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Americans In Action, Helping Each Other And Making The Whole Country Better

Like a quietly efficient operating system whirring away in the innards of a supercomputer, a vast array of Americans — mostly unseen and unsung — spend hours and hours of every week working together to find ways to make their communities — and the whole country — better.

This is Participation Nation.

In a monthlong blog that ended Aug. 31, NPR collected stories of people actively helping other people, animals and the planet. Here is an executive summary of what we discovered.

Caring Enough To Act

Through steady volunteerism and sheer volition, Participation Nation cares enough to take action — clothing, feeding, housing, protecting, healing other people; planting, restoring, conserving the Earth; rescuing pets; painting murals; teaching skills; sharing art; and finding new and creative ways to bat, bike, quilt, race and skate for a brighter tomorrow.

We participate in times of birth and death. In sickness and in health.

We are altruistic in Alaska and caring in California. We distribute food in Florida and diapers in Missouri. We help blind people ride bikes in California and homeless people find homes in North Carolina.

From the Mountain Care, to the Prairie Kitchen, to the ocean shore, white with Foam Fest — this is some kind of country.

We met gung-ho participants like Kathy Plaisance of Boise, who bakes cakes for the cakeless; Darryl Burnette of New York City, who teaches kids about urban gardening; and Catherine Goldwyn of Los Angeles, who takes music to the streets. We were introduced to cancer camp nurse Tammy Jenkins in Virginia, holistic health care provider Sharon Elliott-Bynum in North Carolina and the late Jamie Lynn Garcia, whose legacy includes a free medical clinic for the needy.

There are recurring themes in Participation Nation. For example, participants:

  • Turn their vocations (and vacations) into avocations. Medical specialists provide health care at no cost; teachers tutor after hours; professional chefs cook for the hungry; artists give of their time and talent.

  • Sense a need and take creative action — providing children's books for incarcerated mothers to give to their kids; using a basketball camp to help young people in other ways; taking along a trash bag when jogging.

  • Lead by example. They often find that others want to join in their efforts to run in a race, save a landmark, commit a planned act of thoughtfulness.

Hundreds Of Stories

Every day, the Americans of Participation Nation prove that Many Hands Make Little Work, All Of Us Are Better Than One Of Us and we must Be The Change. Bumper sticker boosterism, however, doesn't do justice to all of the people who are trying to do justice for all of the people.

During our August exploration, we heard stories from all 50 states and a couple of U.S. territories. We met Sophia Greenwalt, 13, who gets people to wear hats for charity in Reeds Spring, Mo. And Cashion Callaway, 72, who invites everybody in Silver City, Nev., to share a big pot of soup.

We had hundreds of tales come in — so many, in fact, that we ran out of time and resources to publish them all. For all of the stories we featured, there are many more we left out. Like the ones about Natividad Mendoza who works to help people transition from gangs to jobs in Phoenix and Domonique Clark who works to help young women succeed in Baltimore.

Bob Powell in Pennsylvania praised his daughter, Emily, for her community service. Gail Bernacki in Virginia spoke highly of her teenage son, Dakota, who looks after older people in the neighborhood.

In a world where evil abounds and darkness lurks around every turn, good deeds — and the people who do them — are often overlooked. Or even derided.

And no good deed — or good-deeds compendium — goes unpunished. We were criticized by commenters for making one reader "feel dumber than I was before" and for practicing the "shabbiest journalism around."

But mostly, we heard from people all over the country who are grateful that in this rancorous and cantankerous world, some people are working together to make the world a better, safer, greener, greater place to live.

Thank you to all who participated in Participation Nation — the writers and photographers and editors and producers and, especially, the doers. Together we told a big story. Of a big country. With a big heart.

Peggy Ivie, Libbie Johnson, Elaine Sir, Ann Perri, Douglas James, Nancy Allinger, Nettie Greenwalt, Joseph Dewson III, Eric Breitung, Jake Bouma, Michelle Coffey, Melanie Stallings Williams, Deb Beatty Mel, Cathie Buscaglia, and Martie Majoros, Pam Scholtz, Robert Hallett, Nick Vaske, Amy Jobst , Jeanie Croope, Elizabeth Jane Handel, Amie Logan, Heather Brucker, Lynette Whiteman, Sean Kristl, Tess Koppelman, Carly Bilby, Allison Muotka, Bill D'Anza, Midhun M. Joseph, Helen Anderson, Sheilagh Polk, Amanda Hatton, Jason Winn, Brian Chambers, Jon Rubin, Jill Moe, Malala Elston, Caitlin Harvey, Johanna Roebas, Sammie Suchland, Emma Edelman, Jonathan Trivers, Akshara Vivekananthan, Joyce Claflin and Carol Hasbrouck, Meredith Lowe, Robin Bisha, Zachary Heath, Nathan Rott, Melanie Castillo-Cullather, Fran Gunther Minges, Brian Starner, Jessica Hendricks, David Gibb, Adriana Colindres, Christoph Schorl, Howard R. Feldman, Robin Marks, Patricia Sagastume, Nate Goldman, Robert Gelb, Ed Gruben, Afsi Siahkoohi and Lindsey Cross, Kristen Ghodsee, Loris Mann, Erin Stevens, Christopher Barnett, Mark F. Fischer, Elliott Smith, Ned Scott Laff, Danielle Peterson, Teresa Tomassoni, Caroline Lacey, Ted Yemm, Jean Bolduc, David Trujillo, Emilie Ritter Saunders, Tracy Wahl, David Greene, Sam Sanders, Selena Simmons-Duffin, Wright Bryan, Tanya Ballard Brown and Linton Weeks all contributed to this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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