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Apr. 04

A Woman Helps Thousands Make a Difference in Just Hours – and a President Takes Notice

Today Points of Light Chairman Neil Bush will present Michelle Sollicito of Marietta, Ga., with a Daily Point of Light Award – during a 25th anniversary celebration of President George H. W. Bush’s presidency in College Station, Texas. President and Barbara Bush will be on hand to recognize the longtime volunteer. As we also look ahead to National Volunteer Week, April 6-12, read Sollicito’s story and nominate someone you know as a Daily Point of Light.

sollicito.jpgMichelle Sollicito, pictured with her son Benjamin, uses her social networking skills to help others.

When a snowstorm swept across Atlanta in January, leaving thousands of motorists stuck in their cars for hours, longtime community volunteer Michelle Sollicito did what came naturally.

Sollicito, a web developer and old hand at using social media for community organizing, worked quickly with two other volunteers to launch the Facebook group SnowedOutAtlanta. It featured an interactive map, created by fellow volunteer Jelena Crawford, that enabled stranded commuters to post their exact positions via mobile phone, allowing them to connect to online users who could help.

The Facebook page went live at 4:20 p.m. on Jan. 28, the day of the storm. By midnight, more than 29,000 people had joined the group and more than 400 had been rescued or helped by other SnowedOutAtlanta users.

“The requests for help were varied,” says Sollicito. “Shortly after we were online, it was getting dark. People had already been stranded in their cars for hours. Some needed baby formula or diapers or medication, others needed their batteries charged, and some simply needed a warm place to spend the night.”

By the next day, 53,000 people had joined the group, and Facebook contacted Sollicito to tell her that the group was growing too rapidly for its servers to handle. The social networking site asked her to break SnowedOutAtlanta into smaller groups, which she did – dividing Atlanta from north to south, east to west, and adding suburbs.

SnowedOutAtlanta provided information about companies that were providing emergency shelter, such as Home Depot, and about citizens who were opening their homes up to those in need. It also let people know where they could get gasoline, have their car batteries charged or receive other essential services.

Sollicito and her family took in a man who had been stranded in traffic for 12 hours. He stayed the night.

“Neither he nor his wife could pick up their kids from school,” says Sollicito. “He finally learned that the school principal had driven the kids home. Many teachers and principals stayed at their schools until past midnight to make sure kids got home safely.”

By the time a second snowstorm hit Atlanta on Feb. 11, representatives of the state legislature, mayor’s office and utility companies, along with emergency responders, had joined Sollicito’s Facebook group. This time, thousands of Atlanta-area residents got help via SnowedOutAtlanta. For her life-saving efforts, Sollicito was honored by the Cobb County School District and presented an award at an Atlanta Hawks basketball game.

“It felt overwhelming,” says Sollicito. “Some in the media have tried to make me into a superhero. That’s a bit unreal because I couldn’t have done anything without the 50,000 friends who responded. I simply empowered them. Thousands of people have contacted me. Some have offered me gifts. I tell them to ‘pay it forward’ instead – to help others in the community.”

SnowedOutAtlanta was not Sollicito’s first experience in community service or her first use of social media outreach. Seven years ago, after her two children were born, she launched Marietta Moms – originally a website and now a Facebook group with more than 250 members – to connect mothers in Marietta and allow them to share information and resources online. According to Sollicito, Marietta Moms has a special mission to help low-income mothers, by helping them find jobs, affordable goods, entertainment and educational opportunities for their kids.

“I grew up with a single mom who worked three jobs,” says Sollicito, who volunteers daily as a reader in school classrooms. “I know what it’s like to be poor. It’s not your fault. I’m very lucky to have a successful career today, and I am committed to helping those who are struggling.”

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