Posts by Alex Zielinski


From shambles to storytelling: Redefining repair in Greensboro, NC

A series where we highlight people using their passions to make a difference in their communities.

"Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty." —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.  Photo credit: goelsewhere.org

“Nothing is ever level. Nothing is ever plumb. Nothing is ever square. Everything is dirty.” —Paul Howe, on the realistic challenges of his work.
Photo credit: goelsewhere.org

For months, Paul Howe would walk by the same orange cone guarding the same precarious hole in a brick sidewalk near his Greensboro, North Carolina home.

“The sidewalk belonged to a university, and the damage to it was done by city linesmen who installed a new telephone pole in it. Bricks were missing, bare sand exposed, the hole about half the width of the sidewalk,” says Paul, a quintessential jack-of-all-trades. “Nobody was taking responsibility for it.”

So, he decided to take the matter into his own hands.

Using his welding skills, Paul crafted a steel plate to fill the perilous gap and secured it into the hole without any objection (see the finished product). Only after bolting it down, he realized that he had created something more than just a harm-reducing fix.

“I realized that by using a material other than brick to patch a brick sidewalk, I had revealed a story about the sidewalk, and also added a new one,” says Paul.” I did not erase all of the evidence of the damage. I left a clue to it, revealed it, while letting it still function, as it should.”

This idea—storytelling through repair—drove Paul to join Elsewhere, Greensboro’s thrift-store-turned-cultural-center, to renovate its run-down workshop. But, instead of overhauling the entire building with modern fixtures and like mediums, Paul used a mosaic of building materials to smartly patch up the place (check out some of the end results).

“It doesn’t try to hide itself as a repair, it screams at you as being a repair,” he says of the space. “It’s one of the first things people notice when they come up to the shop now, and it speaks simultaneously to the history of the place, and to its current use.”

Now that the workshop’s in working condition, Paul spends his time keeping Elsewhere in tip-top shape and promoting his concept of repair throughout the community by chipping away on realistic tasks with the tools at hand.

“There is a focus on so called ‘big problems,’ and people make livings coming up with ‘big solutions.’ The thing is, so called ‘big problems’ are so poorly understood that they remain, in spite of our best efforts,” says Paul. “I find it more productive to work on so called ‘small problems’ since one can understand enough of a ‘small problem’ that one might actually be able to do something about it.”

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Interested in starting your own small repair projects around your community? Shoot Paul an email at sherlocke9@gmail.com or get in touch with him via Elsewhere. 

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Stitching art, community, and conversation

A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch's list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness  www.alexmaness.com)


A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch’s list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness www.alexmaness.com)

The idea

Last November — at the tail end of a year devoted to hosting 40 conversation-focused events across the country — designers Dipika Kolhli and Akira Morita were left with a seemingly simple question: Can community-driven discussions translate visually?

With a goal to gather insights about the city’s future from the couple’s own community of Durham, NC, Dipika and Akira answered this question with a unique community-saturated project, Stitch.

“One night, while I was brainstorming, I found myself staring at a bunch of sticky notes, all with just a word or two on them—my notes,” says Akira. “And then it came to me. What if we collected just one word from people across Durham about where they wanted the city to go, and then had local artists bring them to life?”

Soon the pair were stopping folks on the street, at farmers market’s, and at local events to jot down local’s single-word hope for the future. From “durable” to “doggy,” “walkable” to “weird,” they quickly gathered a healthy heap of 276 inspiring words from across the city.

“Once people heard what we were doing, they came to us to share their word,” says Akira. “It was great to see the community’s enthusiasm.”

Then, they pinned down local artists to use their craft (whether it be song, photography, poetry or jewelry) to embody select words to share with the community and sell to supporters.

But the next steps, they found, wouldn’t be as easy.

3 things they wish they did differently 

1.  Had a more specific agenda.
“A lot of artists dropped out of the project once they found out there was no specific end goal,” says Akira. “We just wanted to start a tangible discussion and let others take it elsewhere. I learned that even artists are scared of the unfamiliar.”

