These Austin Tiny Homes Could House 40% of the City’s Chronically Homeless Population

Alan Graham’s eyes glimmer whenever he talks about one of his big ideas — and this one might be the biggest of them all.
“I like extraordinary challenges,” he told NationSwell. “I’ve been challenged my whole life.” 
Extraordinary is a perfect word to describe the problem he’s devoted his life to solving: homelessness in the United States. For the last 14 years, Graham and his nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes (MLF) have worked to build Community First Village, a 27-acre development just outside Austin’s city limits made up of eclectic tiny homes, RVs and tricked-out tents. 
There, people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness can sleep without fear for their safety at night, recover from addiction, and find the connections and social support to lift them up for the rest of their lives. 
“Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will,” Graham theorizes. “If you really want to understand homelessness, you must understand what home is.” 
To Graham, home is a permanent place where someone finds security, builds memories, shares stories and feels like they belong — and Community First invites all of its residents to help build that home for one another.

Community First Village is a 27-acre development just outside Austin’s city limits.

MLF began its work by serving meals to Austin’s homeless in 1998, but Graham always felt there was more to be done. Then, in 2003, he and his colleagues went on a “street retreat,” spending three nights sleeping outside with their homeless neighbors down by The ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless). 
Picking through dumpsters and swapping stories, he began to see common themes emerge around how people ended up there: a divorce, a death in the family, an abusive relationship. 
“The single greatest cause of homelessness [is] a profound, catastrophic loss of family,” he said.
So Graham set out to build a community that would go beyond the Housing First model that’s gained prominence in recent years — not just putting roofs over people’s heads, but providing health resources, employment opportunities, and above all else prioritizing social connection.
You’ll find no fences, gates, or even many locked doors at the Village. According to Graham, the very concept of a private, outdoor space hurts the effort to build community.
“If I was the Home Czar of the United States, I would essentially ban backyards,” Graham said. “30% of the square footage of the house [would have] to be your front porch. Everybody would come hang out.”
Meals are cooked in communal outdoor kitchens and shared at the Community Table, a wooden pavilion in the center of the neighborhood. Porches tend to be nearly as large as the homes themselves, and you can’t go more than 15 minutes without a neighbor walking by helping to move a piece of furniture or checking in on the health of your pet.
He sees the Village as an answer not just to the country’s homelessness problem, but to the more universal struggle of human isolation. 
“Ever since World War II, we have been building these subdivisions,” he said. “And inside these subdivisions are these hermetically sealed, single-family sarcophaguses that we call the American Dream.” At Community First Village, residents are piloting a new model they hope will spread to other communities for the formerly homeless and beyond.
People catching up in a chapel at Community First Village.

The MLF team built the Village to address the needs of the most at-risk homeless residents in Austin — single adults with a mental or physical disability who’ve lived on the streets for at least one year.
To live at the Village, residents pay rent of $220–420 depending on which unit they choose. Some receive Disability payments that cover the costs, while others have part-time jobs or other sources of income. For those who need it, the Village offers employment opportunities through its Community Works program. Residents who participate in the program earn $500–2,000 per month to do work that ranges from auto detailing to blacksmithing to creating and selling original artwork. There’s also basic grounds maintenance and upkeep, gardening and even selling concessions at the outdoor movie theater on site.
Some of the people living outside near The ARCH told us they were skeptical of a homelessness service that required residents to pay rent while they were still struggling to get back on their feet. A man named Tayvon said, “A lot of people think it’s gonna be free, then they go down there and…” he shook his head, trailing off. “It’s bullshit.”  
But Graham and other Village residents believe the responsibility of earning an income and contributing to the community is a critical part of its success. 
“I want to not be here just to be here,” said Village resident John Rogers. “I want to become a part of it, giving back, helping people.” Rogers has become known as the “Popsicle Man,” always there to greet people with a cold treat on a hot day.
Community First Village resident John Rogers is known as the “Popsicle Man” for delivering treats on hot days.

The Village offers a promising model for mitigating homelessness nationwide — if similar communities can find the funding and local buy-in. Graham and his team tried for years to launch the Village closer to the heart of Austin, but faced extreme pushback from residents citing “not in my backyard” concerns. 
In the middle of negotiations with the city, Graham said, “I went to a neighborhood meeting that imploded into our Armageddon. We were spit on, we were assaulted, police were called, the media was there…[It put] the death nail into that coffin.”
After relocating to a plot of land outside city limits, MLF used $18 million in private donations to open Phase 1 of the Village, which has the capacity to house over 200 people. While many Austin residents objected to the community being built too close to home, there was still incredible local support for the concept. The Village boasts dozens of community partners, from businesses to nonprofits to churches and schools.
While the price tag on launching the Village seems high, the cost of homelessness to a city is even higher. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that one chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, or around $42 million annually in Austin.
Graham believes the Community First model could take root anywhere. “This [problem] is mitigatable if we begin to, jointly as a community, begin to wrap our arms around it,” he said. “We’re hoping that the term ‘Community First’ will be ubiquitous in five to 10 years.”
A smaller community modeled after the Village launched in Springfield, Missouri, in 2018 and has already housed 14% of the city’s chronically homeless. Other developments are in the early planning stages in several cities across the country. And MLF’s Village is slated to expand to house over 480 people in the coming years — nearly half of Austin’s chronically homeless population.
“From a moral point of view, I think it’s a blight on who we are as a culture that we would even allow this to happen,” said Graham. “I have the power and each of us has the power to go and to love and to care.”
Watch the video above to take a peek inside Community First Village and meet some of the residents.
More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

