felt adrift. He dropped out, and in 1971 returned to Africa, a place where he saw potential and great beauty.

“I was probably a naïve youth, but I saw that I could make things happen,” Robinson says.

He was there only a few months when the call came. His older brother, Jackie Jr., had been killed after falling asleep at the wheel of his car. It was the first of three great losses for Robinson. In 1972, his famous father, Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball, died unexpectedly. His grandmother died as well.

After what he calls a “trying time for the family” he moved to Tanzania, attracted by its economic and political stability. While visiting the coffee-growing Mbozi District he felt he’d arrived home.

The village elders told Robinson he could have whatever land he cleared. So that's what he did – with hand tools and workers from five tribes, hence the name Sweet Unity.

“It was an effort by diverse people to do something together, and it blossomed,” he says.

The number 42 included in Robinson’s business email address honors his father, who wore that number on his uniform and is now enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame. Together with his wife, Rachel, he fought for equal opportunity long after he retired his baseball jersey.

In the hours before Robinson boarded his flight from New York's JFK airport to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, he paused to consider what his father would think of his enterprise.

“They [his parents] were opening up opportunity in America: Now we’re doing it on a global basis," Robinson says. "It was a tough job they took on, and they left it unfinished. I know I will leave my work unfinished. I just hope I planted enough seeds in my children and grandchildren that they will continue.”

'I started Cubs for Coping because I felt scared and alone in the hospital. My friends and family sent me stuffed animals, which made me realize that people do care,' says Nicole Javorsky. 'Hope changes everything. Knowing that there are people out there who care about you is so important.' (Courtesy of Talking GOOD)

Nicole Javorsky overcame challenges by doing, not complaining

By Taylor ZansbergTalking GOOD / 03.25.14

Nicole Javorsky is literally and figuratively turning this world upside down.

The 18-year-old aspiring trapeze artist is the founder and president of Cubs for Coping, an organization that makes and donates handmade teddy bears to young people in hospitals, shelters, and eating disorder clinics.

Nicole’s own personal struggle with an eating disorder (anorexia) and co-occurring mental illness is what inspired her to start the organization. She describes: “I started Cubs for Coping because I felt scared and alone in the hospital. My friends and family sent me stuffed animals, which made me realize that people do care. Not everyone is so lucky … Why [send handmade teddy bears]? Hope changes everything. Knowing that there are people out there who care about you is so important.”  

Nicole sews every teddy bear on a sewing machine and leaves a hole in each one for people to stuff them and then decorate them. Her vice president and best friend, Christie Delligatti, along with outreach coordinator Myra Greenberg, cuts out the patterns for each bear. Cubs for Coping has donated 80 handmade teddy bears so far. If you’d like to support Cubs for Coping, check out its next volunteer event and T-shirt campaign.

Passion for her cause drives Nicole in other areas of her life. Back in high school, she founded a club called “Mirror Mission,” which helps youths address their self-esteem and body-image issues. Under Nicole’s leadership, the club made this video for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, held a bake sale for Project Heal, and became a haven for member-led dialogues and support. Today, Nicole is involved with Windows of Opportunity, which helps teens embrace and fully accept their true selves via leadership and empowerment work. She has also led workshops at St. John’s University on bullying, eating disorders, and how to respond to someone who is struggling in a neutral and supportive way.

Nicole currently interns at, the largest not-for-profit in the country for youths and social change, as their Animal & Environment Campaigns Intern, and takes classes at Baruch College. She completed one semester at Vassar this past fall and next year will be attending Barnard College for her sophomore year. A modern and jazz dance enthusiast, Nicole also volunteers with Dancing Dreams, giving girls with physical and medical challenges the chance to dance.

Nicole is changing the way young people in treatment see themselves, the world, and how they fit into it! She believes that “if you are going through a tough time too, remember that showing vulnerability makes you human, not weak. Save yourself and maybe you'll be able to save someone else."

The 10 questions


To make myself and the world more awesome by doing instead of complaining.


We often feel that the world is too big and complicated to change. Through taking action, I stopped feeling intimidated and instead started to develop a better understanding of the complex world we live in.


I get to engage in a conversation about solutions to the issues we face. I also get people’s trust, which enables me to learn more about others and the problems people deal with. Ultimately I get hope, and I learn about how much good there is in the world.


Malala Yousafzai is my hero. I would ask Malala how the global coverage of her story has affected her as a person. I would think that becoming a global figure and hero can transform one’s self-image and worldview. Seeing how Malala’s perspective has changed would challenge me to analyze my own views.


People. Individuals can help get money, publicity, or any other resource for a philanthropic project. However, philanthropy means nothing without people impacting each other.


How do you let yourself, as a leader, trust others to help you advance your project? One of the important things about being a leader is knowing when to step back and let the strengths of your team members shine through.


"I’m Okay!" would be the title of my book because I have dealt with anorexia, anxiety, and depression. Yet, I have always smiled and said that I’m okay. This helped me succeed despite the challenges I face. Saying I’m okay is a coping mechanism for me to keep hanging in there.


