CLAUDE and LOUISE MONTGOMERY of Portland, Maine, entered their 70s with some money saved ``for an emergency.'' But when they saw a homeless man climb into a dumpster to keep warm, they decided that was their emergency. Today they live in ``Friendship House,'' in which they house 12 homeless ``guests'' a night. John DeMarco of Philadelphia stood up to racism in his community. The 13-year-old testified in court against an adult neighbor he saw paint a racial insult on a house that a black family wanted to buy.
New York City police officers George Hankins and George Pearson pooled their savings and borrowed from their pensions to start a youth center in the violent Fort Apache section of the Bronx.
These people aren't just ``do-gooders''; they've taken personal risks on behalf of others.
All of them are ``Giraffes.'' They're named after an animal that sticks its neck out, can see for miles, has a heart that weighs up to 25 pounds, and leads a peaceful life with grace and dignity.
The Giraffe Project is a national organization inspiring people to stick their necks out for the common good. The project's mission is to generate a new level of grass-roots participation in public life by helping people believe in their own good instincts and in their own ability to help create a better world.
The program ``is a celebration of attractive and powerful qualities of human beings,'' says Roger Pritchard, president of Financial Alternatives, in Berkeley, Calif., a consultant to socially conscious small businesses and a member of the Giraffe Project.
Established in 1982, the project singles out ``ordinary'' people acting with extraordinary courage and compassion on issues, locally, globally, or both. These ``Giraffes'' - more than 200 of them so far - are cited and their stories are told through the news media.
``These people are examples, they're role models, and they're saying, `I don't have to have millions of people behind me. I've got to get involved.' This type of action needs to magnify and multiply,'' says Christine Peterson, manager of the project, which is based in Langley, on Whidbey Island, Wash.
The program, which is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and nonsectarian, is funded by memberships, donations, and grants. The areas of social concern range from human rights to environmental protection, criminal justice, animal rights, health care, unemployment, peace, and hunger.
Anne Medlock, founder and president of the Giraffe Project, says the project grew from the premise that news doesn't have to be negative.
``Too many of the media believe news is what's scary and what's gone wrong,'' says Ms. Medlock, former editor of Children's Express, a New York-based news service whose editors and writers are children. ``If you just present problems, people are paralyzed,'' she says.
``Everybody hears enough bad,'' says John Gordon, manager of radio station KCUL in Marshall, Texas.
``This is on the lighter side,'' Mr. Gordon says. ``It's refreshing in these times.'' In addition to broadcasting Giraffe scripts, KCUL has initiated its own program to honor local ``Giraffes.''
That's just the kind of local initiative the Giraffe project works actively to inspire. John Graham, a former State Department diplomat who is executive director of the Giraffe project, gives lectures and conducts seminars for businesses, schools, and other organizations to give people ``a stronger and deeper sense of their responsibilities and their ability to carry them out.''
Giraffes are nominated by members and reviewed by the committee of staff and volunteers. The criteria for commendation includes typical Giraffe qualities (risk-taking, compassion, humor, courage, action beyond the call of duty, and service for the common good), as well as credibility and role-model appeal. Nominees don't generally include people involved in one-time acts of heroism; those stories are sent to the Carnegie Foundation, which hands out annual awards for acts of bravery. Instead, the Giraffe Project looks for people engaged in ongoing charitable endeavors. Only about half the nominees become Giraffes.
When Giraffes are commended, their stories go out around the country in the form of public-service announcements on radio (read by actors such as Candice Bergen and Eli Wallach, or station DJs) and in magazines and newspapers. They're also featured in the Giraffe Gazette, a monthly newsletter for members of the project and the press.
As a result, Giraffes often receive requests for interviews from the media. Right now the project is developing television public-service announcements and TV movies about Giraffes. A documentary about the Giraffe project is expected to air on PBS next year, according to producer John de Graaf of KTCS in Seattle.
Local communities often get involved once they learn there's a Giraffe in their town. In 1983, when her son was kidnapped, Carol Watson of Minneapolis established Missing Children Minnesota, which presses officials and law enforcement agencies to devote more time and funds to search for missing children, as well as helping parents deal with the distress.
After her child was recovered, Ms. Watson continued the project, which she says now has a 78 percent recovery rate. Her Giraffe commendation produced media coverage in local papers and a radio talk show, which in turn brought more volunteers and funding to the nonprofit organization.
``It's a real pat on the back,'' says Watson, whose nomination came from a client.
Although the Giraffe Project receives three-quarters of its support from foundations, it's looking for more grass-roots support through memberships, Medlock says. For a $25 annual fee, members get a subscription to the Giraffe Gazette and a 20 percent discount on all Giraffenalia (T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, and so forth).
``So often, people are encouraged to do civic actions as things they should do,'' says Giraffe board member Richmond Shreve, vice-president of Edmar Corporation, which owns and operates an industrial park in Bound Brook, N.J. ``Giraffes are lighthearted - that's an earmark of somebody who acts for the good of others with joy.''
For more information about the Giraffe Project, write 120 Second St., PO Box 759, Langley, Whidbey Island, WA 98260; or call (800) 344-TALL; (206) 221-7989.