After losing a third of the originally committed artists, Akira realized that he needed to be more cautious and clear in his approach.

“I have to take baby steps,” he says. “Not everyone can be on the same page as me right off the bat. It’s important to be clear from the start.”

2. Networked more with supporters, artists, and the community in general.

Time, of course, plays a big role in gathering cemented support. Akira admits that he and Dipika needed a stronger initial network of interested people to get their project off the ground. After the fact, however, it brought a spotlight on the small design team and helped usher them into new innovative and creative circles in the community.

3. Was more realistic about funding, the ever-predictable (and frustrating) roadblock for new projects.

Akira and Dipika used Kickstarter to fuel their project and sell the artists’ final pieces, but didn’t reach the hefty $12,000 goal by April 29. However, the $6,799 they did raise was enough to help many artists turn their word-inspired idea into reality.

Again, Akira says that having a stronger network of support from the beginning would help solidify funding down the road. But the pair still remain positive about the funds that did give Stitch the push it needed.

“No, we didn’t quite reach the target,” Akira writes on a recent update on Stitch’s Kickstarter. “And while I can’t say I’m not disappointed, I am more in awe of the support we did get from you.”

Moving forward

Despite the challenges, both financial and social, faced by the duo behind Stitch, Akira and Dipika are anything but discouraged for the future of the project and their further conversation-sparked pursuits.

Now, leaving the tools in the hands of the Durham artists, the pair and their three-year-old son are leaving for a 24-month stint across Asia, in hopes of bringing similar word-based projects to other villages and cities

“Our aim remains the same: create spaces for conversations to happen. Everywhere, with everyone,” says Akira.

But, he remains humble in their efforts, calling the idea more of an “open sourced idea” that can be replicated by other communities with ease.

“The role dialogue plays in our communities is key to where we are going and how we can advance civilization,” says Akira. “We just want to help it get there.”

Want to bring Stitch’s idea to your community and get advice from Akira and Dipika? Send them a message at hello@orangutanswing.com.

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Roundup: LGBT community around the world

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. We end our weeklong spotlight by zooming out of the U.S. and onto firsts in the international sphere.

As LGBT rights become more prominent in the U.S., other countries are quickly catching on. Here’s a quick roundup of the latest happenings:

South Africa—

In April, South Africa (the first—and only—African country that’s legalized gay marriage) saw its first traditional gay marriage between Thoba Sithole and Cameron Modisane. From Zulu and Setswana outfits to a cow slaughter, the couple and their families spared nothing to stick to their ancestral roots.

“People are still ashamed because the vast majority of the black community is not accepting of being a homosexual. They see it as largely being a ‘Western trend’ that is in fashion lately,” Cameron told reporters at the ceremony. “[We want people to see that] being gay is as African as being black.”


Singapore—

Meanwhile, in Singapore, where sexual contact between men is still punishable with up to two years’ in jail, a less traditional movement has taken flight—in the form of an online magazine directed toward the country’s gay male community. Launched in February, Element has managed to bypass the government’s strict media laws with it’s solely online presence while still capturing the attention of readers across Asia, if not the world. Publisher Noel Ng told the Atlantic that he sees the magazine as a way “to restore the dignity and worth of every gay man.”

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Ukraine—

Shortly after Amnesty International published an article urging the Ukrainian government to introduce anti-distcriminatory legislation (following a slew of anti-gay attacks in the country), the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, held its first gay pride parade on May 25. Told to dress in comfortable shoes (for running) and non-offensive clothing, the peaceful, un-dsirupted crowd was flanked by police support and public encouragement as they marched through downtown. “This can be considered a historic day,” said Elena Semyonova, one of the event’s organizers.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Photo credit: Associated Press

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Want to get involved in the LGBT cause? Search almost 6,000 nonprofit jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, events, and like-minded people from around the world on Idealist

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Want to be more inclusive? Try creating unisex bathrooms

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. In honor of this movement, this week we’re shining a spotlight on the LGBT youth community and the myriad of ways you can get involved. Today’s story is about how something as simple as a sign has helped transgender students in an Oregon high school.