How to Talk About Solutions Journalism

Last month, the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network published a list of local newsrooms and other media outlets that have integrated the practice of solutions-oriented reporting into their coverage. The post was a turning point of sorts; when SJN was founded in 2013, the term “solutions journalism” wasn’t exactly common parlance, says co-founder and CEO David Bornstein. In Bornstein’s view, it’s not enough to simply lay out the facts of a problem: Society will only move forward if we’re exposed to what is working in communities — and work together to elevate those solutions.

Bornstein launched SJN to spread the practice of approaching news stories through the lens of problem-solving. Besides an ever-growing database of published solutions stories, the organization trains journalists and provides a place for them to connect. NationSwell spoke with Bornstein, who’s been covering social innovation for two decades and co-authors The New York Times’s “Fixes” column, on what solutions journalism is and why it matters.

NationSwell: Since you founded SJN in 2013, how has the organization evolved, and how has the field of solutions journalism evolved in general?

Bornstein: There’s been so much change. I would say our original mission was to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism, which we define as rigorous reporting that looks at solutions to social problems. It’s fairly legitimized now that there are more and more news organizations regularly integrating solutions journalism into what they do — and not just as an add-on, but integrated into their core work. There’s certainly still a long way to go. But there’s much more adoption than there was even two or three years ago. And much more acceptance that journalism has to help people understand the nature of problems, and what their options are to try to respond to those problems.

NationSwell: Negative news still dominates most headlines. Why do you think that is, and what impact does that negativity have on audiences?

Bornstein: Most news is reacting to something that is problematic, and it still seems to be job one in journalism to identify problems and where society is falling short, whether through scandal, malfeasance,  corruption or negligence. As we used to say, the problems scream and the solutions whisper.

If there is a shooting or a fire or an explosion, these kinds of flash-point events demand coverage. Even if a politician says something inflammatory, it demands coverage. A solutions story is often something that is quietly working in the background to improve high school graduation rates, or to reduce the levels of addiction in a county — things like that. These are not always things that are clamoring for attention. They’re not screaming the way the problems do. It takes more of an intentional effort to discover these stories and more research, usually. They don’t land on your desk; they don’t appear on the police scanner. That’s why you need to build in the editorial habit to look for [solutions] stories, because if you don’t, you will continuously miss them.

NationSwell: How do you keep solutions stories from veering into the territory of advocacy? For example, you can say that in the U.S., gun violence is a problem. Most solutions stories would probably highlight organizations that are working to reduce gun violence (editor’s note: NationSwell has published several). But the reaction we see from some gun-rights supporters is to accuse us of trying to suppress the second amendment. How do you balance those two things?

Bornstein: I would say the main thing is to report on lots of different ways communities are reducing violence, [whether] by making it harder for certain types of people to get guns, or by policing approaches that use epidemiological tactics to try to anticipate where and when gun violence is going to occur, and head it off at the pass. The point is not to advocate for any one approach, but to look at all the options, and to associate options with the evidence.

Journalists should not be in the business of picking winners, but we should be in the business of furnishing as many options as possible, so people can deliberate with all the information they need. Every community should be aware of the full range of options that are available to solve the problems that are most pressing.

“If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.”

NationSwell: How can solutions-oriented reporting engage and impact people in a way that traditional reporting does not?

Bornstein: News avoidance is on the rise, because it’s very difficult to turn on the TV or look at your screen and see 50 stories that are all really stressful and depressing about the economy, about climate change, about the rise of polarization, or about populism or bigotry or violence. People will eventually stop engaging, which is what researchers are finding.

The simplest thing journalists can do is to tell the whole story. When you’re covering society, do you only cover the pathology? Or do you also look at responses and efforts to solve problems, which are quite abundant in most areas? We’ve rarely come across issues that you can’t report through a solutions lens. And when you do that, people might say, “Oh, wow, we have a really big problem with gun violence in our country. And look, there’s also about 300 different things that communities are trying to do to reduce gun violence.” You could get fatalistic and say, “Well, none of that seems to make a difference to Congress.” Or you can say, “But boy, there are a lot of communities that actually are safer today than they were five years ago, so let’s look at what happened there.” So you can give people information that enables them to engage and have a sense of control, efficacy, and curiosity.

Because people really do want to build a better world. It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.

NationSwell: As local newsrooms shrink, are you worried about the sustainability of solutions journalism?

Bornstein: No, I’m actually worried if local newsrooms don’t start providing their communities with news they really value and are willing to pay for, those local newsrooms may go out of business. I think the number one thing news organizations have to do today to become more economically viable is to change the product, you know?

In survey after survey, when people are asked, “How does the news land on you?” they say, “It makes me feel depressed, it makes me feel powerless, and I don’t know if I can trust it.” Which are the top three reasons that the Reuters Institute has said people are avoiding the news. So basically you have a product called news that in its normal consumption makes people feel depressed and powerless. And then the news organizations’ response is to say, “And gosh, you won’t even pay for it.”

