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Elfenworks Shines Light on Social Innovators

The Burlingame-based organization honored three individuals making a difference.

Elfenworks Shines Light on Social Innovators

What difference can one small amount of hope and light make? What happens when that one light sparks a new one, and a new one after that? Suddenly those bits of light create a brighter vision. Capitalizing on those instances of light and hope is the basis of the Burlingame-based Elfenworks Foundation, which works towards overcoming issues facing American society.

At their sixth annual In Harmony With Hope Awards last Thursday at Kohl Mansion, the Elfenworks Foundation honored three innovators creating opportunities in education, economic mobility and eliminating hunger.  

“We’ve been coming together like this to shine a light on some outstanding social entrepreneurs…and to remind ourselves of what’s going on that’s right in the world,” said Elfenworks Foundation CEO Lauren Speeth. “Hope it always important, but especially now…Just that little bit of added light, just that little bit of hope changes our perspective.”

When choosing recipients of the award, Speeth and her team turn to seven criteria, handed down to Speeth during a mentoring session with former President Jimmy Carter back when Elfenworks was just getting started. Speeth called the meeting an extraordinary opportunity that came at a time when she looked at the issues facing Americans and tried figuring out how to create solutions.

The seven pillars include following one’s vision, tuning out naysayers, utilizing one’s special skills and having a long-term view.

One such visionary, Rafael Alvarez, who was named to Forbes’s list of the top 30 entrepreneurs in the world, devised a pathway breaking the chain of poverty for underprivileged kids. Beginning with just 10 students in 2002, he started Genesys Works, which trains students in basic professional and technical skills before placing them in part-time positions at Fortune 500 companies during their senior year of high school.

“Being a professional is just not something that’s part of their reality,” said Alvarez of these students. “Success is getting any minimum wage job, and we’re surprised when the [high school] drop-out rate is what it is?”

The students earn more than minimum wage, but the companies are able to pay them less than the average IT worker, creating a win-win situation.

Today, 95 percent of Genesys Works’ corporate partners—in Houston, Chicago and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN—renew their contracts annually for the 600 participating students. Furthermore, 95 percent of the students involved go on to college.

“When they see people around them succeeding…they grow determined to succeed,” said Alvarez. “It is so simple to change the trajectory of life of a young kid.”

Another honoree, Maurice Lim Miller, was recently named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow for his innovation and creativity in solving problems of economic mobility. In 2000, he launched the Family Independence Initiative (FII) in Oakland, CA.

The FII increases the control low-income families have on their lives by placing them in groups with friends and neighbors, encouraging them to share resources and ideas and support each other, ultimately solving their own problems through working together.

“This is about proving that families have the capacity to help themselves and to help each other,” said Miller.

He said placing people in these support groups start changing their expectations. On average, participating families reported savings increased by 240 percent and earnings increased by 23 percent.

“If our society really starts recognizing people’s initiative…that wishfulness to help one another…we can get millions of people [involved], and they can change their own lives,” Miller said.

The third award winner, Gary Oppenheimer, came up with his idea for AmpleHarvest.org when he found he had more food in his garden than he could possibly eat.

Oppenheimer created an online network connecting the more than 40 million home gardeners in America with local food pantries. So far, close to 5,500 pantries have registered and received 21 million pounds of produce. Gardeners simply log on and find the pantry in need nearest to them.

“The gardeners don’t know they could or should donate,” Oppenheimer said. “Problems can often be solved by connecting the dots that already exist.”

Oppenheimer has teamed up with the First Lady’s Let’s Move Campaign, United Way, the AARP and more organizations, helping provide fresh fruits and vegetables to hungry Americans across the country. He encourages others to be innovative and find connections between existing resources in order to solve other problems facing society.

“As kids, we all grow up wanting to be something special,” Oppenheimer said. “The opportunity for you to be a hero is still there, and all it needs is an ample harvest and a heart.”


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