In high school—a melting pot of teenage angst, drama and growth—any added stress to an already strained schedule can be the breaking point. For 17-year-old Scott Morrison, a transgender senior at Portland, Oregon’s Grant High School, this stressor came in the form of something seemingly harmless: Using the school bathroom.

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Photo via Shutterstock.

Born female, Scott identifies as male, but feels uncomfortable using either a men’s or women’s restroom due to other student’s reactions. And he’s not alone in his discomfort.  In February, Grant counselors spoke with the school’s administration about the stories they’ve heard from multiple transgender or gay students of discomfort and anxiety triggered by using gendered bathrooms.

Their solution? Unisex bathrooms.

“When I heard that students were uncomfortable, and realized that what we had was not working, I knew we had to do it,” says Kristyn Westphal, Grant Vice Principal and main instigator of the bathroom change. “It was simple, really.”

So simple that the only change, once the cooperative building manager changed the building code, the entire project cost under $300—the price of changing locks and signs on the doors of once-gendered bathrooms.

Now, three months since the idea was raised, Grant is now home to six bathrooms—four for students, two for staff—that welcome all genders, in addition to its remaining gendered facilities. And the public response couldn’t have been more receptive.

“It really is a non-issue,” Kristyn says. “Students that need them use them. We haven’t had any conflict or negative responses.”

Emily Volpert, reporter for Grant’s school paper (and who broke the original story on the bathroom switch), echoes Kristyn’s outlook.

“Most students at Grant were very accepting and understanding of this request,” Emily says. “While there will always be people who choose not to accept others for their differences, high schoolers at Grant tend to be very progressive.”

This factor likely played a role in the program’s success. Already a campus with out and supported transgender students (and an established Gay-Straight Alliance club) in a city known for its liberal ways, Grant may have a step up on other schools facing the same issues. But, Emily says, the environment of a high school campus remains universally alike—no matter where you’re trying to fit in.

“In high school, there is enough pressure that students face from grades, peers, and figuring out who you want to be,” Emily says. “For the transgender students, it’s another big problem on their plate. The installation of unisex bathrooms is really an equity issue.”

And other schools are taking note. Kristyn says that since news of the bathrooms spread, school administrators and students across the country have contacted her for advice. One California high school student even hopes to make the switch his senior project.

“It’s great how interested communities are in bringing this to their schools,” she says. “It really seems like something people need.”

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Want to bring unisex bathrooms to your school, workplace, or general community? Connect with Krisytn at kwestphal@pps.net for tips and support.

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Meet the dad who started an alternative Boy Scout revolution

This post originally appeared on good.is, a global community of people who give a damn.

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Scouts from Missouri’s 10th Daniel Boone Scout Group. (Photo via Baden-Powell Service Association.)

Over the past year, alternative options to the Boy Scouts of America have spread across the U.S. like wildfire. From Portland, Oregon’s 55th Cascadia Scouts, clad in homemade kerchiefs (and named after the kitschy camp troop in the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom), to the 5th Brooklyn Scouts in New York, building forts in Central Park as part of their wilderness survival training, the new troops are primarily formed by families fed up with discriminatory policies.

But these troops would still be up a creek without a paddle if it weren’t for one frustrated father: Missouri dad and Cub Scout leader David Atchley, the humble computer programmer who reintroduced “traditional” scouting to the U.S., and in the process, furthered LGBT and gender equality.

Six years ago, David attempted to dodge the Boy Scouts’ commitment to excluding female and gay would-be participants by asking them to let his troop be all-inclusive. Instead, they threatened to take away his pack’s membership.

So he took things into his own hands. He turned in his Eagle Scout badge (the black belt of scouting), severed all ties with the Boy Scouts of America, and began crafting the country’s first all-inclusive scouting alternative.