But if the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences. People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it.

NationSwell: A lot of people, as you alluded to, don’t trust the media because they think it’s biased. Why do you think that sentiment persists, and how does solutions journalism fit into that bigger picture?

Bornstein: Well, there are a lot of biases in media, and the bias we always look at is political bias, whether it’s a liberal or conservative newsroom. But the main bias in journalism is the bias that says a problem is newsworthy, and a response to a problem is not.

When we go around the country and speak to reporters in small towns, we say, “What do you think of the national news about your community? Is it accurate?” And they’ll say, “It’s usually pretty accurate, but it’s also not really fully true.” Especially if you go to the South, people say, “The national news always makes us look like a bunch of dumb yokels. You come to Alabama to cover us when Alabama can be made fun of.” And so you can look through newspapers for the last 20 years to see how many stories about things happening in Alabama in the national press look at the creativity, the agency, and the problem-solving acumen of the people in that state. And you will probably come up pretty empty-handed.

NationSwell: We’re obviously living through a time of profound division and partisanship. Do you think solutions journalism has the potential to bring people together for a common cause?

Bornstein: First of all, people have to learn how to talk to each other. We commissioned an article last year called “Complicating the Narratives,” which really looked at how journalists, or anybody, can listen and interview differently in order to develop a deeper understanding of people with whom they disagree. Those are skills that many people lack, including many journalists who end up, through the course of normal interviewing and reporting, pushing people into their corners.

But the lens of solutions journalism is an interesting one. If you look at a problem — like a school’s low graduation rate, or how to care for children who’ve experienced trauma — and you lay out 10 different responses to that problem, you’ll find that most of the time, the ideas and models put forward are not that ideologically divisive. If something is working people are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

It’s really the national-level frames on federal policy that are extraordinarily divisive, and we keep the focus on them all the time. When we shift the focus to local problem-solving, it’s amazing how much more trust and agreement and common ground people can find. By focusing on local-level problem-solving and the solutions that really do make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust. And it will reduce polarization: as a matter of fact, I know that to be true. I’ve seen it.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To support the Solutions Journalism Network’s mission with a donation, click here.

For Prisoners, Reading Is So Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives

Twice a week, volunteers climb down the steep steps to the basement of Brooklyn’s Freebird Books. Once inside, they’re greeted by hundreds of books, stacks of brown paper bags and piles of letters. Before long, each book will be in the hands of an inmate somewhere in the U.S.
The cramped bookstore basement serves as the headquarters of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run group that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states (the remaining states are either covered by similar programs or barred from receiving packages). In any given week the organization, which has been around for 21 years, receives hundreds of book requests: a Scrabble dictionary, a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar, a science-fiction novel — the list goes on. Each year, they ship somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes to federal and state prisons.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed country, with 10.6 million cycling in and out of the criminal justice system each year. Often, these prisons have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible to all inmates. New York’s infamous Rikers Island, for example, runs its library from a single cart. With roughly 8,000 inmates spread out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your hands on even one book can feel like finding a treasure.
NYC Books Through Bars believes education is a fundamental right. It’s also one of the strongest tools to reduce recidivism — a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40 percent.

A volunteer handles the mail. Besides fielding book requests, the organization also receives thank-you notes and hand-drawn cards.

But over the past decade prisons have cut back on educational programs, and inmates have been excluded from receiving Pell Grants, the financial-aid program for low-income college students, since the 1990s — all of which makes accessing educational support behind bars a challenge.
“In some instances, receiving a book is the beginning of an education,” says Daniel Schaffer, a collective member who’s been volunteering with NYC Books Through Bars for more than 16 years.
Instead of shipping donated books to a central prison library, the organization mails the titles directly to the inmates who request them, a novelty among programs offering similar services.
“Sending the books to the individuals adds to the strength of the project,” says Schaffer, adding that because some prisoners might not have families that visit, write or mail packages, NYC Books Through Bars might be the only contact they have with the outside world.
Schaffer stresses that a mailed book doesn’t reach just one person — inside a prison’s walls, books are passed around and shared.  
Prisoners learn about the organization largely through word of mouth. And when one person hears about the books program, it’s just a matter of time before letters start arriving, Schaffer says. Sometimes they ask that a specific title be sent; other people are happy to receive anything from a particular genre. Among the most requested are dictionaries.
Because the books and packing materials are donated by the community, and Freebird lets the organization use its basement space for free, the program costs very little to operate. There are no paid employees, either. The only expense is postage, which is collected mostly through fundraising events. Even then, the organization cuts down on shipping costs by bundling four books in a package, at a rate of between $2.75 and $4.31 to ship.
Every Sunday and Monday, 10 to 20 volunteers collect, wrap and ship off the books. By the end of a three-hour shift, hundreds of brown parcels are stacked, ready to make their way to correctional facilities across the country.
Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds — students, librarians, archivists and editors among them — and not all hold the same beliefs about the current state of the criminal justice system. Some consider themselves abolitionists, while others promote reform. Still, everyone shows up for the same reason: to have an immediate effect on people on the inside.
“The thing that links everyone together, ultimately, is that we think the people who are in prison at least deserve to be treated as [humans],” Schaffer says.
“If, in an evening, I can do 20 or 30 or 40 books then that’s the number of individuals who are directly impacted,” he adds.
As requests for titles flood in to NYC Books Through Bars, so do the thank-yous. Letters, pop-up cards, drawings and other artwork from inmates line the shelves of the Freebird Books basement and get posted on Facebook. For the volunteers, the handmade tokens are a friendly reminder of the work they do.
Says Schaffer, “It helps to keep in mind that what you’re doing actually does impact people.”

