Mark Doyle founded Rags of Honor after seeing veterans struggle to survive after being deployed overseas.

10 Outstanding Solutions of 2015

When it comes to making an impact on this country, these change-makers are tops.

In a year when policing controversies, mass shootings and debates over immigration have dominated the headlines and discourse, there’s a group of inspirational pioneers at work. Not all of these individuals, policy makers and entrepreneurs are household names, but they all are improving this country by developing new ways to solve America’s biggest challenges. Here, NationSwell’s favorite solutions of the year.

THE GUTSY DAD THAT STARTED A BUSINESS TO HELP HIS SON FIND PURPOSE

Eighty percent of the workers at Rising Tide Car Wash, located in Parkland, Fla., are on the autism spectrum. Started by the father-and-son team of John and Tom D’Eri, Rising Tide gives their son and brother, Andrew, who was identified as an autistic individual at the age of three, and its other employees the chance to lead a fulfilling life. John and Tom determined that the car wash industry is a good match for those with autism since they’re more likely to be engaged by detailed, repetitive processes than those not on the spectrum.

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THE ALLSTARS THAT ARE TACKLING SOME OF AMERICA’S GREATEST CHALLENGES

The six NationSwell AllStars — Karen Washington, Eli Williamson, Rinku Sen, Seth Flaxman, DeVone Boggan and Amy Kaherl — are encouraging advancements in education and environmental sustainability, making government work better for its citizens, engaging people in national service, advancing the American dream and supporting our veterans. Click here to read and see how their individual projects are moving America forward.

Clockwise from top left: NationSwell AllStars Amy Kaherl, DeVone Boggan, Rinku Sen, Seth Flaxman, Karen Washington and Eli Williamson.

THE INDIANA COUNTY THAT HAS DONE THE MOST TO REDUCE INCOME INEQUALITY IN AMERICA

The Midwest exurb of Boone County, Ind., has reduced the ratio of the top 20th percentile’s earnings compared to the bottom 80th percentile by 23 percent — the largest decline for any American county with more than 50,000 residents and an achievement stumped county officials. NationSwell pieced together the story of how a land battle and a statewide tax revolt altered the course of Boone County. Find out exactly how it happened here.

An aerial view of the boulevard at the Anson luxury apartments in Whitestown, Ind. Courtesy of Whitestown

THE TESLA CO-FOUNDER THAT’S ELECTRIFYING GARBAGE TRUCKS

Ian Wright’s new venture, Wrightspeed, is far less glamorous than his previous venture creating luxury electric sedans. But Wrightspeed, which is installing range-extended electric powertrains (the generators that electric vehicles run on) in medium- and heavy-duty trucks for companies like the Ratto Group, Sonoma and Marin counties’ waste hauler, and shipping giant FedEx, could have a greater impact on the environment than electrifying personal vehicles. Click here to learn how. 

Ian Wright at the San Jose, Calif., offices of Wrightspeed. Elizabeth D. Herman for NationSwell

THE ORGANIZATION THAT IS TURNING A NOTORIOUS PROJECT INTO AN URBAN VILLAGE

Los Angeles’s large, 700-unit public housing development Jordan Downs consists of 103 identical buildings. Entryways to the two-story beige structures are darkened with black soot and grime, and the doors and windows are crossed with bars. Soon, the dilapidated complex will be revitalized by Joseph Paul, Jr., and his outreach team from SHIELDS for Families, which provides counseling, education and vocational training services. Read more about the plan, which calls for recreational parks and retail on site and would double the amount of available housing with 700 more units tiered at affordable and market rates.

One hundred and three identical two-story beige structures make up the Jordan Downs complex. The residences were constructed during World War II to accommodate an influx of factory laborers and veterans. Isadora Kosofsky for NationSwell

THE HARDWORKING GROUP THAT’S RESTORING THE SHORELINE OF AMERICA’S LAST FRONTIER

Chris Pallister and his small, devoted crew are leading the largest ongoing marine cleanup effort on the planet. Since 2002, Pallister’s organization, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has been actively cleaning beaches in Prince William Sound and the Northern Gulf Coast. The nonprofit’s five boats, seasonal crew of 12 and dozens of regular volunteers has removed an estimated 2.5 million pounds of marine debris (mostly plastic items washed ashore from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) from more than 1,500 miles of coastline.

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THE STATE THAT’S ENDING HOMELESSNESS WITH ONE SIMPLE IDEA

Utah set the ambitious goal to end homelessness in 2015. As the state’s decade-long “Housing First” program, an initiative to place the homeless into supportive housing without any prerequisites, wraps up this year, it’s already reduced chronic homelessness (those with deeper disabling conditions, like substance abuse or schizophrenia, who had been on the streets for a year or longer or four times within three years) by 72 percent and is on track to end it altogether by early next year. Read more about the initiative here.

The front entrance of the Palmer Court Apartments in Salt Lake City. The complex provides housing for people who are chronically homeless. Kim Raff for NationSwell

THE RESIDENT THAT’S REBUILDING NEW ORLEANS’S MOST DEVASTATED WARD

New Orleans native Burnell Cotlon wants to feed his 3,000 neighbors. So he’s turned a two-story building that was destroyed by catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (along with most of the Lower 9th Ward community) into a shopping plaza. Already, he’s opened a barbershop, a convenience store, and a full-service grocery store in a neighborhood that has been identified as a food desert.

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THE MAN THAT’S GIVING CAREERS TO UNEMPLOYED MILITARY VETERANS

“They had our backs, let’s keep the shirts on theirs” is more than just a motto for Mark Doyle. It’s the business model on which he built Rags of Honor, his silk-screen printing company based in Chicago that provides employment and other services to veterans. In the three years since its inception, Rags of Honor has grown from four employees to 22, all but one of whom are veterans at high risk of homelessness.

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THE PRESIDENT THAT’S PRESERVING OUR ENVIRONMENT FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS

After promising to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal our planet during his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama has faltered on environmental legislation during his first term, preferring to expend his political capital on the Affordable Care Act. But the 44th president’s use of regulatory authority and his agreement with China likely ensure his place in the pantheon of modern environmental champions. Here’s why.

President Barack Obama tours Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park by boat, Sept. 1, 2015. Pete Souza/White House