But he didn’t have to start from scratch. In David’s search for other scouting options, he found Europe’s Baden-Powell Service Association (the original scouting model that the U.S. Boy Scouts was founded on in 1910) and was quickly hooked by its no-nonsense approach. With straightforward, loophole-free rules laid down in 1907, the association stressed outdoors-y goals and an all-inclusive atmosphere.

After convincing some of his current scouts and local families to join forces, David started the 10th Daniel Boone Scout Group, officially igniting the BPSA U.S. program. The goal? To bring scouting back to its roots. “Sure, the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policies made me leave the program, but that isn’t the focus,” says David. “It’s time we bring back traditional scouting.”

To him, this means swapping “programming” and “computer game design” merit badges for those scouting was founded on, mainly outdoor survival and navigation. David agrees that youth tech education is important—it’s just not part of the scouting platform.

“Scouting is supposed to be focused on two things: outdoor skills and public service,” he says. “These seem to have been forgotten over the years.” David’s own troop reflects these values by spending weekends cleaning up trash alongside the Missouri River and honing their campfire cooking skills on camping trips.

Soon after his troop got off the ground, he began hearing from interested parents and ex-members across the country. There are now 24 BPSA-chartered groups, from New Hampshire to New Mexico, empowering scouts and leaders of all ages, sexual orientations, and genders. David’s been the national commissioner since 2009, both arranging national events and connecting interested scouts on a local level, thanks to their site’s handy Scout Finder application.

Still, he remains modest about his program’s achievements and long-term effects on gender and sexuality biases.

“I just wanted to find another alternative for my kids, one that focused on equality and traditional scouting,” he says. “But it wasn’t a new idea. I was just the first to make the move.”

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Interested in starting a local BPSA troop or know a community that’s looking for an alternative to the BSA? Contact David Atchley at david.m.atchley@gmail.com or look for nearby members on the Scout Finder.

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Latest from Latin America: Changing the world with “suspended” coffee

The piece below on an Argentian entrepreneur was translated and edited from the original Spanish version on the blog of our Spanish site, Idealistas

Around Easter, this image of a man sipping coffee (paired with a short story by Italian Tonino Guerra) spread like wildfire through social networks across the globe. Thousands shared the photo and ‘liked’ it on Facebook. Sol Verdier, a mother and graphic designer, decided to go further.

When she saw the picture and read the story behind the photo, she thought, “I can do something more.”  So she founded the Argentine initiative “Un Café Pendiente” (or, “Suspended Coffee”), a movement encouraging coffee shop regulars to buy an extra coffee to be “on hold” for a customer who can’t afford to buy a cup.

By simply placing recognizable stickers on the outside of participating shops—and encouraging homeless shelters, churches, and other communities to spread the word—Sol can help those in need connect with customers willing to help.

Sol Verdier, founder of the Argentina initiative, Un Café Pendiente

Sol Verdier, founder of the Argentina initiative, Un Café Pendiente

While she’s not the first to be inspired by the story and start up her own version (check out the others popping up around the world), Sol is the first to bring the idea to Argentina.

After two months, and almost 30,000 supporters on her Facebook page, Sol tells us the story of how she went from intention to action:

What was it that led to the idea of creating Un Café Pendiente? Where did you see a problem, a lack?

Un Café Pendiente was born in Naples, Italy, when a Neapolitan man, Tonino Guerra, paid for two cups of coffee instead of one, one for him and one for an impoverished man. It began as a tradition and soon became a project in cities across Europe.

So I began. I drafted a project, set up a website so anyone anywhere in the world can download all the info on how to start a replicable movement in their community, and started a Facebook page to start spreading the idea.

A few days later, after I convinced some friends that own coffee companies to join, “likes” slowly began to appear.

What moved you to take action?

As a child, I went on missions to Chaco several times and participated in various solidarity movements. Today, with a job and a child, it’s more complicated. I saw this project as an opportunity to help everyone.