These Parking Lots Give Homeless People a Safe Place to Sleep for the Night

More than 553,742 people are currently homeless in America. But a large percentage of the country’s homeless population isn’t sleeping in shelters: They’re sleeping in cars.
People who live outside or in unfit sleeping environments, such as cars, streets or abandoned buildings, are referred to as the unsheltered homeless, and they represent a large population of homeless in the U.S. Although these populations are challenging to count, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates about 200,000 people are unsheltered in this country.
Shelters might seem like a better option, but cars can provide a sense of control and privacy, and shelter beds can be in short supply. In Los Angeles, a quarter of the homeless population is living out of cars, vans, campers and recreational vehicles, according to the 2018 L.A. County Homeless Count.
Many residential streets have laws that prevent people from sleeping inside their cars, and those that do so risk theft and vandalization. So the main challenge becomes finding a place to rest for more than just an hour or two.
To combat this, a few California nonprofits have partnered with cities and counties to fund safe parking programs, which are parking lots that grant people and families living out of cars a safe and legal place for an uninterrupted night’s rest. The process is simple: Individuals apply online and submit their vehicle’s registration, their insurance and driver’s license. After doing an interview and getting approved, applicants gain access to a lot. Each evening, the lots open and the individuals sign in, sleep and leave the next morning.
But the goal isn’t just to provide a place to sleep: It’s to provide stability and connect the homeless with resources that will help them get into permanent housing.
One of the first safe parking programs launched in Santa Barbara, California, in 2004. Since then, other cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego have developed similar projects.
In Los Angeles, where more than 15,700 people live out of their vehicles, advocates fought a 10-year battle for safe parking, says Emily Uyeda Kantrim, program director of Safe Parking L.A. And they’re finally winning: Safe Parking L.A. launched in 2016 and opened its first lot in March 2018. The organization now has six parking lots, with four more opening by June.
“We bring people on to the lot at night where they have access to a restroom and a guard, and they exit in the morning. It is literally that stripped down,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “Except that we connect them to other services if they’re not already connected.” These services include an element of case management, similar to what an individual would receive at a shelter.
Every 30 days, Safe Parking L.A. receives about 250 requests for spots. About a hundred of those requests are from people who have never accessed homeless services before. Many are employed and have a stable job, but financial barriers, such as child support payments, student loans and exorbitant rent, leave them living in a car.
These people are not going to be prioritized in the homeless service system because they’re able to advocate for themselves, and they don’t have severe healthcare needs,” Uyeda Kantrim says. “This is a poverty issue.”
Uyeda Kantrim says the average length of stay varies: Families which have the highest priority in homeless services might be at a lot for just a few weeks, while a person under 30 with a job might stay an average of six weeks. The average length of stay is about six months.
Each program has different logistics. Some lots offer restrooms with running water for face-washing and teeth-brushing, while others only provide access to a portable toilet. Most operate during the nighttime hours, while some programs operate 24/7. Most locations have an element of security on site, such as a guard or case manager.
And each cost model is different. At Safe Parking L.A., each lot costs about $12,000 a month, with a majority of that paying for state-mandated security. It was originally funded by private donors but is now funded through a variety of sources, including the city and county.
One key to scaling the L.A. program is keeping the lots small: Currently, each one has five to 25 spaces.
“Having a real neighborhood focus and keeping them really small in concept is the thing that will actually allow it to scale,” she says. Uyeda Kantrim says it’s because they’re more palatable to local residents. A lot with 10 cars doesn’t have as large of an impact compared to a lot with a 100-person capacity. The programs also prioritize people within the area, so it’s directly supporting each community.
In Seattle, where 3,372 people were living out of their cars as of 2018, Karina O’Malley and her church saw a similar need for safe parking after the city passed a Scofflaw Ordinance in 2011, legislation that requires cars to be towed and impounded after receiving four or more parking tickets that have yet to be paid.
For O’Malley and her congregation at the Lake Washington United Methodist Church, the solution was obvious: Open their parking lot. After a little research, finding volunteers and acquiring a porta potty, they launched their own safe parking program. Initially, it was just an asphalt parking lot that served one purpose a place to sleep but O’Malley saw the opportunity to engage more with the local homeless community. So the program opened its lot 24/7, and women and families started attending church sessions and events.
“Everybody heard about homelessness, and everybody gave to [the homeless], but they hadn’t actually met somebody who was,” O’Malley says of her congregation. “Just sitting around a table after church and drinking coffee together, seeing so many similarities and commonalities and building friendships, it really pulled down those stereotypes and made the issue much more immediate.”
The church now provides a bathroom with running water, kitchen, wifi, community support and access to resources. Guests are welcome to park in the lot all day, every day, and they can participate in any of the church gatherings.
“Often women tell me that the first night they’re in the church parking lot is the first night of sleep they’ve had since they’ve become homeless,” O’Malley says.
O’Malley and other safe parking advocates are fighting for a good night’s sleep throughout the country. Uyeda Kantrim is coordinating a Southern California Safe Parking Workshop on May 15 that’s free and open to the public.
Representatives from Santa Barbara, San Diego and L.A. will come together to share best practices, problem-solve, and explain how programs cater to specific cities. The team is also building a toolkit so organizations that can’t attend can gain insight on how to launch a program.
“We’re trying to share literally everything we have,” says Uyeda Kantrim. “We want everyone to do this.”
More: Denver Pays Homeless Residents to Help Clean Up the City

