15 Clever Ways That People Just Like You Are Giving Back To Their Communities

By Heidi Redlitz, Crime Wire

Go to the crime section of any news outlet, and you’re sure to find stories that disturb or revolt you—and which definitely diminish your faith in humanity. But people are also doing pretty spectacular things for themselves and their neighbors, from giving the homeless a renewed sense of dignity, to using arts and crafts to raise awareness for local and global issues. To offset the strange stories and daunting crime stats that circulate in the news every day, here are 15 cases of community members working together to make their neighborhoods a happier, safer place to live.

1) An Old Bus Becomes A Free Restroom For The Homeless

Now here’s an innovative way to get more people to ‘use’ public transportation. A nonprofit group, called Lava Mae, has outfitted a former public transit bus so that the homeless in San Francisco can use it as a restroom. The bus includes two full private bathrooms that offer hot showers, shampoo, soap, towels, and even relaxing music.

Since its water source comes from city fire hydrants, this public bathroom can move across the city to reach a larger population of homeless, and avoid rent hikes or evictions that a permanent structure would be vulnerable to.

“If you’re homeless, you’re living on the streets and you’re filthy, you’re trying to improve your circumstances, but you can’t interview for a job, you can’t apply for housing and you get disconnected from your sense of humanity,” Doniece Sandoval said. “So a shower just in of itself is amazing for people.”

2) Local Communities Step In To Assist Veterans

Just this month, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) asked Congress for thousands more employees and billions more dollars in funding. Since the VA’s resources were stretched thin, 46,000 local organizations stepped in where the VA fell short. The VA still maintains a crucial role in veteran care, offering specialized brain injury work, occupational therapy, and other advanced care for wounded veterans. But community organizations can offer practical services—job training, housing, financial and marital counseling, addiction treatment, short-term loans, and more—that help get veterans and their families back on their feet.

Community involvement can be highly effective because it fills the gaps left open by a giant bureaucracy. After all, it was a community-based organization, not the VA, that saved the life of Army veteran Sam Bennett. With the personalized attention and support he received from Soldier On, Bennett was able to heal from years of depression, addiction, crime and homelessness. He’s now a case manager for the nonprofit.

“There are just some things that government can’t do, that independent organizations, working together locally, can do,” said David W. Sutherland, a retired infantry officer who runs a nonprofit in Cincinnati.

3) ‘Swingin’ Seniors’ Build New Foundations For Families In Need

The Swingin’ Seniors of York, PA don’t get their name from taking weekly dance classes; they get it from swinging hammers to construct homes for families in need. The group’s 12 retirees, aged 60 to 80 years old, volunteer twice a week with York County’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Currently, the team is working on the Hanover Build, a project to construct a wheelchair-accessible home for a single mom and her 13-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound.

4) Columbia City Created Its Own Economic Recovery Through Art

When Columbia City, WA faced continual business closures in the mid 90s, a group of residents and merchants organized a committee to brainstorm revitalization projects. Among the successful ideas were an event showcasing the neighborhood’s ethnic restaurants; a farmer’s market featuring literature tables and live music; a garden tour and BBQ cook-off; and a parking strip turned into a garden.

The committee’s most noteworthy venture, however, was a vacant half-block where residents painted murals of imaginary businesses on boarded up storefronts. The painted ice cream parlor, bookstore, toy store, hat shop, and dance studio looked so realistic, motorists actually stopped to shop! The project was a huge success, as the murals were removed a year later to make room for actual businesses. Today, Columbia City has no empty stores.

5) 350 Musicians Gather In New York To Create An Unforgettable Concert Experience

You’ve heard of a Flash Mob, where people meet in a public place to perform a short dance, and then disperse as quickly as they gathered. How about a Clash Mob? That’s what you get when 350 musicians, of all ages and skill levels, come together for a one-time-only performance on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Make Music New York is an annual, citywide festival that offers hundreds of free concerts in public spaces for one day. Since National Public Radio commissions new music for the festival, they asked a local musician, Sunny Jain, to compose a song. He created a piece called “100+ BPM,” short for “beats per minute” and “Brooklyn Public Music.”

“This is more about community than about sound,” Jain said before the performance began. “I have no idea what it’s going to sound like, I have never done anything like this before.”

Event organizers published the score online so musicians could practice it in advance. Despite never having practiced the song together, the result was epic. Even through a video of the performance, the enthusiasm of the impromptu music ensemble is extremely palpable.

6) Spanish Typographers Find Innovative Way To Help The Homeless

Homeless individuals have few belongings to share, but they still have a voice. For a group of graphic designers in Spain, that voice is best expressed through their handwriting.

Homeless Fonts is an initiative that creates typefaces based on the penmanship of homeless men and women. Each font is displayed on the organization’s website, so the public can read the creators’ stories, and then purchase the fonts to use in almost anything: ads, posters, packaging, social media messages, etc.

Profits go toward the Arrels Foundation, an organization that offers support to homeless people in Barcelona, Spain.

7) Denver Restaurant Asks Patrons To “Pay What You Can” (Tax And Tip Included)

Borne from a sketch on a cocktail napkin, SAME Café (short for “So All May Eat”) emphasizes “serving good food for the greater good.” The restaurant’s founders, Libby and Brady Birk, wanted a way for residents with limited means to eat healthy foods. Funded by patron donations, SAME Café uses “pay what you can” as its motto to offer local, organic food to anyone who enters. If patrons can’t pay anything, they volunteer for an hour in the kitchen or dining area. The café has become a fixture in Denver, having served over 90,000 people in the last eight years.

