November 03, 2011

Five Older Americans Honored for Building Charities That Solve Social Problems

Civic Ventures

Jenny Bowen, 66, at left, started Half the Sky to change the way China cares for its orphans.

Five people who set out to solve big problems in the United States and abroad have been named the winners of the sixth annual Purpose Prize, which recognizes  people older than 60.

One winner works to improve the care of Chinese orphans. Another introduces safe cooking techniques in developing counties. And another is spurring the growth of new businesses and jobs in Detroit.

The prizes are given by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco group that urges older Americans to undertake work that benefits the common good. The $100,000 per-person prizes are paid by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation.

The winners (selected from more than 1,000 nominations) are free to do what they want with the prize money, but they all said they plan to give the money to their organizations, according to Alexandra Kent, director of the Purpose Prize.

Ms. Kent says the prizes, first awarded in 2006, have already achieved one goal: calling attention to the contributions older people make to society. In October, President Obama awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal to 13 people, she says, three of whom were former Purpose Prize winners.

“We feel like we are influencing other thought leaders, organizations, and investors to look at older individuals, recognize them, and feel they have more to offer,” Ms. Kent says.

This year’s winners are:

Jenny Bowen, 66, Half the Sky, Berkeley, Calif.

In 1996, Ms. Bowen and her husband adopted a 20-month-old girl from China who couldn’t walk or talk but grew into a healthy child. Two years later, Ms. Bowen started Half the Sky to change the way China cares for its orphans. Since then, the charity has grown to operate programs in 51 Chinese cities, improving conditions for more than 60,000 children. In the next five years, the organization will help train 110,000 child-care workers and watch as the Chinese government invests $300-million in building 300 model orphanages. Ms. Bowen will ask donors to match the prize money and pay for a national effort in China to train workers who care for orphans.

Randal Charlton, 71, TechTown, Detroit

Mr. Charlton’s background as an entrepreneur, journalist, jazz-club owner, and consultant for an international bank led him to seek a way to help his city rebound from years of economic hard times. He became director of TechTown, a business incubator started in 2004 by Wayne State University, which supports 250 companies. The organization has helped clients raise $14-million to invest in their companies. Mr. Charlton also started a program called Boom! The New Economy, a program that offers training, mentors, and internships to people over age 50 who want to pursue second careers or other new activities. He says he will use the prize money to help baby boomers who want to start businesses or get internships in Detroit.

Nancy Hughes, 68, StoveTeam International, Eugene, Ore.

Ms. Hughes sought out a solution to a problem she saw as preventable—injuries to women and children in developing countries from cooking over open fires, a practice that causes more than 2 million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. She first saw the problem when she volunteered as a cook on a medical mission in Guatemala and watched people come for medical care with such injuries. Since 2008, Ms. Hughes’s organization has established factories that produce safe, smokeless stoves that require only a few pieces of kindling to cook a meal. The Ecocina stove is now being produced in factories in Mexico, Kenya, Fiji, and Ghana, and the organization has requests from many other countries to open manufacturing plants. Rotary International, which helps StoveTeam do its work, will probably match the prize money.

Wanjiru Kamau, 69, African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, Washington

Ms. Kamau met asylum seekers fleeing the Rwandan genocide as an adjunct professor at Pennsylvania State University and saw that they were having a difficult time adjusting to life in the United States. She was reminded of rural Kenya, where she grew up with no running water or electricity, and wanted to do something to help other African immigrants. In 2000, she quit her job and started the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, in Washington, with $10,000 taken from her retirement account. The charity provides mentors and tutors to students, helps victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, and serves mental-health clients in 27 languages. The group conducts African cultural training for school counselors and others who want to gain insights about people in their communities. She says her prize money will help expand her charity’s programs and start a new effort to produce reliable income to finance its work.

Edward Mazria, 70, Architecture 2030, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mr. Mazria was a successful architect with a long record of pushing environmentally friendly building projects, but after he analyzed government data in 2002, he realized that the construction industry causes about half of all greenhouse-gas emissions. He set out to change that by founding Architecture 2030. The organization set a challenge to builders to reduce energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions to “carbon neutral” by 2030. The American Institute of Architects, U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. Green Building Council, and National Governors Association adopted this goal, and a federal law was enacted to ensure that federal buildings would meet the standards starting in 2010. Mr. Mazria plans to use the prize money to hire new staff members and consultants to work on special projects at the organization.

Videos were produced and provided by Civic Ventures.