This Prom Night Puts Kids With Special Needs in the Spotlight

Many children will encounter bullying at some point in their lives. But children with special needs are especially at risk, and this bullying can wreak long-term psychological damage: According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, being left out, ignored or bullied by peers is one of the main reasons children with special needs report symptoms of anxiety and depression.
In an effort to change this, the Tim Tebow Foundation hosts Night to Shine, an annual prom night experience for children with special needs. The nonprofit is led by the former star athlete and 200,000 volunteers worldwide, who are paired with guests as “buddies” for the evening.
Guests can dress up and have their makeup and hair done, as they might do for a real high-school prom, but instead of the prom having just one king and queen, each attendee leaves the event with a crown.
The event is one of the organization’s highlights of the year. Watch the above video to learn more about Night to Shine and the Tim Tebow Foundation.

These Pilots Provide Free Flights to Patients Who Need Them Most

When Norien was born, his parents faced an immediate challenge. Their son, now 2 years old, was born with a rare congenital condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), a disorder that affects the movement and flexibility of a newborn’s joints and muscles. “The doctors at home in Virginia had no idea what it was,” says Tess, Norien’s mother.
Unlike other conditions that inhibit movement, AMC doesn’t worsen with age, so long as kids with the condition get proper medical treatment. So Norien’s parents had to figure out a way for their son to receive expert care at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia, and traveling by train to and from the hospital quickly became expensive. That’s when they reached out to Angel Flight East, a nonprofit run by volunteer pilots who combine their love of flying with a desire to help others.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to take something that you love doing and give back to folks in need,” says Nevin Showman, a pilot for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic.
Watch the video above to hear Norien’s story, and to learn how Angel Flight and similar nonprofits make a difference nationwide.
More: The Harry Potter Producer Who Gave Up The Movie Business To Help Families With Sick Children

Meet the Delaware Teen Fighting for the Rights of Former Juvenile Offenders

“I could have never imagined that something as severe as incarceration would happen to someone like me, until it did,” said Jane Lyons, recalling the path that led her neighbor to the local detention center.
Lyons, 18, grew up in an affluent Delaware suburb outside of Wilmington. A few miles down the road from her home sits Ferris School for Boys, a juvenile detention center she admits gave her an “eerie” feeling driving past.
It was only when her childhood neighbor was sent to Ferris on drug charges that the center became more than an abstract concept for Lyons. Her neighbor had come from the same affluent background as her, but after experiencing family problems became addicted to drugs and involved in a local gang.
Her neighbor’s incarceration was a wakeup call to Lyons about the difficulties facing former juvenile offenders as they try to rebuild their lives. “[Teens at Ferris] feel as if society is stacked against them,” she explained at a recent TEDxYouth event. “They simply think that our world is waiting for them to make a mistake.”
With this in mind, as a freshman in high school she teamed up with her brother Patrick to launch Youth Overcoming Obstacles, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting up formerly incarcerated youth. The organization started small — gathering donations of books, school supplies, clothes and other essentials to make sure teens’ basic needs were met as they exited the detention center. They eventually moved on to organizing larger fundraisers to send the young men to summer camp, vocational training, and even to provide a down payment on one family’s apartment.
“This started as an act of kindness and now has become a passion project to replace the recidivism cycle with a resilient path to a brighter future for teens who want to continue positive change,” Lyons told NationSwell.
Youth Overcoming Obstacles was so successful at raising funds and awareness to support formerly incarcerated youth that the Delaware Legislature adopted their re-entry fund after a year and a half. Now Lyons is working on a pilot program that offers financial training to these young people to help them transition into the workforce.
Teens have a vital role to play in improving their communities, says Lyons. “My advice to other young people is to follow your heart and have the courage to reach out to community leaders and public officials with your plan of action,” she told NationSwell.
“It may take some persistence, but they really do want to hear your ideas, and they will help if they can.”
Homepage photo via TEDx Talks.

This Chef Serves Up a Future for Struggling Kids

When Carmen Rodriguez was two years old, his grandmother would put him in a makeshift baby carrier and take him into the fields as she picked produce. Growing up, he traveled from Chicago to Texas, North Dakota and California with his migrant farmworker family, picking melons, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and corn. The first meal he ever cooked was bean and cheese burritos, strapped to the radiator of the family car to keep them warm.

Rodriguez’s grandmother and great-grandmother.

