See How These Volunteers Won $10,000 Grants Making a Difference and How You Can, Too

May 4, 2015

Odessa Willis was at home Aug. 11 when record rain fell on Metro Detroit.

“It came in like a roaring river,” Willis recalls. “There was 3 1/2 feet of water in my basement.” 

mdd_2014-award-warren-mi_resized.jpgOdessa Willis stands in her Detroit home's basement, which All Hands Volunteers cleaned after significant flooding.

Willis found help in the nonprofit group All Hands Volunteers, which responds to natural disasters. Volunteers pulled out carpeting, paneling, furnishings and other flood-damaged items at Willis’ home.

On Make A Difference Day, the group worked on four Detroit homes and to date has gutted 401 houses damaged by the floods. On Wednesday in Washington, D.C., volunteers from All Hands Volunteers and other community groups – selected from thousands of entrants – will be honored for their 2014 Make A Difference Day projects.

Ceremony guests will include NBC “Today” show anchor Natalie Morales and Tony award-winning actress and singer Idina Menzel.

On the fourth Saturday of October, millions of volunteers across the nation unite to improve the lives of others. In its 24th year, Make A Difference Day is a USA TODAY initiative, backed by the Gannett Company, in collaboration with Points of Light.  

mdd_2014-award-shreveport-la_resized.jpgIsaac McFarland, of Shreveport, Louisiana, filled backpacks with nonperishable food and hygiene items for people in need.

Newman’s Own awards $10,000 grants to the organizers of 13 of the winning projects – 10 created by community members and three by local governments. And the Gannett Foundation gives a $10,000 all-star grant to a past winner that has demonstrated excellence in volunteerism during the most recent Make A Difference Day.

Learn about the 14 winners of 2014 below and see how you can get involved during Make A Difference Day 2015 at

All Hands Volunteers – Warren, Michigan  Full story >

Isaac McFarland – Shreveport, Louisiana: The high school senior started a project to assemble backpacks filled with nonperishable food and hygiene items for people in need. On Make A Difference Day, he distributed more than 3,000 of the backpacks to the Caddo School District’s department for homeless students and to homeless shelters and rescue missions aiding families and veterans. Full story >

mdd_2014-award-eagan-mn_resized_0.jpgCheerful Givers volunteers in Eagan, Minnesota, assemble bags of toys, books and other items for low-income parents to give to their children on their birthdays.

Cheerful Givers – Eagan, Minnesota: The organization assembles bags of toys, books and other items for low-income parents to give to their children on their birthdays. On Make A Difference Day, about 160 volunteers assembled 3,000 birthday bags. The organization raised $3,100 to purchase bags and items, and had books, bookmarks, crayons and pens donated from a variety of sources. Full story >

Makenna and Melissa Schwab – Wenatchee, Washington: Makenna Schwab, 12, was born with a rare connective tissue disorder that causes bone dislocations and affects her airway, spine and joints. For Make A Difference Day, Makenna challenged her community to donate Red Flyer wagons to Seattle Children’s Hospital. (“They’re less scary than wheelchairs” for young patients, Makenna explains.) She collected 33 wagons, more than 1,300 toys and toiletries, 36 portable DVD players, five baby swings, $280 in gift cards and $674 in cash donations. Full story >

Free Bikes 4 Kidz – Minneapolis: In south Minneapolis, Free Bikes 4 Kidz collects donated bikes, cleans and repairs them, and gives them to families who can’t afford them. On Make A Difference Day, the group worked with Burroughs Elementary School to put kids in charge of a bike donation event. More than 30 children collected and cleaned 150 bikes. Full story >

mdd_2014-award-miami-fl_resized.jpgJoshua’s Heart Foundation volunteers in Miami distributed groceries to more than 500 families in need.

Joshua Williams – Miami: High school freshman Joshua Williams’ nonprofit organization, Joshua’s Heart Foundation, secured sponsors, a truck and about 60 volunteers to distribute groceries to more than 500 families in need. Full story >

Meals from the Heartland – Des Moines, Iowa: Volunteers produced 100,008 meals – more than 7 tons of food – to feed those in need. The dried meals included a rice mixture, dried vegetables, minerals and a soy protein supplement. Most were sent overseas through the Missouri-based nonprofit Convoy of Hope. Full story >

The Salvation Army – Rochester, New York: Buses took 323 Rochester-area children to department stores. There, 275 volunteers helped each child pick out a winter coat, with costs covered by donations and foundation spending. Full story >

Real Estate Council of Austin – Austin, Texas: Volunteers raised about $150,000 and organized one of the largest volunteer teams ever at SafePlace, which provides shelter and counseling to about 5,000 victims of domestic and sexual abuse annually. In the project, 115 members built a walking trail behind SafePlace’s family shelter, a new playground, a sitting area and granite benches. Full story >

mdd_2014-award-university-city-mo_resized.jpgUniversity City, Missouri, volunteers worked on 25 home projects for senior citizens.

Daniel Soupiset – San Angelo, Texas: The efforts of one Texas teen have saved 57 animals from being euthanized. Daniel Soupiset organized an effort to get more pets adopted from San Angelo’s animal shelter. On Make A Difference Day, Daniel set up in front of the shelter with about 15 volunteers to hand out coupons that covered the cost of adopting a pet. For more than a month before that day, Daniel and about 25 volunteers raised more than $4,500 for the project. Full story >

City of University City, Missouri – University City, Missouri: The city worked with Our Lady of Lourdes parish to sign up 150 volunteers for 25 home projects for senior citizens. The city also spent about $3,000 on supplies such as paint, yard waste bags, concrete and new fencing. Full story >

Town of Fountain Hills, Arizona – Fountain Hills, Arizona: About 300 volunteers provided assistance to 67 elderly and infirm residents – doing household repairs and cleaning, painting, landscaping and building fences. Full story >

Delaware County, Ohio – Delaware, Ohio: About 700 volunteers tackled projects ranging from gardening and trimming to decorating for the county’s Halloween events. Senior citizens, who applied for assistance, also received help with home maintenance, furniture moving and other household chores. Full story >

Shaquawana Wester – Cookeville, Tennessee: Quawana’s Coats, organized by single mom of three Shaquawana Wester, involves public schools, nonprofit agencies, churches and the health department. Sixty volunteers organized donated coats, scarves, hats and gloves on Make A Difference Day, helping more than 350 families.