'Midwest Living's' Good Neighbors Program Gives Back to Local Nonprofits

Styles 4 Kidz Staff
Photo: Hawa Images

Midwest Living's Good Neighbors program highlights unique Midwest nonprofits and individuals making our communities stronger. The magazine donates $500 to each group. Here are some of the nonprofits we have featured recently.

01 of 19

Bridge Communities

Family helped by Bridge Communities in Chicago
Family helped by Bridge Communities. Colleen Abrahamovich/Stolen Moment Photography

Bridge Communities supports families with children that are facing or experiencing homelessness in DuPage County, west of Chicago. The nonprofit provides many services, including case managers, transitional housing, financial literacy mentorship, family wellness programs and counseling resources. CEO Amy Van Polen credits Bridge Communities' success—92 percent of families secure permanent housing by the time they leave their program—to the nonprofit's model of working with families for about two years to develop stable financial resources. Now in its 35th year, Bridge Communities will hit a milestone in 2024: 1,000 families served. The organization partners with hundreds of people to serve as mentors for families. Van Polen describes this collaborative model of using volunteers as a "powerful way" of bringing the local community into their mission. Featured in Winter 2023-2024

Would you like to nominate a local nonprofit to be featured in Good Neighbors? Send your idea to midwestliving@dotdashmdp.com.

02 of 19

Paws and Think

Paws and Think therapy
Courtesy of Paws and Think

When her husband was diagnosed with a serious illness and drew comfort from their family dog, Gayle Hutchens realized the healing power of the human-animal bond. "She then saw Oprah covering a dog assistance program in California and reached out because she wanted to create something similar for Indianapolis," says Ashleigh Coster, executive director of Paws and Think, the nonprofit Hutchens founded in 2001. The organization brings therapy dogs to dozens of community partners and also hosts classes that teach vulnerable youth how to train shelter dogs, a transformative relationship for both teens and animals. Though Hutchens died in 2011, her legacy is now 300 volunteers strong and the largest of its kind in central Indiana. "From health-care facilities and schools to libraries and support groups," Coster says, "our therapy teams extend a helping paw to those in need." Featured in Fall 2023

03 of 19

Styles 4 Kidz

Styles 4 Kidz Staff
Hawa Images

A number of years ago, Tamekia Swint taught hair-braiding on mission trips to Poland, but the University of Illinois grad had never considered doing hair as a career. Then she met a mom who'd transracially adopted two African American girls. "I'd never seen a parent so desperate for help and wanting to learn but not having the training or resources available," Swint says. She founded Styles 4 Kidz in 2010 to provide compassionate hair care and education for parents of kids with textured hair in biracial and transracial adoptive and foster families. A salon in Oak Park, Illinois, offers one-on-one lessons in cornrows, braids and twists, while an online program includes monthly training sessions and product recommendations. "We are focused on empowering parents to be able to learn how to care for their kids' hair," Swint says. "The connection between hair and culture is a big deal." Featured in Summer 2023

04 of 19

Releaf Michigan

smiling people planting trees
Courtesy of Harbor Country News

Let's hear it for trees: They shelter wildlife, purify the air, help with storm runoff, improve mental health, increase property values and even reduce the effects of climate change. But some states are losing canopy more rapidly than others due to urban development, storms, age and invasive insects, says Melinda Jones, executive director of Releaf Michigan. Founded by arborists and foresters, the statewide nonprofit thoughtfully pairs every tree to an ideal location and only plants large specimens with developed root systems to improve the chances of thriving. Since 1988, volunteers have planted more than 32,500 trees in 650 communities. Releaf Michigan also hosts workshops for families and municipalities. "Together they learn the proper way to plant a tree," Jones says. "They can drive by year after year and say, 'Look how our tree is growing. We helped make that happen.'" Featured in Spring 2023

05 of 19

Mother Bear Project

Bear hugs wreath
Courtesy of Mother Bear Project

Amy Berman was raising her two kids in Minneapolis when she read about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. She wanted to help the children affected. "I thought of the bears that my mother had knitted from a World War II-era pattern for my kids, and how much they loved them," she says. Fast-forward 20 years: Berman's nonprofit, Mother Bear Project, has now sent 189,000 bears to sub-Saharan Africa. Crafters can order a pattern for either a knitted or crocheted bear, create and personalize the bear, then return it to Berman to mail abroad. Each bear sports a felt heart and a tag that reads "With love, Mother Bear" and the signature of the maker. (Noncrafters can help by donating toward shipping and other fees.) "I feel like these bears let a child know that someone cares," Berman says, "and that's all I wanted to do. The whole point of this project is to send unconditional love and comfort." Featured in Winter 2022-2023

06 of 19

Latino Center of the Midlands

graduation at latino center
Nate Van Haute

Omaha high schooler Andrew Genchi-Bello was struggling with his grades when he found Latino Center of the Midlands. The community center's Pathways to Success program not only helped him graduate, but introduced him to gardening and volunteering—distributing food from its urban agriculture program and learning how food insecurity impacts community health. He represents one of thousands of people Latino Center has helped since 1971. Diverse programming includes workforce education courses (such as ESL and computer classes), after-school kids' activities, and wellness opportunities like Zumba classes and cooking demos. The Latino Center also works to elevate its neighborhood of South Omaha. "It can have a stigma at times," says Nate Van Haute, marketing and communications manager. "When people come to see it, they're in shock about how vibrant and familial it is." Featured in Fall 2022

