Maybe you recall these Crosby Stills and Nash lyrics, as I do:
We can change the world
Rearrange the world
It’s dying — to get better
Let me tell you about seven inspiring older Americans — six women and one man — who are, in fact, changing the world in very different ways.
They’re the 2013 winners of the Purpose Prize, awarded by the nonprofit Encore.org to people over 60 who are “combining their passion and experience for the social good.” Many have conquered personal, sometimes grave, challenges along the way.
Another 42 runners-up were selected as Encore Fellows because they’re also doing pretty amazing things.
The Message of the Prize
Encore.org spokesman Russ Mitchell says the Purpose Prize is designed “to inspire people in that age bracket or approaching it to realize that they’re not done yet and still have a lot to give.”
This is the eighth year the awards have been given by Encore.org, which aims to engage boomers in encore careers that combine personal meaning, income and social impact in the second half of life.
Two of the 2013 winners will each receive $100,000 cash grants; the other five will get $25,000 apiece. The prize money is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, the John Templeton Foundation and Symetra, a financial services firm.
Plenty of others in their 60s and older are also making the world a better place. This year, Encore.org received more than 1,000 Purpose Prize applications, up from roughly 800 in 2012.
Now to the 2013 winners:
Vicki Thomas, chief communications officer for Purple Heart Homes (a $100,000 winner), is one of two Purpose Prize recipients assisting U.S. veterans.
Her group aids some of America’s 3.2 million wounded vets by finding and renovating foreclosed homes donated by banks. Its aging in place program fixes up homes that have become difficult for older veterans to navigate due to their age and service-related disabilities.
Thomas, 67, got involved with Purple Heart Homes after watching a CNN story about its vet founders — Dale Beatty and John Gallina, both severely wounded in Iraq — and cold-calling them.
“I told them I wanted to help pro bono and put them on the map,” says Thomas, a former public relations, fundraising and marketing exec at ABC and the Credit Union National Association.
Boy, has she. Thomas, based in Weston, Conn., has raised millions of dollars for Purple Heart Homes and helped boost the group’s revenues by 600 percent in her first year there. Beatty and Gallina appeared on the cover of Time in its article, “The New Greatest Generation.” Thomas is now paid a small stipend.
The organization's new goal: “500 solutions for vets and their families in five years.” Thomas plans to use some of her prize money to help pay others who've worked gratis for Purple Heart Homes.
Ysabel Duron, the other $100,000 Purpose Prize winner, is founder and executive director of Latinas Contra Cancer, a San Jose, Calif. group dedicated to educating, supporting and providing essential services to low-income Latinos with cancer, the No. 1 cause of death in the Latino community.
Duron, 66, a former San Francisco TV anchor, started the group after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999. “My cancer provided the perfect opportunity for me to take my skill sets, intelligence, access and the knowledge I had gained and put it to work,” says Duron. “Age was not going to be a barrier.”
Duron says that although Latinos aren’t any more likely to get cancer than African Americans or whites, they have a disproportionately high mortality rate due to late detection. Earlier screening for prostate, colorectal, cervical and breast cancer could prevent some of those deaths, she says.
In July, Latinas Contra Cancer will hold its fourth National Cancer Summit, in San Francisco. Duron says she launched this gathering because “I’d go to these monster cancer conferences and say: ‘Where are the Latinos?’”
Two of her favorite Latinas Contra Cancer initiatives reach both ends of the age spectrum.
Health Bingo lets older Latinos get together to play the game using pinto beans instead of discs and with cancer facts replacing numbers on the cards. “The Bingo teaches them about healthy eating, exercise and early intervention by getting screened,” says Duron. “We’re looking to diminish cancer risks by prevention.”
San Jose high school students are working with Duron’s group to create a mobile app for kids, featuring Sir Carlos, the Tumor Buster. “Sir Carlos is either killing cancer cells or the cells are killing him, depending on how good a player you are,” says Duron. “And there are cancer facts at the end of each level.”
Duron told me she plans to use the $100,000 award to expand Latinas Contra Cancer globally — through the web and social media — and, since the prize was awarded to her personally, to assist her elderly mother.
The other five Purpose Prize winners:
Edwin P. Nicholson, 71, of Port Tobacco, Md., a Vietnam vet and prostate cancer survivor who founded Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which mentors disabled vets during fishing trips around the world.
Barbara Young, 66, of New York City, a Barbados immigrant and former nanny whose National Domestic Workers Alliance fights for better pay and working conditions for nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly.
Carol Fennelly, 64, of Washington, D.C., who runs Hope House, which helps prison inmates stay in regular contact with their children, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Its “Camp Hope” program at four prisons lets kids age nine to 14 spend a week visiting their incarcerated fathers.
Elizabeth Huttinger, 63, of Pasadena, Calif., an international public health expert, who created Projet Crevette (the Prawn Project), which aims to eradicate human schistosomiasis — a disease infecting millions of the world’s poorest people — by restoring the prawn population in the Senegal River Basin. Small freshwater snails in lakes and rivers transmit schisto; prawns are their predators.
Reverend Violet Little, 61, of Philadelphia, Pa., who started the Welcome Church, a refuge for the homeless in the City of Brotherly Love that's a “congregation in development” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Little has become the voice of the homeless among ELCA’s 10,000+ congregations.
The 2013 Purpose Prize winners will be honored December 5 at an Encore.org awards ceremony in Sausalito, Calif., part of an event bringing together hundreds of the nation’s Encore leaders.
I asked Duron and Thomas what advice they’d offer others over 60 who want to make a difference, if on a smaller scale.
“People need to go back to their communities and find those little agencies like mine that can really use those extra hands,” says Duron. “They can be real treasures to those small organizations.”
Says Thomas: “When I tell people what I do, they often say they’d also like to find something meaningful to do, but can’t because they have to pay the mortgage and put their kids through school. I tell them: ‘Make it your mission.' You don’t have to be a millionaire. It just has to start with finding something that touches your heart. Then pick up the phone and get caught up in the spirit of giving.”