His home base was a rough neighborhood in Chicago, and as the only boy in the family, there was no one to protect him from the gangs. When he was eight years old, a l4-year-old boy was being forced to jump into a Latin gang and, as a rite of passage, “had to beat the crap out of the first kid he saw. I was that kid,” Rodriguez says. His survival instincts kicked in, and instead he beat up the older kid. The gang recruited him that day. He ran away from home at 13 and lived on the streets of Chicago. He ran packages for the gang, broke into homes for the gang, robbed people on the street and sold drugs for the gang.
But after a dressing-down by the local police, he decided to get a job. He started washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, lying about his age. One day, one of the line cooks didn’t show for his shift. Rodriguez decided to help the line and “when the chef came into the kitchen and saw that I was on his line cooking his food, he grabbed the dish that I had just cooked, shrimp scampi, and launched the dish, bowl and all, against the furthest wall in the kitchen. Chef then grabbed me by the back of my neck and screamed in my face, ‘I pay you to wash fucking dishes, not fuck up my food!’
“When I told this to my gang friends, they wanted to burn down his restaurant. I think this is when it hit me that what I was doing with the gang was not going to get me anywhere, so I convinced them that it wasn’t worth our time. I returned to work the next day, and started cleaning and washing dishes. Chef got there and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re not a punk.’ He took me under his wing and taught me all about the business of restaurants. Chef passed away five years ago, and I learned that he had tasted my shrimp scampi, and that’s how he knew that I was not a punk.”
Rodriguez worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager to sous chef to executive chef. His credits include some of the top restaurants in Santa Barbara, Tampa, Palm Springs, and Santa Fe, where he now lives. In 2012, he was named the New Mexico Chef of the Year, awarded by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
Two years ago, Rodriguez was contacted by Labor Of Love, which promotes and celebrates the 50,000 largely invisible and unrecognized migrant farmworkers in Yuma, Arizona, by performing “random acts of kindness” like delivering boxes with Thanksgiving dinner and supplying them with blankets and cushions. As Rodriguez delivered 500 gourmet meals to the farmworkers, “the memories of when I was a young boy working in the fields started to creep back into my mind,” he says. “I saw my grandparents sitting around on their breaks and talking about the food we were picking, and how one day we’d be out of work. Then I heard my grandfather say eso nunca va pasar: “Our people will always be in the fields.” The past suddenly slammed into the present and the future, and I knew that I had to give back, to help kids who were lost and troubled and in survival mode like I had been.”
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.
Chef Rodriguez in the kitchen.

Back in Santa Fe, he and his wife, Penny, had worked tangentially with YouthWorks, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit for at-risk kids. Last year, Rodriguez sat down with Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks’ executive director, to discuss a brewing crisis: 1,500 young people turn l9 in Santa Fe every year, and over 40 percent of them never graduate from high school, making it difficult for them to land regular employment. Because of the high price of rentals, thousands of them are effectively homeless.
Schuyler had a dream for the future of the YouthWorks Culinary Program, and Rodriguez was the dream person to run it. Rodriguez immediately agreed to the job, knowing how education and positive encouragement can improve young lives. “I have seen immediate satisfaction in my customers,” Rodriguez says. “But to see a young person who has had so many problems in his or her life, be able to look you in the eye and speak to you with confidence and respect, is more satisfying that any comment I have received about my food from a guest.”
The Culinary Program has launched a wildly successful food truck. With Rodriguez and his wife at the helm, they serve up affordable and delicious dishes like charred brussels sprouts tossed in spicy Korean barbecue sauce ($7), with a $2 add-on of achiote pineapple chicken. For sweets, customers love the Pig Newtons –– two graham cracker biscuits filled with spicy pork-belly candy, bacon and fig jam ($6). And the YouthWorks Catering Service is cooking at public and private events for high-profile clients like the American Institute of Architects, the Mayor of Santa Fe, the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum and the Nation of Makers Conference.  
It isn’t always easy when kids are having problems and don’t show up for work. “My job is wrangling sabertooth kittens!” Penny jokes. But the satisfaction outweighs the tough stuff. Kids who are successful in the program are getting placed in local restaurants.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.
YouthWorks apprentices at an event with Chef Rodriguez.

Erin, one of Culinary Program’s young apprentices, says it’s the most fun job she has ever had. “Everyone wants to be bettering their personal situation, and I’m working with some of the hardest-working people I know.” she says. And Jackie, a former student who is now a sous chef at YouthWorks, says, “Working with YouthWorks and chef Carmen in the kitchen has brought a new purpose to my life. Teaching and learning how to cook and put on events has opened my eyes to the bigger need of food and food service in my community. When I watch the crew in action, it makes me proud and you can see them also being proud of themselves.”  
Rodriguez recently placed another YouthWorks alum, Joe, in a friend’s restaurant as a pantry cook. A month later, Joe called him to say that the owner was so impressed with his skills that he was promoting him to the hot line. “In my toughest chef voice that I could muster, I told Joe, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ and he answered ‘Yes, chef.’ I had to pull over and wipe tears of pride from my eyes. I knew how the Italian chef had felt when he tasted my shrimp scampi.”

