Sep. 28

7 Service Projects That Made a Big Difference for the Community

Recognizing extraordinary Make A Difference Day project leaders and volunteers
Volunteers participate in a yard clean-up and debris removal project for elderly and low-income residents in Mesa, Arizona.

Make A Difference Day is one of the largest annual single-days of service nationwide, bringing together tens of thousands of volunteers across the country on the fourth Saturday in October – united with a common mission to improve the lives of others through community-driven service projects. For more than two decades, Points of Light has partnered with TEGNA to help mobilize volunteers on this day, and celebrate the power of people to make a difference. And each year, TEGNA recognizes 14 outstanding leaders of Make A Difference Day projects, awarding $140,000 in grants that are donated to the charities related to the winning projects. As we prepare for Make A Difference Day 2017, Points of Light is recognizing these extraordinary difference makers with Daily Point of Light Awards.

Meet seven of these inspiring honorees:

Volunteers Create Unique Outdoor Classroom for Underserved Elementary School Students

Great Schools Partnership (Knoxville, Tennessee)

Resources are stretched thin at Dogwood Elementary, a low-income school in South Knoxville, Tennessee. Nearly half of the school’s 750 students are eligible for free lunch, and the school is among the poorest in the county. With leadership from Great Schools Partnership’s Adam Fritts, site coordinator for Dogwood, and guidance from the local CAC AmeriCorps program, a dedicated group of 58 volunteers from all walks of life joined forces on Make A Difference Day 2016 to transform the overgrown wooded area behind the school into a unique outdoor classroom – providing students a hands-on opportunity in which to learn about environmental conservation. That day, volunteers also began to clear a trail in the woods behind the school, with the goal of connecting it to the 12-mile Urban Wilderness Trail system along the Tennessee River. In addition, they began work on a nature observation deck and seating area cut from nearby fallen trees. 

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Mesa Residents Come Together to Keep Their Community Clean, Vibrant and Beautiful

City of Mesa Neighborhood Outreach Office (Mesa, Arizona)

Nearly 3,000 Mesa, Arizona, residents of all ages came together on Make A Difference Day 2016 to improve their community – and make a difference they did! Volunteers participated in in 36 different projects across the city, helping 2,650 members of the Mesa community. Throughout the day, volunteers engaged in painting walls and houses, assisted elderly and low-income neighbors with yard projects, removed 47 tons of debris from city neighborhoods, and more, benefitting several groups including elementary schools, local veterans and homeowners, residents of Mesa’s first Heritage Neighborhood, and the City of Mesa as a whole. The citywide Make A Difference Day effort – the biggest in three years for Mesa – was orchestrated by the Neighborhood Outreach Office. “By engaging more volunteers in this year’s event, we educated more people about important needs in the community,” said Lindsey Balinkie, neighborhood outreach coordinator for City of Mesa Community Services. 

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Mother of Cancer Survivor Creates "Comfort Kits" to Help Parents Get Through the First Hospital Stay

Sarah Strang, Gold-n-Plum (Wenatchee, Washington)

Sarah Strang is a mom who knows that a child’s battle with cancer is filled with emergency trips to care centers. Seattle Children’s Hospital is three hours away from her home in Wenatchee, Washington – a long trip she made countless times while her son Anthony, who has Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect, was battling leukemia. Often, there was no time to pack a bag. After comparing her experiences with another mom, Sarah Hastings, the two women launched Gold-n-Plum in 2011 with a mission to create pre-assembled “comfort kits” to donate to local ERs. The kits are given to parents who had no time to pack a bag as they rushed to get in an ambulance or Seattle Life Flight, to help get them through their first hospital stay. On Make A Difference Day, Sarah collected enough items to make 80 kits for Confluence Health Central Washington Hospital and Clinics in Wenatchee. 

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With Donated Laundry Supplies and Quarters, 12-Year-Old Lightens the Load for Families in Need

Maggie Leach, Operation Share the Load (Pella, Iowa)

When she was 8 years old, Maggie Leach lived with her family in a hotel for six weeks as they waited for their new home to be built. While washing clothes with her family at the local laundromat, Maggie met several homeless families who could not afford to do their laundry more than once a month – and who sometimes had to make the choice between clean clothes or food. She wanted to do something to help. Maggie launched Operation Share the Load as a Make A Difference Day project in 2012, collecting rolls of quarters and laundry supplies to be donated to families in need. And on Make A Difference Day 2016, she brought in her largest collection yet. Maggie, now 12, collected 81 rolls of quarters, a total of $810, and 21 baskets of laundry supplies – enough to lighten the load of dozens of families served by nearby Lewis House, which shelters women and families fleeing domestic violence. 

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Hundreds of Students and Community Members Join Forces to Do Good in San Luis Obispo County

Center for Service in Action, California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo, California)

Students at California Polytechnic State University have had the Make A Difference Day spirit for about 15 years – and the 2016 event was another big success! Through the school’s Center for Service in Action, more than 850 volunteers – students, Girl Scout troops, local businesses and other members of the community – participated in projects at more than 40 sites in San Luis Obispo County, serving more than 3,200 hours to make a difference in their community. Staff and student organizers coordinated the day’s efforts with United Way of San Luis Obispo County. Volunteers groomed the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, painted a Boys and Girls Club, and stocked a food pantry that serves people with HIV/AIDS; others volunteered at a street fair and children’s Halloween party, and prepped for one town’s annual Oktoberfest; and still more participated in projects that benefitted a mental health association in San Luis Obispo, a homeless organization in Atascadero, and a children’s science museum in Grover Beach, among others. 

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With Support from Local Businesses, Community Volunteers Create a Center for Seniors and Veterans

Petal Public Improvement Corporation (Petal, Mississippi)

In Petal, Mississippi, volunteers from all walks of life came together on Make A Difference Day 2016 to create a welcoming senior center for local seniors and veterans. With a “gently used” building donated by Merit Health Wesley, and $2,500 in supplies donated by the nearby Lowe’s home improvement store, volunteers wasted no time readying the new space – washing windows, cleaning cabinets, landscaping the property, and more. Corner Market, a locally owned grocer, made sure all the volunteers were fed. “We are an extremely caring and close-knit city,” said Valerie Wilson, executive director of the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce. “The senior center has become a rallying place for the community. We all care about it. It’s everybody’s home.” 

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Across Differences, 500 Volunteers Unite to Build Homes for the Homeless

Dream Center (Easley, South Carolina)

In Opportunity Village, rebuilding lives starts with a safe and comfortable home. On Make A Difference Day 2016, 500 volunteers came together to begin construction of the tiny house community that would become home to some of the homeless residents of Pickens County, South Carolina – constructing 13 houses in just 14 hours. Through the Dream Center, these residents would not only gain shelter, but also begin developing the assets and life skills needed to secure employment and ultimately transition back into their community. Local churches helped shuttle volunteers to the site; nurses donated time at a First Aid tent. “Everyone in town came,” said Chris Wilson, executive director at Dream Center. “Black, white, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat – it was a beautiful thing to see.” 

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Points of Light is thrilled to once again join TEGNA, as well as the Arby’s Foundation, to inspire community action and celebrate the power of people to make a difference. Volunteers across the nation will come together on Saturday, Oct. 28, to improve their communities for Make A Difference Day. Project organizers are encouraged to register at to be eligible to win a $10,000 grant to donate to a charity related to their Make A Difference Day project.

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