These Award Winners Started Nonprofits With Purpose—After Turning 50

From a Washington Post story by Tara Bahrampour headlined “These award winners started nonprofits with purpose—after turning 50”:

Twelve years ago, D.C. native Imani Woody pulled her father out of a nursing home and brought him home after realizing the facility was understaffed and that he was declining. The experience sparked a mission.

“It just kind of jolted me awake,” said Woody, 70, who is a lesbian. “He has enough pennies, he has advocates, he has me and my wife, he has his wife — and he’s cisgender,” she said. “So I was thinking, what would an openly gay man do, or if this person was a trans person or a lesbian?” LGBTQ seniors often have fewer resources and less family support than cisgender people, she said, adding that they often return to the closet to avoid discrimination in senior facilities.

To serve them, Woody started Mary’s House for Older Adults, a nonprofit that creates welcoming environments for LGBTQ seniors, and she plans to build a residential facility on the site of Woody’s childhood home.

Woody is one of five recipients of AARP’s 2023 Purpose Prize, which recognizes people 50 and older who use their life experience to found a nonprofit with social impact. The winners will be honored at a ceremony in the District on Tuesday night.

The others are Zerqa Abid, founder of MY Project USA, which creates leadership opportunities for youth in Columbus; Jamesetta Ferguson, who founded Molo Village CDC, which helps residents of a distressed neighborhood in Louisville; Sharron Rush of Austin, who founded Knowbility, an organization creating an inclusive digital world for people with disabilities; and Bill Toone of Escondido, Calif., founder of Ecolife Conservation, whose mission is to protect wildlife, natural resources and people who depend on them.

The annual award was started in 2005 by CoGenerate (formerly, a nonprofit that works to bridge generational divides; it was transferred to AARP in 2016. Winners receive $50,000 for their organization, along with help in areas such as data and evaluation, leadership succession, and media.

“It just demonstrates and shows a new picture of aging,” said Barb Quaintance, AARP’s vice president of enterprise awards. “Sometimes aging is portrayed as loss, or retirement.”

She added that the Purpose Prize underscores a “can-do” element of aging that is often overlooked. “They saw a social problem and they went after it,” Quaintance said, “and they (drew from) a lifetime of skills to make a difference.”

On Tuesday night, AARP also will announce which of the five will receive its Inspire Award, which is voted on by the public and grants the winner an additional $10,000 for the organization.

Toone, 67, a native Southern Californian, worked at the San Diego Zoo and helped with the California condor recovery program. But over the years, he came to realize that protecting animals was intricately connected with helping human beings. One way to do both was to improve the way Indigenous people cook and farm.

Chopping down trees to build open fires is not only a leading cause of deforestation and species extinction, but it is bad for people’s health, he said.

“Indoor cooking smoke, according to the World Health Organization, is the largest killer of human beings in the world,” he said. His nonprofit, Ecolife Conservation, has given 11,500 free, highly efficient stoves to Indigenous people living near a monarch butterfly reserve in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It has a similar program near a mountain gorilla habitat in Uganda and plans to expand to other African countries that surround the gorilla’s home. The group also advocates for aquaponics, a low-impact agricultural approach that uses 90 percent less water and land than conventional methods.

“It’s a win-win, because we can take smoke out of people’s homes, improve their health and help the environment,” Toone said.

​Ferguson, 67, was a pastor in 2011 when she founded Molo Village CDC in Russell, a distressed neighborhood in West Louisville. The once-robust African American community had declined after World War II, decimated by redlining and urban renewal. Molo, which means “welcome home” in Xhosa, a South African language, last year opened a 30,000-square-foot, mixed-use facility in Russell that includes a community bank, a sit-down restaurant, an Early Head Start program, and an incubator for minority-owned businesses. A second site includes substance abuse groups, elementary school programs and a food pantry, and the organization works with recently incarcerated citizens reentering the community.

In 2013, Abid, now 53, heard about local Muslim girls who had run away from parental abuse and were trafficked. A Muslim American immigrant, Abid decided to start an organization to support refugee and immigrant youth and families who live in underprivileged, crime-ridden neighborhoods. MY Project USA has served more than 170,000 people, distributed more than 4 million meals and snacks, and donated 50,000 clothing and household items. ​It also helps youth avoid gangs, drugs, violence and trafficking through a program that combines a soccer club, English classes, mentorship and community service, and youth leadership opportunities.

Sharron Rush, 72, co-founded Knowbility in 1999 to help bridge the digital accessibility gap for the billion people in the world who live with an auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech or visual disability. She said this mission became all the more crucial during the pandemic when so many relied on remote communication.

Woody’s organization seeks to combat the problems many people face as they age, especially in large apartment complexes where they can feel invisible. The group runs a “virtual village” where seniors receive weekly check-in calls, and it expects to open a brick-and-mortar facility in the fall of 2023 in the District’s Fort Dupont neighborhood, with 15 single-room occupancy units and a rooftop garden, gym, computer room, meeting room and hydrotherapy tub.

“In Mary’s House, somebody’s going to look in your eyes and knock on your door,” Woody said. “It’s just like building family, communal life. … Just come, bring your whole self, and not have to hide who you are.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging, generations and demography. She has also covered immigration and education and has reported from the Middle East and North Africa, and from the republic of Georgia.

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