50 Creative Ways to Make a Difference
Here’s how to play, donate, eat, volunteer, shop and engage while you make a Midwest difference.
1 Indy Reads, Indianapolis Buy new and gently used books to fund literacy, English language and digital literacy programs.
2 Narrative Furniture, St. Louis This workshop trains refugees to craft cutting boards and custom tables, some of salvaged wood.
3 Circus Harmony, St. Louis Since organizing a Jewish-Muslim circus in 2001, this nonprofit has used circus arts to teach peace and connect kids across cultural and socioeconomic lines. Catch a performance at City Museum.
4 Love Your Melon, Minneapolis This trendy beanie maker donates half its profits to fight pediatric cancer, create therapeutic experiences, and fund programming for children and families battling cancer.
5 Hippy Feet, Minneapolis Eco-friendly, colorful socks provide work for homeless youth. Plus, buy a pair, and another goes to a person in need.
6 Lur Apparel, Cincinnati Comfy tunics, leggings and tees made of recycled cotton and plastic bottles support fair wages, vocational training and microloans for Guatemalan women.
7 Elevate, Kearney, Nebraska With a focus on training and peer-to-peer leadership mentoring, Elevate helps foster small businesses in developing countries. Their leather bags and wallets are simply gorgeous.
8 Rebel Nell, Detroit Colorful jewelry made from fallen patches of urban graffiti fuels job opportunities and financial literacy education for women in need.
9 Sweet Beginnings, Chicago Formerly incarcerated men and women harvest honey from urban hives that's sold for eating and also goes into Beelove brand lotions, gels and balms.
10 Pacha Soap, Hastings, Nebraska Beautiful handcrafted soaps fund clean water access, healthy hygiene initiatives and small-business opportunities worldwide. Bonus: Find Pacha easily at Whole Foods Markets.
11 Best Boy, Indianapolis All profits from Best Boy's zesty mustard, Carolina-style barbecue sauce and gooey ginger caramel fuel a grant program for qualifying child- and family-related charities.
12 Code 3 Spices, Collinsville, Illinois This company's savory spice blends support veterans, crisis prevention hotlines and The BackStoppers, an organization that assists families who have lost a police officer, firefighter or EMT in the line of duty.
13 JonnyPops, Minneapolis A portion of proceeds from these crazy-good frozen pops supports local addiction recovery programs. Look for them at Target, Hy-Vee and other stores.
14 Wild Ophelia, Chicago A division of chic (and woman-owned) chocolate brand Vosges, Wild Ophelia provides grants for high school- and college-age female food entrepreneurs. Buy their giftable bars online or at some Starbucks and Whole Foods Markets.
15 No More Empty Cups, Omaha This nonprofit coffeehouse is a branch of No More Empty Pots, which distributes community food baskets with fresh produce, sets up training and internships in the food industry, and encourages start-ups with a commercial kitchen.
16 South Side Roots Cafe, Market and Kitchen, Columbus, Ohio Mid-Ohio Foodbank makes noodle bowls, salads and flatbreads for pay-what-you-can weekday lunches. The market offers produce, and the cafe hosts Tuesday night community meals.
17 Public Greens, Indianapolis A sister biz to Indy's beloved Patachou restaurants, the soon-to-be-three Public Greens cafes benefit The Patachou Foundation, serving healthy meals to kids and teaching them to cook with fresh ingredients.
18 Tricklebee Cafe, Milwaukee Chefs prepare pay-what-you-can, locally sourced soups, sandwiches and baked goods for lunch Wednesday through Saturday with family-style Agape Meals on Thursday nights.
19 Two Cafe and Boutique, Cleveland Inspired by her son with Down syndrome, a mom started a cafe and foundation to provide rides, tutoring and job placement for those with developmental "exceptionalities."
20 Fork Real Community Cafe, Rapid City, South Dakota This nonprofit, farm-to-table, pay-what-you-can weekday cafe has a changing menu of tempting fare like Scotch eggs and chocolate-jalapeño cheesecake.
21 No Label at the Table, Carmel, Indiana People on the autism spectrum bake and sell gluten-free, dairy-free goodies, such as cupcakes, brownies and snickerdoodle cookies. Mail order is available.
22 Bridge Bread, St. Louis By offering a hand up and hiring people "as they are," this bakery fills the often insurmountable gap between homelessness and full-time employment. Sign up to bring food for a lunch with the bakers.
23 Detroit Water Ice, Detroit All profits from Italian water ices and gourmet popcorn fund health care, housing and youth programs in needy neighborhoods.
24 Annie's House, Bottineau, North Dakota Volunteers and donations help run a year-round adaptive facility that lets kids and adults with sensory, physical and learning challenges experience skiing, hiking or tubing.
25 Lindy and Company, Dayton, Ohio When you order Lindy's homemade dog biscuits, you provide employment to homeless teens, thanks to a partnership with local nonprofit Daybreak.
26 Finnegans Brew Company, Minneapolis Dedicated to solving hunger through "barstool philanthropy," this brewery donates all profits to food pantries. Beers are sold in stores in five upper Midwest states, and also at Finnegans' new taproom.
