Work & Purpose

Meet the 2017 AARP Purpose Prize Winners

Why they launched their nonprofits and the challenges they face

Survey after survey shows that when people hit their 50s, many look for more purpose in their lives and for ways to serve the greater good. You won’t find better examples of women and men doing that than the five who just received the first AARP Purpose Prizes last night in Chicago. If you’re 50+, they may inspire you to follow in their prized footsteps.

I spoke with three of the Purpose Prize winners whose dedication, persistence and accomplishments are inspiring and have highlights of our conversations below. (The other two were equally impressive.)

AARP inherited The Purpose Prize awards from Encore.org, which began bestowing them in 2005. This year, AARP received over 700 nominations for people 50+ in encore careers who are creating ways to solve tough social problems. Each winner gets $50,000 and can use the money in any way he or she likes. AARP also anointed 10 AARP Purpose Prize Awards Fellows — essentially runners-up — and plans to offer all the honorees technical assistance to help them grow their organizations.

“We could have made the decision to limit applications to people working on the typical AARP issues, like health and financial security for older people,” said Barb Quaintance, AARP vice president of enterprise award strategy. “But we quickly decided not to do that. We wanted to recognize people who are doing good in the world in a variety of ways.”

The five winners:

  • Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO of Days for Girls, in Mount Vernon, Wash., which provides washable feminine hygiene solutions, health education and assistance with enterprises to girls and women in more than 110 nations around the world
  • Reid Cox, co-founder and CFO of iFoster, in Truckee, Calif., an online community helping families navigate the challenges of foster care
  • Cynthia Barnett, founder and CEO of Amazing Girls Science, in Norwalk, Conn., which inspires young girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math, aka STEM
  • James Farrin, executive director of The Petey Greene Program, in Princeton, N.J., which has students from 30 colleges tutoring prison inmates in 34 facilities studying for the GED
  • Mike Weaver, founder of Weaver & Concerned Citizens of Aiken/Atlanta Now (WeCCAAN), of Atlanta, which brings teens and adults together for service-learning trips to communities in need; Weaver also won AARP’s 2017 Andrus Award for Intergenerational Excellence.

Interestingly, all five lead organizations that especially help young people, though a couple also serve others. Similarly, Encore.org is now running a Generation to Generation initiative so more people 50 and older will mentor and assist needy children.

Here’s what three of the AARP Purpose Prize winners (Mergens, Cox and Barnett) told me about why they launched their organizations, their biggest challenges and what they plan to do with the $50,000 prize money:

Celeste Mergens, Days for Girls

Why she started Days for Girls: “I was volunteering with an orphanage in Kenya and learned the girls had no access to feminine hygiene. Some of them were sitting in their rooms for days and missing school because of this. When I brought solutions to them [washable disposable products], they said: ‘Thanks so much. Now we can go to school.’ That was the moment Days for Girls was born.”

Her biggest challenges: “Getting people to believe that this was even an issue was our biggest challenge at first. People could not imagine it could be true. Today, our biggest challenge is our audacious goal: helping all girls around the world. We’ve created an enterprise option, which lets women sell our Days for Girls kits and get paid so their families can go to school. Doing that in a scalable way has been a challenge we are tackling and wrestling with.”

What she plans to do with the $50,000 Purpose Prize money: “I’m excited to fund more Days for Girls microenterprises.”

Credit: aarp.org
Reid Cox, co-founder, iFoster

Reid Cox, iFoster

Why he and his wife, Serita, started iFoster: “My wife was raised in the foster care system. When we were in our for-profit careers [he was a tech industry strategist; she was a management and philanthropic strategy consultant] we always talked about what we would do for child welfare. It wasn’t a matter of would we, but what it would be. We kicked a lot of things around. I was helping take LinkedIn public and learning from brilliant people creating an online community, figuring out the new world of social media. At the same time, my wife was working for an arm of Bain Consulting in the nonprofit space. Our worlds came together when we launched iFoster. We realized no one was going to build an online community for foster care families because there was no profit incentive, so we said to each other, ‘OK, here we go.’”

His biggest challenges: “Our biggest challenge since Day One has been letting everyone know who can benefit from what we do and that we’re out there — promotion. We’re really pleased to have won the AARP Purpose Prize because that’s a conduit for promotion. And our other challenge is funding: having the resources we need to do as much as we can. Our challenge moving forward is the rebranding of foster care; there’s a very negative perception that foster parents are in it for the money and that the kids are bad kids. Those are demonstrably incorrect.”

What he plans to do with the $50,000 Purpose Prize money: “The quick answer is: ‘I don’t know.’ The beauty of the funds is that they’re unrestricted. For a nonprofit, that’s the most liberating thing. A lot of time, funding is contingent on a particular task and there’s no flexibility.”

Credit: aarp.org
Cynthia Barnett, founder, Amazing Girls Science

Cynthia Barnett, Amazing Girls Science

Why she started Amazing Girls Science: “I have three daughters and when the last one left for college, I said to myself: ‘What am I going to do with that time?’ So I created the Saturday Academy nonprofit for boys and girls, focused on science and technology. One day, I read an article on why so few women go into the sciences and a lightbulb went off in my head. I knew I wanted to join the movement to close that difficult divide between males and females. As a former teacher, guidance counselor and school administrator, I felt I had an important role to play. At first, I set up Amazing Girls Science as a program at a community college, looking for 50 girls; 100 girls showed up and we didn’t have the space or the teachers for them.”

Her biggest challenge: “Mostly growing it and getting more visibility. This prize will definitely help.”

What she plans to do with the $50,000 Purpose Prize money: “I will create a summer program for high school girls. They’ll be learning about coding; building and programming robots; how to make animation games and about cybersecurity. The plan is to meet with the same girls every summer for four years and show them the support they need.”

Applying for an AARP Purpose Prize

AARP is now accepting nominations for the 2018 AARP Purpose Prize here. The deadline for applications is March 6, 2018.

RIchard Eisenberg, editor at Next Avenue wearing a suit jacket in front of a teal background.
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:

Next Avenue brings you stories that are inspiring and change lives. We know that because we hear it from our readers every single day. One reader says,

"Every time I read a post, I feel like I'm able to take a single, clear lesson away from it, which is why I think it's so great."

Your generous donation will help us continue to bring you the information you care about. Every dollar donated allows us to remain a free and accessible public service. What story will you help make possible?