If I was stuck on a deserted island, I would make sure that I could eat granny smith apples. Just a “little” obsessed.


If the “bigness” of the world stops you from taking action, start being fearless. Dare to dream, and then make those dreams reality. The world needs you for it to become less “big” and scary.


What do you value most? Honestly, I value perseverance because the greatest test we can take is bouncing back from defeat. If you want to accomplish your dreams, learn how to accept failure as a challenge to improve. I don’t mean to be cliché, but what doesn’t kill you truly can make you stronger.

• To learn more, visit Cubs for Coping

This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, visit this link.

An exhibitor demonstrates the use of a toilet tap where water is recycled and reused during the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in New Delhi March 22. The primary goal: to sanitize waste and use minimal water or electricity, and produce a usable product at low cost. But some toilets on display also produced valuable biochar fuel or electricity. (Tsering Topgyal/AP)

Toilet tech fair takes on global sanitation woes

By Katy DaigleAssociated Press / 03.24.14

Who would have expected a toilet to one day filter water, charge a cellphone, or create charcoal to combat climate change?

These are lofty ambitions beyond what most of the world's 2.5 billion people with no access to modern sanitation would expect. Yet, scientists and toilet innovators around the world say these are exactly the sort of goals needed to improve global public health amid challenges such as poverty, water scarcity, and urban growth.

Scientists who accepted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's challenge to reinvent the toilet showcased their inventions in the Indian capital March 22. The primary goal: to sanitize waste, use minimal water or electricity, and produce a usable product at low cost.

The World Bank estimates the annual global cost of poor sanitation at $260 billion, including loss of life, missed work, medical bills, and other related factors. India alone accounts for $54 billion – more than the entire GDP of Kenya or Costa Rica.

India is by far the worst culprit, with more than 640 million people defecating in the open and producing a stunning 72,000 tons of human waste each day – the equivalent weight of almost 10 Eiffel Towers or 1,800 humpback whales.

Pooping in public is so acceptable that many Indians will do it on sidewalks or in open fields. Gaze out the window of any Indian train and face a line of bare bottoms doing their business on the tracks. Meanwhile, diarrheal diseases kill 700,000 children every year, most of which could have been prevented with better sanitation.

"In the West, such things are a nuisance, but people don't lose their lives," said Christopher Elias, president of global development at the Gates Foundation. "People don't immediately realize the damage done by infections coming from human waste."

India has been encouraging rural communities to build toilets, and last year launched a $1.6 billion program to help. But building sanitation systems in developing countries is not easy. Flush toilets are not always an option. Many poor communities live in water-stressed areas. Others lack links to sewage pipes or treatment plants.

To be successful, scientists said, the designs being exhibited at Saturday's Toilet Fair had to go beyond treating urine and feces as undesirable waste, and recognize them as profit-generating resources for electricity, fertilizer, or fuel.

"Traditionally, people have gone into communities and said, 'Let's dig you a pit.' That's seen as condescension, a token that isn't very helpful. After all, who is going to clean that pit?" said M. Sohail, professor of sustainable infrastructure at Loughborough University in the U.K.

The designs are mostly funded by Gates Foundation grants and in various stages of development, though others not created as part of the Gates challenge were also exhibiting.

Some toilets collapsed neatly for easy portability into music festivals, disaster zones, or illegal slums. One emptied into pits populated by waste-munching cockroaches and worms.

One Washington-based company, Janicki Industries, designed a power plant that could feed off the waste from a small city to produce 150 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes.

The University of the West of England, Bristol, showcased a urine-powered fuel cell to charge cellphones overnight.

Another team from the University of Colorado, Boulder, brought a system concentrating solar power through fiber optic cables to heat waste to about 300 degrees Celsius. Aside from killing pathogens, the process creates a charcoal-like product called biochar useful as cooking fuel or fertilizer.

"At the core are really interesting scientific principles, so translating this into scientific advances that people can relate to is really exciting," said one of the project leaders, Karl Linden, professor of environmental engineering in Boulder, Colo. "Biochar is an important subject for scientists at the moment, since it can be used to sequester carbon in the soil for 1,000 years or more."

A team from Beijing Sunnybreeze Technologies Inc. also brought a solar-biochar system, but with the solar panels heating air that will dry sludgy human waste into nuggets that are then heated further under low-oxygen conditions to create biochar.

"We are trying to build a system simple enough to be fixed in the village," technical adviser John Keating said.

One company from the southern Indian state of Kerala was not as concerned with providing toilets as with cleaning them. Toilets are more common in Kerala than they are in much of the country, but no one wants to clean them, said Bincy Baby of Eram Scientific Solutions.

"There is a stigma. The lowest of the low are the ones who clean the toilets," Baby said. Eram's solution is a coin-operated eToilet with an electronic system that triggers an automated, self-cleaning mechanism. With 450 prototypes now looped into sewage systems across India, electrical engineers are lining up for jobs as toilet technicians. "Now, they're proud of their jobs."

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