27 Door Peninsula Winery, Carlsville, Wisconsin A dollar from every bottle of Montmorency c28 herry Sweet Survivor wine goes to Door Cancer, a charity helping local families affected by cancer and struggling financially.
28 Metazoa Brewing Company, Indianapolis In addition to having a pet-friendly taproom and dog park, this animal-loving spot dedicates 5 percent of profits to organizations that help pets and wildlife. Also fun: Look for occasional chances to do yoga in a room with adoptable bunnies.
29 BLK + Bold, Des Moines Five percent of profits from this mail-order coffee and tea biz help socioeconomically disadvantaged youth go to college, give back to their communities and succeed in careers.
30 Carabello Coffee, Newport, Kentucky This brick-and-mortar shop and mail-order roaster purchases beans directly from farmers at fair prices and supports an orphanage in Nicaragua.
31 Tiny Footprint Coffee, Minneapolis Thanks to eco-friendly practices and donations to reforestation in Ecuador, these top-quality, organic beans are essentially carbon-negative.
32 Puppy Jake Foundation, Des Moines Foster families and volunteer dog sitters help care for and train puppies until they are ready for a life supporting a wounded veteran.
33 Leonetti Confetti, Minneapolis This start-up employs women in drug and alcohol rehab in the spiritlifting task of making colorful confetti. Besides providing cash, the work combats the loneliness of recovery. Sold online, the confetti is perfect for birthdays or weddings.
34 Table To Table, Iowa City, Iowa Each week, volunteers collect thousands of pounds of unused, overstocked or soon-to-expire produce, meat, dairy and baked goods from grocery stores and restaurants for food pantries.
35 Kids' Food Basket, Grand Rapids, Michigan Volunteers pack sack suppers that 8,000 West Michigan kids can pick up each weeknight at school to take home for the nutrition they need.
36 The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, Des Moines Volunteers ride around (or, in bitter temps, drive) every Thursday night to hand out 700 burritos and 350 sandwiches to those in need, along with extras like bug spray or hats and gloves.
37 Food Outreach, St. Louis Volunteers help cook healthy meals and pack groceries that are delivered to low-income residents battling HIV or cancer.
38 Project Linus, Belton, Missouri Chapters of "Blanketeers" across the country knit, crochet, quilt or tie together fleece blankets to comfort ill children and kids in crisis.
39 Giving Rocks, Wilmette, Illinois Originally made by a 10-year-old patient, Lake Michigan beach rock necklaces fund research for Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare disorder that primarily affects kids.
40 We Stories, St. Louis This 12-week program for families with young kids was founded in the wake of Ferguson and uses books to spark conversations on race, encourage advocacy and work to end racial disparity.
41 Appolition, Chicago Seeking to counterbalance the social and racial inequities of the justice system, this app rounds up debit card purchases to help people charged with misdemeanors pay bail and get back to their jobs and families while they await trial.
42 Alternatives for Girls, Detroit After-school programs, mentoring and an emergency shelter help high-risk girls and young women avoid violence, exploitation, pregnancy, truancy and addiction. Funds support programs such as summer camps, support groups, college tours and job shadowing.
43 Rise Up for Youth, Wichita Founded by a husband and wife who overcame cocaine addiction, this program targets boys and girls who are at risk for gang involvement or other poor choices with in-school mentoring, workshops and team-building activities.
44 BWorks, St. Louis A trio of programs combines experiential learning with rewards: Bicycle Works (fix bikes and take one home); Book Works (write stories and create a book); and Byte Works (learn about tech and Internet safety and earn a computer).
45 Faith's Lodge, Danbury, Wisconsin Families grieving the loss of a child or facing medically complex challenges can gather in the North Woods. The lodge provides a change of scenery and safe space for sharing experiences or simply being around people who "get it."
46 Center on Halsted, Chicago The Midwest's largest LGBTQ community center offers HIV testing, therapy, resources for affordable housing and a wealth of programs.
47 Southern Heights Food Forest, Lincoln, Nebraska Fifty community gardens and varied events encourage families to connect with nature and grow their own veggies in this innovative outdoor classroom.
48 Concordance Academy of Leadership, St. Louis Concordance provides job training and placement and other services to reduce recidivism and successfully reintegrate newly released prisoners with families and communities.
49 Our Helpers, Columbus, Ohio Language classes, interpreters and job coaching help new immigrants settle into life in the United States.
50 The Empowerment Plan, Detroit This nonprofit gives single parents from local shelters a job and a path to housing and a secure future. The seamstresses sew innovative coats that can convert to tote bags or sleeping bags, which are donated to homeless people around the world.
To search for volunteer opportunities at similar nonprofits in your own community, check out websites like volunteermatch.org, unitedway.org or idealist.org. You can also tap your social network to support a cause that interests you by hosting a birthday fundraiser on Facebook: It takes only minutes to set up, and friends can chip in as little as $1 with just a few clicks.