07 of 19

Humble Design

treger strasberg homeowner kitchen humble design
Courtesy of Humble Design

Couches on the front lawn. Cribs in the driveway. When Treger Strasberg asked her Michigan neighbors to donate furniture for an acquaintance transitioning out of homelessness, she found herself with a surplus. So her one-time act of kindness became a new endeavor: With friend Ana Smith, Strasberg founded Humble Design; her husband, Rob, joined the team, too). The nonprofit, which has chapters in five states, collects preloved furniture, home goods and decor, which interior designers curate to fully furnish the new homes of families moving out of shelters. "A bed is not a bed," Strasberg says. "A bed is a place to dream and feel safe. It's not just furniture. It's love. It's pride. It's dignity." Featured in Summer 2022

08 of 19

Freedom a la Cart Cafe and Bakery

Freedom a la Cart Cafe and Bakery team
Courtesy of Devin Trout

You can't go wrong with pretty pastries, Instagrammable coffee cups and white-painted brick walls. But just like a fresh-baked chocolate croissant, it's what's inside Freedom a la Cart Cafe and Bakery that counts. Started in 2008 as a catering food cart, the Columbus, Ohio, nonprofit provides workforce training and support for local survivors of sex trafficking. Funds raised from selling breakfast sandwiches and yogurt bowls help support a two-year program of mentorship, tutoring, case management and more. The organization's new brick-and-mortar cafe has a deliberately soothing vibe. "It's scary to go into a new place, and some [survivors] haven't had jobs in five or 10 years, so it can be overwhelming," says Laurie Sargent, executive chef, who estimates they've helped more than 110 women so far. To learn more, tune into Voices of Freedom, the organization's podcast. Featured in March/April 2022

09 of 19

Love for our Elders

Jacob Cramer Love for our Elders letter Love from Scotland
Courtesy of Love for Our Elders

Even at age 13, Jacob Cramer recognized the power of kindness. After his grandfather died, the Cleveland teen began writing letters to older adults—a gesture that evolved into Love For Our Elders. Since launching the nonprofit in 2013, Cramer has facilitated more than a quarter-million letters, penned by some 60,000 individuals. And he's also established a holiday, National Letter to an Elder Day, on February 26. "It's really remarkable how willing and excited others are to help fight elder neglect and loneliness," says Cramer, now a college senior. His model is unique because it's personal. Rather than inviting generic greeting cards, his website highlights a few seniors (nominated by family or caretakers) each month with mini bios, so you know who you're writing to—their interests, their challenges, their name. The nominator receives and delivers the mail. This year, Cramer plans to publish a picture book and expand Love For Our Elders' local chapter program, but one-to-one letters remain at the heart ofhis mission: "A small gesture can have a big impact." Featured in January/February 2022

10 of 19

Revolution Workshop

revolution workshop
Jaime Kelter Davis

Scott Simpson, a skilled trades employer in Chicago, cofounded Revolution Workshop with a simple mindset: A hammer and nails can't solve every problem, but those basic tools can do a world of good. The nonprofit aims to reduce inequity by providing construction job training to people in marginalized communities, which in turn helps grow and diversify the city's pool of qualified workers. Since 2018, 185 people have completed the program, with 90 percent of graduates securing jobs locally. "Individuals who come to our training are from underserved, underinvested and disenfranchised communities that have truly been left behind," says Manny Rodriguez, executive director. "We provide these individuals with skills they'll have for a lifetime." Featured in November/December 2021

11 of 19

Vega Productions

Young girl playing keyboard
Thea Volk/Hello Buffalo

Frustrated by funding cuts to arts program in Minnesota schools, a group of aspiring teachers, artists and musicians started the nonprofit Vega Productions in 2007, with a mission to increase access to quality music education. For years, the founders raised funds and collected instruments for kids around the state. In 2015, they launched Instruments in the Cloud, a website that helps people all over the U.S. find homes for neglected musical instruments gathering dust in attics and closets. Donors can search a list of 400 music programs around the country, filter needs by instrument and be guided through the process. In 2021, Instruments in the Cloud planned to facilitate at least 1,000 donations. "These are programs where student enthusiasm eclipses resources available," Executive Director Caitlin Marlotte says, "and I love that we're working to make it easy for people to support students, education and the arts in their community." Featured in September/October 2021

12 of 19

Bur Oak Land Trust


In Johnson County, Iowa, in the late '70s, a parcel of land that could have been conserved was sold to developers—and a group of community members decided, "Never again." Their vision to preserve pockets of nature became Bur Oak Land Trust, a nonprofit that protects nearly 900 acres across 28 properties (12 of which they own), largely around Iowa City and all open to the public. Efforts like prescribed fires and invasive plant removal enhance habitats for native species, such as threatened ornate box turtles. In 2021 the trust planned to plant 800 pawpaw trees (they bear North America's largest edible indigenous fruit) to help save the zebra swallowtail butterfly, which feeds upon the leaves. "Over the past 150 years, the land in Iowa has been altered so significantly that it can no longer support the thousands of species that once called it home," says executive director Jason Taylor. "The best way to fix this is by protecting the precious few acres that have not been destroyed." Featured in July/August 2021