4 Ways Nonprofits Can Increase Donations and Multiply Their Impact

Maggie Farrand typifies many nonprofit executives.
She’s happy about the level of donations to Pathfinder International, a Boston-area reproductive-rights nonprofit where she is the senior officer of digital media. But Farrand knows that to keep the contributions coming, she must engage current donors in a meaningful way.
That’s why Farrand attended the 2018 Collaborative, a three-day conference in Boston hosted by Classy, an online fundraising platform for social impact organizations, in June. She joined more than 1,200 attendees who listened to talks, participated in workshops, and connected with other nonprofit leaders and peers. Their goal: to better understand how to increase giving and optimize operations so they can best handle sweeping technology-driven changes, as well as answer the call for more diverse and equitable workplaces. They’re contending with those matters at a time when donor retention is more challenging than ever.
“Eighty-two percent of donors are not coming back after their initial gift,” Classy CEO Scot Chisholm said in the opening keynote address. “We think things will get worse before they get better. More donors are giving on websites where the organization doesn’t have visibility or control over the relationship, and therefore not allowing for any kind of supporter allegiance.” But there’s hope, according to Chisholm: “One-third of donations on Classy are made from mobile devices, and we’re seeing that over 60 percent of mobile traffic to Classy campaigns is coming from social media.” If nonprofits can harness mobile and social, as well as explain their missions with clarity, joy and purpose, then they’ll be able to meet donors where they are, increase engagement and sustain charitable programs, he said.
As fundraisers navigate a changing philanthropic landscape, four defining themes emerged from the sessions and workshops of the 2018 Collaborative that can serve as a helpful guide: cohesion in the nonprofit workplace; diversifying fundraising methods; modernizing with technology; and establishing meaningful relationships with donors.


As Black Lives Matter and other movements shine a spotlight on racial inequality, it’s safe to say many organizations still need to treat all of their employees equally. The conference session “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture” saw four nonprofit executives highlight their efforts to foster equality.
“White folks are having to deal with the issues of racial identity, which for them is a shocking experience but is what people of color have experienced for a long time,” said Chris Cardona, a program officer of philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. “White people don’t have a way to turn it into lessons of experience and empathy.” But Cardona and his fellow panelists offered several suggestions to put employees on equal footing.
For one, it’s particularly valuable for executives, especially white leaders, to be vulnerable, according to Building for Mission CEO Tamika Mason. Vulnerability leads to openness, which leads to a willingness to learn about race, she said. “It empowers an organization,” she added.
Kerrien Suarez, director of Equity in the Center, urged nonprofits to formally recognize the role of employees who are charged with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. “The emotional labor of this work is high,” she said. “The person in this role should be compensated; it requires funding. It’s best to have DEI as a line item in the budget.”
While equity inside the office means organizations must follow rules, dealing with donors outside the office can be trickier, said Brianna Twofoot, the vice president of organizing leadership for Leadership for Educational Equity. Her solution? She won’t let her Mexican-American heritage get in the way of fundraising. “I don’t have time for that problem to be solved,” she said. “I will figure out a way to react to that room, and figure out how to get that money.”
Janelle Coleman, director of the annual fund for St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in Boston, said the discussion panel validated the effort and nuance that’s necessary as her organization starts its DEI efforts. “The world is so divided, so we have to do everything we can to make sure we have an inclusive workplace,” she said.

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From left: Tamika Mason, Brianna Twofoot and Kerrien Suarez spoke about their efforts to operationalize equity in the workplace during a session called “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture.”


With donors able to choose from a slew of philanthropic causes, several conference sessions examined how nonprofits can vary their fundraising efforts to reach all types of donors, including socially responsible corporations and individuals who first want to see proof of good.
Elaine Martyn, vice president of relationship management for the Private Donor Group at Fidelity Charitable, stressed the importance of understanding the circumstances and ways of large donors so that nonprofits can personalize fundraising efforts. She recalled an instance when she had received a $100,000 gift from a donor who was worth $100 million, and Martyn asked the woman why she made her “work so hard” for the donation. “She said, ‘You’re the one organization I want to give this to, but I also want to make sure every gift has an impact.’”
Similarly, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Public Affairs Vice President Larry Jacob recommended that nonprofits perform due diligence when seeking gifts from corporations. Nonprofits need to be clear, he said, about what the donation will do: where it will be earmarked and the intended result. (Disclosure: the Kauffman Foundation is a paid partner of NationSwell.)
Nonprofits should benefit from partnerships with corporations as millennials integrate their personal charitable values into their leadership positions at work, according to Danielle Silber, director of strategic partnerships at the American Civil Liberties Union. These companies want to demonstrate what they stand for, she said, and will work with nonprofits that best align with their goals.
Even though nonprofits work in a crowded field, it is possible to attain year-over-year growth by implementing the right technology, said Stephanie Herron, chief development officer for Shriners Hospitals for Children. A fundraising platform enables both small donations and the occasional large ones. Shriners Hospitals, for instance, has accepted multiple $25,000 credit card donations through Classy, she said. Martyn also urged nonprofit leaders to personally donate to their own organizations, enabling them to see how donors are treated.