How do you feel devoting your time to a cause like this?

Happy and exhausted! I love being part of this initiative and, frankly, I’m surprised the impact it had in such a short time. I’m hoping to get a group of people organized to better distribute tasks and continue my work so I can be a mother again!

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To learn more about Sol’s project and find out how to start your own suspended coffee program, visit www.uncafependiente.com.ar or the international network, www.coffeesharing.com.

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Try This! Pedal unused food to those in need

Boulder Food Rescue volunteer Kim Abcouwer picks up food at a local Whole Foods (photo credit: Cliff Grassmick http://www.flickr.com/photos/boulderfoodrescue/8538484344/in/set-72157632757809202)

Boulder Food Rescue volunteer Kim Abcouwer picks up food at a local Whole Foods. (Photo credit: Cliff Grassmick.)

The idea

It’s no news that America is one of the largest waste generators in the world—just take a look at a Portland, Oregon dump a day after Christmas to refresh your memory.

But how far have we gone? According to a March 2013 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. wastes around 40 percent of all edible food. While a big chunk of this waste is generated by private homes, restaurants and grocery stores across the country add a hefty contribution (86 billion and 43 billion pounds, respectively, in 2008).

These alarming numbers—paired with population of those going homeless and hungry in the states—are the leading reason 25-year-old Hana Dansky decided to co-found the country’s first food “rescue and redistribution” nonprofit, Boulder Food Rescue.

“After learning about the national problem with waste, I did research locally,” says Hana. “There was enough food thrown away in Boulder County to feed the county’s entire homeless population—which was crazy. So we did something about it.”

Hana, along with two other friends, started talking to local grocery stores and homeless shelters in 2011 to see how they could connect the two. Soon the small team began pedaling trailer-toting bikes between multiple grocery stores, cafes, shelters, soup kitchens and residents for at-risk community members. They had become the missing link.

“It’s great how willing most store managers were to contribute and how badly the community needed their excess food,” Hana says. “Filling that gap makes all the difference.”

Now, 150 volunteers, 16 regular donors and a 501(c) 3 certification later—and the thriving Boulder Food Rescue is ready to share their model with other communities in need.

Why you might like to try this

  • Shrinks waste. Sure, this is an obvious one, but the national statistics alone make it a convincing reason to kickstart your own food rescuing system. Why toss a shelf of day-old bread or a box of barely wilted lettuce in the trash when others are pinching pennies to make a sandwich?
  • Supplies those in need. Hana says that a recent survey done by Boulder’s largest shelter revealed that 66 percent of its dining hall’s produce comes directly from Boulder Food Rescue. “It’s amazing to positively influence the diet of so many people who need it,” she says. “And the need is definitely out there.”
  • Strengthens community. Since the food rescue got off the ground, a handful of community members have offered their varied help to keep it rolling. “Not only have we connected food to those who need it, we’ve seen this community open up as a resource, offering skills and their passion for others without a second thought,” says Hana.

How you can replicate it

  1. Build donor trust. Hana says that create strong and trusting relationships with grocery store and restaurant managers is the trickiest part of her work. She avoids major chains, based on their overarching restrictions on donations, and focuses primarily on local food sources. “Usually,” says Hana, “we can sit down with the store managers in person and talk about our mission and process—specifically how they aren’t responsible for any of the food after its picked up.”
  2. Know your rights. Many potential donors shy away to avoid potential conflict with FDA regulations. But, Hana says, the national 1996 Good Samaritan Act—allowing businesses to donate food to nonprofits without claiming any responsibility—strengthens most donors’ interest. Plus, nonprofit donations benefit businesses when tax season rolls around.
  3. Follow a method. Boulder Food Rescue now offers a straightforward and relatable online guidebook to creating a food rescue program in any community, with tips on everything from money management to grocery store relationships.

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Want to bring a similar model to where you live? Hana encourages anyone interested in starting their own operation to get in touch with them directly at info@boulderfoorescue.org.