8) Burrito Riders Deliver Homemade Burritos By Bike

The Burrito Riders are a bicycle-fueled gang of activists who want to feed the homeless in their neighborhoods. They’re not the only group to make and hand out burritos to the hungry (the Burrito Project allows anyone set up a project in their community), but The Burrito Riders of Louisville, KY are a successful group: during their 60 to 90-minute rides, they give away about 200 burritos. Anyone is welcome to ride, and those who don’t want to bike can volunteer by supplying and making the burritos.

9) Instead Of Dishing Out Bird Seed, These Little Houses Help People Read

Instead of passing out burritos to underfed urban populations, this grassroots initiative seeks to hand out books to hungry readers. The Little Free Library is a program in which anyone can build an outdoor wooden stand that holds donated books. The concept started in Wisconsin in 2009, and it has expanded to 15,000 “free libraries” worldwide.

The program’s rule of thumb is “take a book, return a book,” so community members can use the mini libraries as meeting spots to share and discuss their favorite literature. The program is especially useful for isolated areas without access to public libraries.

“If we can get only one kid to read, (who) wasn’t reading before, for $75… that’s a cheap investment,” said Mike Kearby, who lives in a rural Texas town without a public library.

10) San Francisco Restaurant Serves You A Slice Of Pie With A Side Of Humanity

Delancey Restaurant serves up a delicious array of comfort food, and the best meatloaf you’ll ever have (15 years after trying it, I still think about that first bite). While the food is noteworthy, what’s really remarkable is that the entire establishment is run by former prisoners, addicts, and homeless individuals trying to get back on their feet.

Run by a foundation of the same name, Delancey Street Restaurant was named in honor of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island to live on Delancey Street, in New York’s Lower East Side. Just as these immigrants came from all over the world to start a new life, so the foundation caters to anyone who has hit bottom and needs to rebuild their life.

The restaurant is completely designed, built, and operated by Delancey Street residents. Meanwhile, owners, chefs and wait staff of San Francisco’s best restaurants help train workers to cook, manage, and serve.

All proceeds from the restaurant fund housing, food, and clothing for residents. And since all tips are considered donations, don’t hesitate to leave a really big tip.

11) Community Farm Grows Produce For Baltimore’s Food Deserts

East Baltimore Midway is one of dozens of Baltimore neighborhoods that are “food deserts”—urban or rural areas deprived of access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. To provide nutritious fruits and vegetables to local residents, Cheryl Carmona and Aliza Sollins established Boone St. Farms, an urban farm and community garden cultivated from two formerly vacant plots. Dozens of community members have pitched in since it was established in 2010, and Boone St. Farm has since grown thousands of pounds of affordable produce for residents.

12) Grandmas In Lawn Chairs Keep Crack Dealers Off Street Corners

Grandmothers in the Yesler Terrace public community wanted to get rid of crack dealers in their Seattle neighborhood, so they set up lawn chairs on street corners occupied by drug dealers. It seems that even drug dealers don’t like to be on a grandma’s bad side, because the presence of elderly women knitting and chatting was enough to keep them away. A nearby community followed suit by declaring their neighborhood a drug-free zone, and leading Friday night marches through their streets. Taking a zero-tolerance communal stand against crime through civilian and police foot patrols, has been a seriously effective way to reduce illegal activity.

13) Suburban Eyesores Become Vibrant Green Spaces

Paradise Project is a Montreal-based program that sets up suburban beautification projects. For the group’s most recent venture, volunteers laid down mulch and planted flowers on a piece of property that had been left undeveloped. The club decided the abandoned property was an eyesore, and could do better with some green space. When they first cleared the property, volunteers found broken bottles, syringes, vines, and overgrown plants. Now it’s a corner of bright color and dense greenery. Residents of an extended-care facility next door to the property were ecstatic with the results.

“All (the residents) have been doing is talking about the flowers,” said Louis Carpentier, the facility’s director. “Many of them used to have gardens of their own but they can’t get out any more.”

14) Devastating Storm Has A Silver Lining For Kent County Community

The efforts of Kent County’s residents provide a reassuring example of how social media can reinforce community ties. Earlier this month, an 80-mph storm ravaged Kent County, MI, leaving behind a trail of crushed homes and downed trees. In an effort to organize clean-up events and help clear away the rubble surrounding the homes of affected residents, a group set up a Facebook page, The Helping Hands ~ Kent County Residents Helping Those in Need.

The clean-up efforts are ongoing. Most recently, the Facebook page announced that a food truck would be available to replenish food that residents had lost from power outages.

15) Craftivism Weaves Social Messages Into Art Pieces

Sarah Corbett was a “burned out activist” who’d grown tired of joining demonstrations, signing petitions, and attending campaign meetings. As an introvert who liked to sew, she asked herself, Why not use crafts to discuss global issues in a non-threatening and engaging way? Craftivism (“activism through craft”) had been coined as a term in 2003, but there were no groups or projects she knew of.

So Corbett set up the Craftivist Collective in 2009, which has since stitched together pieces that address global issues. As part of the Jigsaw Project that supported Save The Children’s Race Against Hunger campaign, hundreds of UK crafters stitched together fabric jigsaw pieces containing thought-provoking messages. The project reached 19 million according to various media outlets, and is just one of many ideas the Craftivist Collective has up their knitted sleeves.

Do YOU have any stories of your community coming together for a cause? Please let us know in the comments below! Then share this on your social media pages so we can spread some positive news.