Extending the conversation about diversifying, Executive Director Bryan Breckenridge said nonprofits should look differently at their relationships with the people behind technology. For instance, fundraising leaders should learn the names of their organization’s top three technology vendors so they can approach them about opportunities, he told attendees.
Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of partnerships at, agreed, saying tech vendors have a “huge megaphone” that can easily amplify a nonprofit’s work and mission. Don’t be shy to ask the vendor to participate in a case study; the vendor can promote its technology and the nonprofit can illustrate its efficiency through the platform, she added.
And don’t be afraid to compare strategies with other nonprofits, Bisbee said. benefits from her sharing data and success stories with organizations such as GlobalGiving, Kiva and Charity: Water, and she consults with 20 other nonprofits.
One such example of information sharing came at the Collaborative, when Jim Carter III and Hamse Warfa revealed their successes with the nascent technology blockchain. Carter, co-founder and vice president of engineering for Giving Assistant, recounted how a week after he established a bitcoin account for the education nonprofit Pencils for Promise, he was overcome with joy when learning the organization had received a $1 million bitcoin-only donation from an anonymous donor. His coding work for four other organizations has helped them collectively receive $4.2 million from the same donor.
“This isn’t a replacement for other payment methods,” Carter said. “I’m not saying ‘stop accepting credit cards.’ That would be ludicrous.” But by accepting cryptocurrency, nonprofits open the doors to a new world of donors who use only that form of money, he said.
Warfa, co-founder and executive vice president of BanQu, detailed how blockchain can empower farmers around the world by giving them an immutable financial transaction history that will improve their chances of securing microloans. On that same front, charitable organizations can take advantage of blockchain by having all of the data points — financial, health and education — of a refugee on one platform, instead of relying on several.

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Accepting cryptocurrency can increase a nonprofit’s donations, said Jim Carter III (center, with Sarah Sloat, left, and Hamse Warfa) during a session on the power of blockchain technology.


Technology, however, will have little effect if nonprofits can’t tell a convincing story about their work. Several Collaborative speakers espoused the power of storytelling, reminding attendees that a social media platform and marketing are only as good as the stories behind them.
Tyler Riewer, the brand content lead at Charity: Water, travels the world to hear — and later tell — the stories of the people who benefit from his organization’s work. He recommends that other nonprofit storytellers “create a sense of relatability” in their outreach to donors. The way that an organization solves a problem can “seem so far away” to donors, but if they see how the problem affects them, they will make that personal connection, he said.
A story also has to be authentic, according to Derek Hubbard, an external communications specialist at Southwest Airlines. “You have to tell stories from the heart,” he said. “It has to be true to who you are. People can see right through stories if they’re not authentic.”
Carilu Dietrich, chief marketing officer of Classy, said nonprofits often struggle with telling stories about people facing obstacles because they’re unsure if those details will make potential donors uncomfortable. But by taking an incremental approach — from detailing the obstacle, to relaying the potential for hope, to outlining the actual path forward — nonprofits will have a compelling story to tell, she said.
Nonprofits also have the ability to test campaigns by creating different story angles and sending them to different audiences, Dietrich said. Ultimately, donors have to believe they can add a chapter to an organization’s story, she said. “Make people feel as if they can do something.”

This article was paid by and produced in collaboration with Classy. Through the power of its fundraising platform, Classy serves customers who are tackling the world’s greatest challenges. Classy also hosts the annual Collaborative conference, a three-day immersive experience where today’s changemakers come together to co-create the future of social entrepreneurship.

How to Develop Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

“In today’s world, we see a global leadership crisis,” says George Tsiatis, CEO and co-founder of the Resolution Project, an organization that funds, mentors and supports college students who are starting social-impact enterprises. “If we want great leaders, we’ve got to start training them and building them up to be those leaders from an early age.”
It is a common sentiment, but Tsiatis has taken it extraordinarily seriously. As an undergraduate, he was deeply involved in organizing the Harvard World Model United Nations, which brought together students from around the globe, with two of his college friends. And while Tsiatis, along with Howard Levine and Oliver B. Libby, enjoyed the experience, they felt unsatisfied after it concluded.
“We were bringing together these bright people from incredible backgrounds, and we were simulating something,” says Libby, the Resolution Project’s chairman and co-founder. “And that’s a valuable educational experience, but we noticed — George, Howard and I — that there was something left on the table.”
In 2007, as recent graduates, Levine, Libby and Tsiatis returned to the World Model United Nations, where they invited the undergraduate “delegates” to share their ideas for socially responsible ventures. The response was overwhelming, and they saw potential in helping these students launch their ideas. Not long after, the three friends started the Resolution Project.
Today, the Resolution Project runs eight to 10 competitions a year at undergraduate youth conferences around the world to select its fellows. After a rigorous process in which the aspiring entrepreneurs pitch and defend their ideas, the winners gain a wide support network, including two mentors who guide them through the peaks and valleys that come with starting any business or nonprofit.
Fellows are also granted seed funding, which ranges from $1,500 to $5,000. Crucially, the fellowships include lifelong support that’s not tied to the particular starting venture, which, like all new endeavors, may or may not succeed. Instead, the idea is to find would-be leaders and put them on the path toward developing and refining those skills. So far, nearly 400 fellows have created over 240 social enterprises in more than 20 states and 70 countries. These efforts have impacted over 1 million people.
“Young leaders are told, quite frequently, that they are the leaders of tomorrow and so many of them have ideas for things they could be doing now,” says Levine.
Watch the video above to see how the Resolution Project opens up possibilities for ambitious young people and, by extension, the world.


This story was paid for and produced in partnership with the Resolution Project, whose mission is to develop socially responsible young leaders and empower them to make a positive impact today.