Learn more about Colorado month at Idealist!

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It’s a bike! It’s a car! No—It’s Peatónito, Mexico City’s masked defender of pedestrians

With Cinco de Mayo coming up this weekend, we’re shining a spotlight on one social innovator from Mexico City mixing both brawn and brains to make change. 

Peatónito halts traffic at a crosswalk in downtown Mexico City (Photo credit: Peatónito)

Peatónito halts traffic at a crosswalk in downtown Mexico City (Photo credit: Peatónito)

In sweat pants, a long black cape, and a traditional luchador (or Mexican wrestler) mask, 26-year-old Jorge Cañez easily stands out in the congested hubbub of downtown Mexico City. And that’s exactly what he wants.

Jorge, or “Peatónito”—the name of his masked alter ego, has taken it upon himself to bring pedestrian safety back to the streets of a city known internationally for it’s high pedestrian fatality rates. Stationed at high-traffic intersections across town, Jorge acts as an intrepid traffic cop, signaling cars to stop at crosswalks and valiantly guiding pedestrians to the sidewalk.

“People ignore the importance of pedestrian safety in this city, and it’s deadly,” says Jorge, who says that Mexico City sees at least one pedestrian death daily. “I’m trying to make a change by making it fun.”

Peatónito (a derivative of the Spanish word for pedestrian, peatón) has been an active character in the streets of Mexico City since last June. After winning over city transportation officials and community members alike, Jorge’s persona has trigged a transformation within the city’s inner workings.

“I think I’ve helped incorporate the speech of the pedestrian with the department of transportation,” he says, adding that while the city has recently show great interest in bicycle infrastructure, they’ve all but ignored the needs of pedestrians. “Now they actually have an real agenda and are creating public policies to improve pedestrian facilities.”

However, getting to this point took a heap of commitment and drive from Jorge’s end.

A political science graduate and past consultant for Mexico’s Institute of Transportation and Development, Jorge originally advocated for pedestrian rights with a group of local activists, stealthily painting impromptu crosswalks and placing cemented benches in pedestrian-heavy areas downtown. While these acts were essentially illegal, the police who caught Jorge and his team in the act would usually see the good in their intentions.

Peatónito helps an older couple cross the street. (Photo credit: Peatónito)

Peatónito helps an older couple cross the street. (Photo credit: Peatónito)

“Every time it’s the same: We explain to the police what we’re doing, and there’s never a problem,” says Jorge. “They know it’s helping.”

But Jorge still wasn’t convinced that this level of advocacy was enough to make a substantial shift in driver’s (and official’s) ways. So, he took a page from the book of one of his own heroes: Antanas Mockus, the past mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

“Bogotá used to be one of the more dangerous cities in the world, especially for a pedestrian,” says Jorge. “But Mockus fired the corrupt transit police and hired 400 mimes to police traffic. He made it fun, and things began to change.”

Now, people are turning to Jorge to learn from his work and promote his actions, including local political parties. But the caped crusader remains committed to his original cause.

“Sometimes I get calls from [political] parties asking me to join them,” says Jorge. “But I don’t have a party. I don’t have any side alliance. I am simply an ally to all pedestrians.”

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Interested in pedestrian activism or want to learn more about bringing a similar movement to where you live? Send Jorge an email at jorge.canez@itdp.mx or check out Peatónito on Facebook.

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3 funding opportunities to help you jumpstart your ideas this spring

Spring is in the air—along with a new set of top-notch innovation contests with equally delightful prizes. Now’s the time to pitch that creative project you’ve been mulling over all winter!

GOOD’s Start Something That Matters Challenge

There’s nowhere to go but up.