13 of 19

A Long Swim

Doug McConnell
A Long Swim

Doug McConnell lost his dad to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal progressive neurodegenerative disease, in 2006. A few months later, his sister Ellen received the same diagnosis. "The feeling of powerlessness after hearing someone you love has been diagnosed with a disease for which there is no cure is just overwhelming," says McConnell, an investment banker and hobby marathon swimmer. Motivated to take action, the siblings launched A Long Swim in 2011 to raise money for research. They started with McConnell's own swims, including one across the English Channel, then added Chicago-area group events. Ellen passed in 2018, but her legacy remains: A Long Swim has raised more than $1 million. "Our goal is to raise money until we meet an ALS survivor," McConnell says. "We're not going to stop swimming until we do." Featured in May/June 2021

14 of 19

The Sewing Machine Project

Margaret Jankowski
Margaret Jankowski of The Sewing Machine Project. Claire Ogunsola/Clear & Quiet

In 2005, Margaret Jankowski read about a Southeast Asian village devastated by a tsunami, and a woman there who'd lost the sewing machine she used as a means for supporting her family. Inspired, Jankowski wondered how she could get machines gathering dust in closets to those who could really use them. In the years since, her nonprofit, The Sewing Machine Project, has donated more than 3,200 machines locally and internationally. She also hosts sewing classes and free mending drop-ins for those in need in the Madison, Wisconsin, area. "It's a vehicle for creating and repairing. It is a means to earning an income," she says. "A sewing machine can literally change a life." Featured in March/April 2021

15 of 19


ArtMix Indianapolis
Courtesy of ArtMix

Indianapolis nonprofit ArtMix seeks to fill a gap in artistic outlets and resources for students with disabilities. It's run by Britt Sutton, and programming includes classes, exhibits and artist-in-residence opportunities. Through its Urban Artisans vocational program, students ages 15-22 spend several hours weekly creating pottery and ceramic pieces for sale online and in the ArtMix Gallery. Sutton herself has epilepsy and says, "Working together with someone who experiences life differently than you to create a collaborative piece of art is truly life changing." Featured in January/February 2021

16 of 19

Veterans Community Project

Veterans Community Project, Kansas City
Veterans Community Project. Courtesy of Veterans Community Project

Since 2015, Veterans Community Project in Kansas City, Missouri, has supported more than 4,000 veterans. The nonprofit offers emergency assistance and other services at its Veterans Outreach Center, plus transitional housing for homeless vets, many suffering from PTSD. The 240-square-foot homes include bed, bath, kitchen and Wi-Fi—plus stability, security, privacy and a sense of pride. A second village will open next summer outside Denver; the organization is aiming for five more by 2022. "With each expansion," says Jason Kander, president of national expansion, "a new group of American veterans is mobilized to once again contribute to the community it calls home." Featured in November/December 2020

17 of 19


DreamBikes. Courtesy of DreamBikes

DreamBikes may look like an average bike store, but the work happening inside goes beyond repairing two-wheel rides, This Wisconsin-based nonprofit (with Midwest shops in Madison and Milwaukee) provides on-the-job training for underprivileged teens, teaching them how to refurbish and resell gently used bicycles Since its inception in 2008, DreamBikes has returned more than 10,000 bikes to the community—and kicked up a little you-can-do-anything magic dust in the process. "The struggles of a pandemic and social injustice in the world support our realization that our drive to educate and empower is more important than ever," said Matthew Martinez, branch manager. Featured in September/October 2020

18 of 19

Living Lands and Waters

Living Lands and Waters
Courtesy of Living Lands and Waters

The crew behind Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit environmental organization based in East Moline, Illinois, spends most of the year living and traveling on a barge, hosting conservation efforts like river cleanups, workshops and tree plantings, Since its inception in 1998 by founder Chat Pregracke, and with the help of more than 108,000 volunteers, the group has removed 10.7 million pounds of trash from our nation's rivers. Living Lands and Waters also supports the MillionTrees Project to plant trees along waterways to increase biodiversity, reduce erosion, and improve air and water quality. Featured in July/August 2020

19 of 19

Little Free Garden

Little Free Garden
Little Free Garden. Courtesy of Little Free Garden/Drew McGill

In 2015, three friends from Fargo, North Dakota, launched Little Free Garden. The goal: Build community and increase access to fresh food. Participants plant veggies and herbs in front yards or outside schools, churches or libraries with a sign encouraging people to help themselves. (Get one with a $25 starter kit.) "As the project grows, we believe it represents a positive sign for the progress of humanity," says cofounder Gia Rassier. Featured in May/June 2020

Would you like to nominate a local nonprofit to be featured in Good Neighbors? Send your idea to midwestliving@dotdashmdp.com.

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