Funding Awesome

“I just felt like people deserve a place to sit and have cover from the weather conditions while they’re waiting for public transportation,” she says. “I think a shelter is needed for every bus stop, and I was hoping if I built my own that other people would see how impactful it is to their neighborhoods and communities.”
-Ava Davis


The local chapter of an international philanthropy gives away $1,000 a month to help people help others. 

Written by Rosalind Fournier // Photography by Beau Gustafson

Max Rykov remembers that when he and Dr. Dionne Mahaffey teamed up to start a local chapter of The Awesome Foundation—an international organization that grants money, no strings attached, to people or groups with ideas to improve the community—there were a few skeptics. “It seemed too good to be true,” Rykov says. “Some people didn’t think it was a real thing, but it is.”

There are more than 80 chapters of The Awesome Foundation around the world—including many in the U.S. but also chapters in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the U.K., and one in Moscow. Each chapter is self-funded through its members, known as trustees, who together award monthly grants of $1,000 to support projects designed to help the community in small but impactful ways.

“The idea is to come up with a project that benefits your community in some way,” says Rykov, who launched The Awesome Foundation with Mahaffee in early 2107. “It can be anything from a community garden to a hip-hop show that raises awareness about social justice issues.”

Anyone can submit an idea through the chapter website, and traditionally the trustees have voted on the applications without outside input. But this spring the group decided to shake up the selection process by hosting a monthly event, open to the public, called “The Grand Idea.” In this new format, five finalists give a live presentation, trustees follow up with questions, and then everyone there has a chance to vote on the winning idea.

“I think this will grow the Awesome Foundation community, allow people to network, and even if your project doesn’t win, you’ve gotten exposure for it and can meet people with resources and connections who might want to help. You might also get feedback that can help you craft your vision a little better.” The first Grand Idea party was held in March.

“I think everyone has a great idea of how they can improve their community,” Rykov says. “While $1,000 is not a lot, it can be seed money to get something going. And it can make a lot of impact.”

The foundation has made grants to help grassroots initiatives get brand-new ideas off the ground as well as contributions to larger organizations pursuing new projects. Ruffner Mountain—the privately held 501(c)(3) urban nature preserve in East Lake—received a grant to attract new visitors by hosting a “night festival,” an art- and music-based celebration of nocturnal wildlife. Then there are the many unknown groups or individuals who have won grants to achieve small but potentially significant dreams. Meet a Girl Scout who built a shelter for people waiting to catch the bus; a man helping people whose jobs face potential elimination in a changing economy; and a cosmetologist looking to bring hope and confidence to people going through tough times.

The Bus Shelter

Every day, Ava Davis, a senior at Indian Springs School, used to pass people waiting for the bus on her way driving to school. If the weather was bad, it bothered her that they had neither a cover to protect them from the elements nor a bench to sit on while they waited. At the time Davis was exploring ideas for her Girl Scout Gold Award Project, and it hit her: she wanted to build a bus shelter.

“I just felt like people deserve a place to sit and have cover from the weather conditions while they’re waiting for public transportation,” she says. “I think a shelter is needed for every bus stop, and I hoped if I built my own that other people would see how impactful it is to their neighborhoods and communities.” 

With input from the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Association, she chose on a stop in Woodlawn near her home in Avondale and found local architects to help her come up with a viable plan. Then Davis—who says her previous construction experience was so limited, she first had to learn to use a drill—physically built it with additional elbow grease from some of the architects she had consulted for the project.

Davis—who says the project might never have happened without her grant from the Awesome Foundation—has since written a guide for how to replicate the project and plans to distribute it to other Girl Scout troops, neighborhood associations or anyone else who wants to build bus shelters in the community.

Davis remembers returning to the bus stop about a week after the shelter was finished. “I met a mother and her child, and it was really kind of emotional,” she says, “because I built that. And when I go to school, I always pass to see it, and I always feel good to see people sitting there.”

Futureproof Bama

Everywhere he went, it seemed Taylor Phillips was hearing about human jobs that are at risk of being replaced by technology. One day he decided to dig more deeply into the issue—and what he saw worried him. “I started reading article after article about how technology, as a blanket term for robots, analytics, automation and artificial intelligence, was going to start taking people’s jobs within the next 10 years.”

“I started reading article after article about how technology— as a blanket term for robots,analytics, automation and artificial intelligence—was going to start taking people’s jobs within the next 10 years.” -Taylor Phillips

Then Phillips narrowed his research to Alabama. “I pulled numbers off a government website and found that of the top 40 jobs in the state of Alabama, 16 have a 50 percent chance of being completely eliminated. Some of them were all the way up to a 90 percent chance, and there were a couple at 98 percent chance.” He particularly worried about truck drivers, many based in Alabama, who risked losing their jobs to autonomous trucks.

That was near the end of 2016, and 31-year-old Phillips became determined to help prevent what looked like a looming crisis at home. He created Futureproof Bama, a nonprofit dedicated to education and innovation for people at risk in Birmingham as well as outlying rural areas. Not long after, he heard about The Awesome Foundation. “I started reading more about it and figured, ‘Hey, I’ll just give it a shot.’”

Futureproof Bama’s grant was approved in February 2017. Phillips says up until then, he had been paying all the startup nonprofit’s expenses—concentrating in the beginning on building awareness—out of pocket. Now he had money for social-media advertising to ramp up those efforts, and the newfound online presence helped Phillips and others on his staff of volunteers arrange meetings with community leaders to discuss the problem and ways to help workers adjust proactively to changes in their industries. “The Awesome Foundation basically opened all of those doors,” he says.

Phillips says he continues to follow the Awesome Foundation’s work and hopes one day to join the group and help them fund other people’s dreams. “If it keeps going this well,” he adds, “I would love to be one of the trustees eventually.”

Dream Makerz

Hiranda Brock inherited her gift for hairstyling from her mother, who styled hair for friends, neighbors and clients for as long as Brock is able to remember. By the time Brock was in high school, she’d learned enough from her mother to start doing her own friends’ hair and knew she’d found her calling. After graduation, she went on to earn master cosmetologist license, an instructor’s license in cosmetology, and a bachelor’s in business administration.

She worked for a salon for a while but eventually went on her own, traveling to clients’ homes to do their hair. Then it occurred to her. Freed from the traditional salon setting, she could do hair for anyone, anywhere. Why not offer her talents to people living in shelters? Brock, with her best friend and business mentor, Ebone Kimber, and other volunteers began going to Jesse’s Place—a women and children’s shelter of the Jimmie Hale ministries—every other Saturday before expanding their outreach, hosting pop-up shops in public housing communities. When she posted a picture from one of those events on Facebook, a trustee from The Awesome Foundation encouraged her to apply for a grant, and she did.

“I know that I have been blessed with the ability to be the light for them or give them hope.”
-Hiranda Brock

“About a month later, I was scrolling down Facebook and saw, ‘Dream Makerz receives $1,000.’ I just started screaming. You can have an idea, but you don’t really know other people would ever invest in your dream.”

Brock says she stays motivated by seeing the tangible, positive effect that pampering people going through difficult situations can have. “Cosmetologists are like therapists,” she says. “There’s a personal connection. I don’t care who you are—if you are in my chair, you are my best friend. So when we go into these different facilities with people who are in one of the roughest times of their life, I know that I have been blessed with the ability to be the light for them or give them hope. They start telling you, ‘I have a job interview, or ‘I’m getting ready to transition out and be on my own,’ and you celebrate with them. And it’s so crazy, because those women and those children have helped me and spoken life to me more than I have to them. You would be amazed at the wisdom and words of encouragement that they are able to speak.” 

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