Kristen Kaplan, 29 

click to enlarge hands_on.jpg

Associate Director, Connect Richmond/
Hands On Greater Richmond

Spontaneous combustion or something like it brought one idea to three women at the same time. They've run with it, though Kristen Kaplan, Elaine Summerfield and Vanessa Diamond (pictured left to right) are astonished at how white-hot the idea has become from something so straightforward: They connect volunteers with projects. By extension, they stir up civic engagement to help people better understand where the needs lie and the solutions come.

Their brainchild, Hands On Greater Richmond (first known as Activate Richmond), came together during after-work hours and a series of major moments -- weddings, children, three master's of public administration degrees and three full-time careers in the helping fields. These women were busy, and they understood the constraints that stop some people from volunteering: It's hard to schedule; it's daunting; it might require a commitment.

So they became matchmakers by building a network of like-minded people, and their impact on the city is getting noticed.

In 18 months, the network has grown from a 10-person Yahoo group to an army of 600 who work as teams for dozens of area nonprofits. "If given the opportunity and the avenue," Kaplan says, "we can give you that entry point and see it become something we never could have imagined."

They also appeal to a broad range of interests, Summerfield says: "We help nonprofits leverage their resources, like the food bank, elder homes, Habitat, Firehouse Theatre, B.A.R.K., the James River Park System — and lots of others, using whatever talents people bring."

Everything happens through the Web site, where calendars are posted, last-minute opportunities scroll in, and recruiting methods are efficient, focused and sprinkled with quotes from Gandhi and Thoreau. Some teams become social groups, but the vision is larger, Diamond says: "It's not just lofty goals; it's really about what sparks us to feel responsible, to volunteer with the intention of making an impact. We want to help people figure out how to do something positive."

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