  • WHO: Any social entrepreneur over 18
  • WHAT: The folks at GOOD are looking for innovators from around the globe with ideas that will change the world for the better. The contestant with the top solution will receive $50,000 to make their dream a reality.
  • WHEN: Deadline for submissions is May 17

Verizon Powerful Answers Award

  • WHO: Individuals 18 or older
  • WHAT: Verizon (yes, the phone company) is on the hunt for inventors and entrepreneurs with smart solutions to social issues of all sizes. The contest has three categories—health care, education, and sustainability—to direct submissions toward. Winners could  go home with up to $1 million bucks—and a marketable idea to boost.
  • WHEN: Deadline to enter the contest is June 30

CCEMC Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses

  • WHO: Open to (but not limited to) companies, research institutions, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and inventors.
  • WHAT:  A four-year long award program,this challenge aims to find one foolproof tech-based model to convert greenhouse gases into valuable products. CCEMC will narrow down the contestants every two years, first starting with a group of 20, given $500,000 to start developing their idea, and ending with awarding a sole winner $10 million to boost their product into the tech market.
  • WHEN: Deadline for applications is July 15

Know of more opportunities? Let us know in the comments below.

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Setting sail, again: Navy vet returns to volunteer on retired submarine

Ron Bell is one of 10 U.S. Navy submarine veterans who volunteer to lead weekly visitor tours on the USS Blueback, a sub docked outside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon. Retired from a career in scrap metal construction, Bell spoke with me about why he loves volunteering.

This post originally appeared on Next Avenue, a PBS website that informs and inspires the 50 + crowd. 

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Ron Bell below deck in the USS Blueback

I had been following the USS Blueback submarine since it was retired in 1990, because that’s what we submarine vets do. I was in the Navy for four years during two wars, and worked on a few submarines similar to this one, doing everything from maintenance to communications. When I heard the Blueback was coming to Portland, I had to see it and I had to be a part of it.

So in 1995, soon after it docked, I got involved in volunteering there. From giving tours of the sub to performing maintenance — whatever needs to be done, I do it.

I’m also here because submarines are the most beautiful pieces of machinery. Once you get bit by these things, you want to know all there is about them. You can’t quit.

Checking up on the sub

The Navy still owns the Blueback, but they’ve made it non-operational. For good reason, maybe. To be honest, I don’t think they trust us old sub vets not to take it for a spin. Every year or so, they visit to make sure it’s still up to par. Which, of course, it always is, since they’ve got us on deck.

I enjoy everything about what I do down here. I love telling our tours how we lived on a sub back then and sharing old stories. People like hearing them and I like telling ‘em, so it works out nicely.

In the Navy, I was in Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines — during the Vietnam War — and then the coast of Europe, especially Russia, during the Cold War when I was in a nuclear sub. We got hit by Communist missiles a couple times.

You have to go through sub school, which is a rigorous, intensive type of training. Everyone on deck needs to know how to do everything, in case something goes wrong.

The USS Blueback docked outside of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Photo credit: Meltedplastic on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/meltedplastic/8415091795)

The USS Blueback docked outside of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Photo credit: Meltedplastic on Flickr)

The joy of volunteering with fellow vets

The point is, sub vets worked hard to get to where they are. We are all very proud of what we’ve done and deeply respect each other. That’s what makes it so rewarding to work together here. Being on a sub in the Navy is something that connects us all at a very deep level.

I’ll tell ya, if you get a bunch of sub vets together for a cup of coffee after our shift, you end up sharing a lot of laughs and old sea stories, which is just the Navy term for lies.

I’ve visited amazing places around the world while on patrol, but now all I want to do is stay in the states and see this beautiful country where my wife and I live. We make time for RV trips every year to do just that.

An opportunity for time traveling

And of course, I travel back in time when I’m on the sub. As soon as I first walked on board the USS Blueback, it was just like “Boom!” I was back. And I loved it.

And I think the rest of the vets here feel the same. Being here brings back so many fond memories; it’s good for the heart.

I have to say my favorite part of volunteering is when young sub sailors come down to look at the old machinery — it’s a piece of history. They respect us more than anyone, since they know they wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for us guys. That’s why doing this matters.

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Want to volunteer in your community? Search over 13,000 volunteer opportunities around the globe listed on Idealist. 

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