December 18, 2018
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7 big ideas of 2018

These problem-solvers are revitalizing vacant lots, fostering communal bonds, and creating innovative solutions to a local housing crisis.

Take Root Cafe co-founders Jessica and Tracy Parks traveled abroad and around the country with their son visiting sustainable farms and communities. They finally landed in Kirksville, Missouri, where they opened their nonprofit restaurant. Photo courtesy of Take Root Cafe

As the end of 2018 approaches, we wanted to look back at all the people whose big ideas and passion for philanthropy made life better for the people in their communities. Here are seven innovative founders who shared their stories with us this year, from the urban farmers growing fresh produce in the middle of a D.C. food desert, to the small-town restaurant where a pay-what-you-can policy means anyone can have nutritious meal. These are their big ideas:

Help a community through generosity, love—and good food

In the small town of Kirksville, Missouri, 1 in 4 residents struggles with food insecurity, and 1 in 3 adults are obese. Taking a proactive approach to helping their community, the Parks family created Take Root Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in the center of town that serves healthy meals made from local, sustainable ingredients. Take Root feeds everyone who walks through the door, asking only for donations from those who can afford to give. “Another very important thing we value at Take Root is community events and education,” said co-founder Jessica Parks. To that end, Take Root also does double duty as a community center, offering weekly events on a wide range of topics, from cooking and fitness to knitting and yoga.


In one the most expensive housing markets in the country, Safe Time Host pairs homeowners who have a spare room with those who are struggling. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Share your house with someone who needs a home

Amidst an overwhelming housing crisis, the Bay Area is seeing an uptick in individuals and families facing homelessness after they lose a job, or an unexpected expense makes the city’s sky-high cost of living unattainable. Often all they need is a safe, temporary place to stay while they get back on their feet. The San Francisco-area nonprofit Safe Time Host (STH) offered an inspiring grass-roots model for how people can help neighbors who need a hand by connecting people facing homelessness with residents who have room to spare for a temporary period of time. The concept of opening one’s home to people in need isn’t new, but STH helps facilitate these connections in a safe and supportive way that includes references, background checks and compatibility meetings between hosts and guests.


A D.C. community in the middle of a food desert is creating new ways to access fresh, healthy food.

Make a food desert bloom

In Washington D.C.’s Ward 7 neighborhood, where residents struggle with access to healthy foods, the food-justice non-profit Dreaming Out Loud built an urban farm on the grounds of a local middle school that benefits the whole community. Volunteers and financial support from Allstate helped make the farm a reality, and the farm’s hoop houses, greenhouse, and refrigerated storage “let us grow year-round, and also store and distribute produce across the ward so we can get healthy food out to the neighborhood,” said Christopher Bradshaw, founder of Dreaming Out Loud.


The Garden Detroit operates a community-supported agriculture program in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Detroit. Photo courtesy of The Garden Detroit

Revitalize Detroit with flower power

The Garden Detroit brought fresh energy and a new approach to revitalization by launching a community-supported agriculture program to transform vacant, blighted lots into vibrant, productive cut-flower farms. In this Q&A, Tom Milano, founder and director of The Garden Detroit, recounted how his own spiritual journey led him to Detroit to be part of the city’s renaissance through community work. “Detroit contains about 23 square miles of vacant land…around 147,200 lots,” Milano said. “Our long-term goal is to work with other organizations throughout Detroit to transform at least one percent of this vacant land, or 1,472 lots, into cut flower farms and sanctuary gardens.”


Troy Melnyk, left, is the inspiration behind Troy Gives A Duck. His mother, Cassandra Clement is committed to helping people with disabilities combat isolation by building community.

Create communities with kindness

Cassandra Clement wrote this inspiring story about her developmentally disabled son Troy, and how a simple project to help him connect with other people led to a movement that’s all about spreading kind words—and ducks—to combat loneliness and isolation. Their Cincinnati-based organization Troy Gives a Duck showed the power of positivity, encouraging people to share uplifting notes with strangers, along with duck-emblazoned lapel pins, decals and other items. Troy and his mother organize local meetups where people can write and share the messages, and recipients are encouraged to post their experiences on social media. The project received a grant from People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab in Cincinnati, to keep the positivity flowing.


Fugees Academy in suburban Atlanta serves refugee students from middle to high school. Photo courtesy of Fugees Academy

Empower refugees through education

After Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian-born immigrant, encountered refugee children playing soccer in in a Clarkston, Georgia, street, she became their coach, tutor, and eventually founded a school to help them succeed in their education. Today Fugees Academy has a 100-percent college enrollment rate, and Mufleh has plans to expand into Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. In this powerful interview, she recounts her own experience as the grandchild of Syrian refugees, and shows how refugees from all over the world can find their paths and succeed in their adopted homes when given the support they need to move beyond their war-torn pasts.


Zachary Wandell was inspired to start Sacramento's "Donut Dash" after volunteering at a local children's hospital.

Rally a community to help hospitalized children

Zachary Wandell’s Donut Dash started as a lighthearted way to raise $1,000 to buy video games for young patients at a local children’s hospital in Sacramento, California. Ten years later, the race is a beloved local tradition that draws thousands of participants and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. In this Q&A, the Allstate agency owner explained what motivates him to volunteer, and he offered advice for how others can start philanthropic events like the Donut Dash in their own communities, including why it’s important to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

Travis Marshall

Travis Marshall is a Los Angeles-based freelancer writer who covers health, wellness, and lifestyle issues.