3 clever initiatives that empower society’s most vulnerable members

These out-of-the-box solutions are spreading hope, and inspiring us towards creativity in making the world a better place.

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A quick scan of social media or a half-hearted listen to the nine o’clock news doesn’t usually yield a whole lot of warm fuzzies—the world seems to be on thin ice these days. But don’t despair: there are people in the world who are using their smarts, their public positions, and their influence to make the world a better place. Take a look at these three organizations that are finding innovative ways to empower some of society’s most vulnerable citizens. The results are beyond inspiring.

Albuquerque’s solution to homelessness: offer panhandlers day jobs

Albuquerque—New Mexico’s largest city—is home to a large homeless population. With the winter temperatures dropping into the teens and summer highs peaking around 100 degrees, the harsh climate places extra burdens on those living without shelter. Many homeless people depend on panhandling as their main source of income—a dangerous solution, as they stand on busy street corners and risk being hit by cars.

But Mayor Richard J. Berry has decided to do something about it. He’s implementing a creative new campaign in an effort to get some of Albuquerque’s most vulnerable inhabitants the care and services they need, and eventually off the streets, for good. Dubbed “There’s a Better Way,” the program began with a slew of signs placed strategically around Albuquerque in May 2015, encouraging people in need of food and shelter to call 311 for help. Donors can also call this number or visit a website posted on signs to contribute financially—and they’re much more likely to give higher amounts online than on the corner.

The city works in conjunction with local non-profit, St. Martin’s Hospitality Center. Twice a week, a 15-passenger van patrols the streets, stopping anywhere homeless residents may be, and offers them day jobs. The city has about 10 slots open per day in their “landscape beautification” team, and it pays $9 an hour (minimum wage in NM is $7.50). At the end of the day, the workers are taken to St. Martin’s, where they’re connected to housing, employment and mental health services.

In an interview with Governing magazine, Mayor Berry said of the program, “We wanted to try and create an initiative that would be a little out of the box. Instead of taking the punitive approach and the regulatory approach, why not try something that uplifts everybody?”

Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty agrees: “It is demeaning to have to beg for money. The day jobs provide income and build up a person’s self esteem.”

“Not your typical deli” has jobs for people on the autism spectrum

In Gilbert, Arizona, a small deli is making a huge difference both in the lives of their employees, and in their city. The deli actively seeks employees with many types of developmental disabilities. At Not Your Typical Deli, at least 50% of the employees are somewhere on the autism spectrum.

One Phoenix area resident, Jenny Mullins, is the mother of a seven-year-old daughter who also has autism. She and her family are thrilled to see this type of initiative in their very own hometown. “It brings me great joy to see businesses like this thinking about how to employ adults with autism. One of our greatest concerns for [our daughter] is what her life will look like once she finishes high school,” she says.

Many young adults with disabilities are unemployed, but Jenny says actions like these can help change employers’ thinking surrounding this issue by showing businesses that “adults with autism want to be employed. They are very hardworking and good at following routines and structures. Businesses can leverage these skills and these employees will be amazing at what they do, given the chance.” She says that other businesses can learn from this remarkable deli, and realize that people will want to patronize these places because they employ those with disabilities. “People fear what they don’t know. But when [they] visit this restaurant, they’ll be able to engage in meaningful ways with people on the autism spectrum. It takes away some of the fear and preconceptions they may have.”

Jenny hopes more businesses like this one begin to pop up all over the country, and added, “it brings me to tears and gives me hope that our society is more accepting of people who are different than the ‘norm.’ I think it will benefit society in general, as well as the many families who have a family member on the autism spectrum.”

Humanitas Nursing Home houses college students rent-free

The CEO of an “old folks home” in Deventer, Netherlands decided her residents could use a little extra company—of a different generation. In order to enhance the lives of the residents without adding extra spending to the budget, they had to get creative.

Gea Sijpkes invited six college students to move in to Humanitas, rent-free, in an effort to make the home “one of the most pleasant and warmest residences in Deventer.” In return for their room, they must spend 30 hours a month “acting neighborly” with the senior residents.

The students say that they’ve been surprised with their new homes and how much they’ve enjoyed their new relationships with the residents of Humanitas, and some of them consider some of the residents to be as close as their own families. The students can choose how they want to spend their 30 hours being a “good neighbor.” As Aaron Lewis of Dateline says, “Good neighbor somehow means being part local, part friend, part grandchild, part social worker, part health care provider, and some days, it means teaching an 84-year-old woman to play beer pong.”

As Lewis observed the students at Humanitas, he noticed something compelling: “[They] often talk with a sort of calm beyond their years. They don’t often seem in much of a hurry, or worried about things. That is one of the most important life lessons they’ve learned here from their elderly neighbors.” The students were offered a place to live in order to enhance the lives and well-being of the senior residents at Humanitas, but it seems the arrangement has enhanced their lives as well.

They learn from one another, they laugh together, they check up on one another, they just like hanging out together. Simply put, these people are friends.

Ashley Jonkman
Ashley Jonkman
Ashley is a freelance writer and editor. She lives with her husband, two sons and two rambunctious dogs in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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