Su Yeager, a former St. Paul Public Schools spokeswoman, thought it was time to join a giving circle and put her money where her ideals are after a career in communications. She and ten other like-minded women from Ramsey Hill and other St. Paul communities devised a strategy, which they termed Awesome.
That is, in fact, the whole name. In January, the ladies, most of whom were in their 60s and were either retired or not, got together to create the St. Paul chapter of the international Awesome Foundation and support great projects. The all-volunteer group, which has 83 locations in 13 countries, combines funds for $1,000 micro-grants to local civic initiatives every month.
Awesome St. Paul is stocking up on books for the American Indian Magnet School in Dayton’s Bluff’s growing library. Katie Meier, a teacher at Randolph Heights Elementary School at Hamline and Jefferson avenues, is expanding her student “makerspace” from basic arts and crafts to carpentry with the support of generous donors. A palm sander, drill, nails, hammer, and paint were purchased with the cash.
A further $1,000 is available. A pollinator garden along Pierce Butler Route in Frogtown will be erected on the west side of Mano-a-Mano, a humanitarian organization that provides leftover medical supplies to rural Bolivia, thanks to an awesome check. Additional services have been given by Frogtown Green, which cultivates garden spots around the community, and a landscape designer.
“It will be approximately 12 feet wide by 100 feet long and make it a lot more pleasant to look at,” said Joan Velasquez, co-founder of Mano-a-Mano, who envisions a composting bin and a rain barrel or above-ground cistern to absorb rainwater runoff from the roof. “No pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers will be used.” We live in a neighborhood with less greenspace than virtually any other in St. Paul, so this is significant for the entire Frogtown neighborhood.”
A $1,000 gift “may not seem like much in the realm of charity,” but it can help get a project off the ground, according to Yeager. “The focus is on initiatives that individuals are working on in the areas of education, the arts, and social outreach, particularly programs that solve issues and provide joy to our community.”
Since its start less than four months ago, the St. Paul chapter has received 48 applications and three Awesome grants solely via word of mouth. They’re willing to do further vetting. Online applications are due on the 28th of each month.
“It’s so straightforward,” Yeager remarked. “All you have to do is go to the Awesome Foundation website and click on the St. Paul chapter and complete five simple questions.” Tell us a little about yourself and how many people your initiative will affect in St. Paul.”
She said that the proposals will remain in the queue until the panel decides on financing. “We’d want to receive a large number of proposals since there are a lot of great ideas out there.”
Reading through applications has provided a chance for Mary Morris, a former human resources manager who retired from 3M, to learn more about the community she has lived in for decades.
Because of the epidemic, trustee meetings have been held virtually through Zoom, but “come the summertime, I’m sure we’ll get together in person,” said Morris, who lives in Ramsey Hill. “We’re all neighbors and neighbors’ pals.”
Each of the 11 trustees contributes $100 every month, with the hope of making two gifts at once in the future. Morris believes they’ll need to recruit additional members in the future to keep it going.
Otherwise, “I think we’ve got a terrific system,” she added. “Each of us may go in and vote for our favorites.” Then someone will remark, “Grant B requires the funds immediately, whereas Grant A can wait a month.”
“There have been instances when we’ve wished we could do more, even when we have fantastic ideas,” she continued. “When we contact the awardee and hear their reaction when they find out they’ve received the grant, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Though education and interactive arts exhibitions have been a recurring theme, Awesome chapters have been free to define “awesomeness” as they see appropriate.
According to member Ariah Fine, another Awesome chapter — NorthsideAwesome.org — formed in North Minneapolis in July 2016 and has awarded $58,000 to 58 projects to far. Groceries and headshots for artists through the “Starving Artist” program, free community yoga sessions through Quiet Power Yoga, a mourning diary initiative, and a budding grassroots resource center are among the recipients, most of whom are led by Black artists, educators, and advocates.
The Awesome Foundation, founded in Boston in 2009, has given more than $5.7 million to 5,700 projects throughout the world, including the world’s longest portable hammock. The hammock, which was installed in a downtown Boston greenway, was 33 feet long and 264 square feet in size, with approximately 4,300 feet of rope fashioned from recycled bottles.
In 2011, a “Random Swings of Joy” initiative funded with Awesome bucks erected swings across Los Angeles, a project that was rapidly replicated by other communities throughout the country.