Meet our sustainability champions in Arizona and Chicago

At the start of this summer we launched the Arizona and Chicago Sustainability Challenges in partnership with the Microsoft Datacenter Community Development Team, to inspire and support community members to select and start one of 10 ideas that address the biggest challenge of our time, climate change, on a community level, with a fund of $70,000 available per region.

Everyone who applies to the fund has a month to complete a 30 Day Challenge, which includes bringing an organizing team together and deciding on a joint action plan and budget. Those who demonstrate their commitment and ability to start their chosen project by completing the 30 Day Challenge are awarded funding.

In Arizona 80 people have applied and 18 have successfully completed the 30 Day Challenge so far.


In Chicago 75 people have applied and 13 have successfully completed the 30 Day Challenge to date. 


We make sure to speak with every starter (that’s our name for the community members who apply to start an idea in their community) to hear about their plans and answer any questions they might have. We love talking to these amazing change makers and hearing their stories and plans for their project and we’d love to share some of these stories with you too.

Community Fridge in El Mirage

Community Fridges grew in popularity in Europe during the last big recession. The idea: Take surplus food from neighbors or neighboring businesses and offer it to those in need through an “open” fridge. Annie Ansell, who has been involved with the Dysart Community Center in El Mirage, AZ for a while, understands the need for free food all too well.

“We have a mobile food pantry on the first Saturday of each month, and feed 130 families. We know they are in need of food the rest of the month and we want to help.”

Annie Ansell, Community Fridge, El Mirage, AZ


When the monthly food pantry at the community center opens at 5am, the first families are already waiting outside to collect food. Annie got a team of volunteers together and they mapped out a plan to offer help more regularly. From now on Annie plans to make the fridge and pantry available for folks to drop in for food every day of the week.

The funding will be used to purchase reusable bags for the “guests”; to distribute the food in an environmentally friendly way, as well as to build the pantry and of course for the new fridge. Annie is already thinking about starting a second pantry in Surprise, AZ, once this first one is established. 

> Read more on Annie’s project page

Sow it Forward in Chandler, Arizona

Sow it Forward, an idea by the Arizona Sustainability Alliance, helps kids to grow food in the classroom. Benita Riesgraf is one of the first starters in the Arizona Challenge to have her new vertical tower garden delivered to her school. She is excited to get started as soon as the new school year begins; to pass on her passion and knowledge of home-growing to her pupils.

“Growing seed to feed is an opportunity for kids to truly lean into their own growth and development. My father grew up in the crop fields of New Mexico and passed on a love of gardening to myself. This is the first step to launching our next generation of home growers.”

Benita Riesgraf, Sow it Forward, Chandler, Arizona

Read more on Benita’s project page

Repair Café in Bronzeville, Chicago

The Repair Café idea; a community meetup where neighbors help each other to fix broken items, started in the Netherlands in 2009 and has recently spread all across the U.S. Chris Robinson first experienced the benefits of fixing versus throwing away himself and now he would love to share this experience with his community:

“I needed repairs and I’m not handy and also don’t have any money. So I was forced to start fixing things. And I’ve been shocked at how much can be done if someone can show you and you have the right tools. And my neighborhood is booming right now, a lot of new blood. There’s no telling what skills people have. Sharing skills seems like a fun and positive way to give back to the community.”

Chris Robinson, Repair Café, Bronzeville, Chicago

Chris thinks the gentrifying neighborhood where he lives is the perfect place to start the idea. He hopes older neighbors can pass their skills onto others and also get help and feel more connected through the Café.

Read more on Chris’ project page

Urban Forestry in Fountain Hills, Arizona 

Lisa Ristucci is no newcomer to changemaking in her community. She has been involved with several organizations before to help to make Arizona more sustainable, and Urban Forestry, a tree-planting project, is now another addition to her changemaker portfolio:

“I am part of the Arizona Association for Environmental Education and Keep America Beautiful. Providing access to nature and “greening” the neighborhoods are some of our initiatives. I will be returning to my teaching position at Fountain Hills Charter School in August and will be helping to rebrand the school as a Green STEM Eco-school, so this project will be a great fit.”

 – Lisa Ristucci, Urban Forestry, Fountain Hills, Arizona

Trees provide so many benefits to the community, including reducing the urban heat island effect, providing shade for walking, living, or playing, filtering pollutants, controlling water in the soil and helping to control flooding during storms. An Urban Forestry project typically involves planting around 25 trees.

Read more on Lisa’s project page

Grow It Yourself in Englewood, Chicago

Reginald Wiley lives in a community that has gone through hard times over the last 15-20 years. As a result, there are many vacant lots and overgrown trees in the area. In his role as a fitness and nutrition instructor, he tries to bring a healthy physical lifestyle to community members, but he is also very conscious of the importance of community connection to a community’s health. He brainstormed with neighbors on how to support the community’s health and they decided on building a community garden in the vacant lots, where people can grow their own food. And that was the start for his new GIY group in Englewood.

“I would like to create a valuable social experience and to expose the community to different methods of growing and gardening. My grow it yourself would also serve the community by adding a much-needed facelift to vacant lots as well as private property. Social benefits+community facelift= WIN WIN”

Reginald Wiley, GIY, Englewood, Chicago

Wiley has already secured a space for his garden through the Alderman in the community and now that he can buy seeds and tools with the Challenge funding, there’ll be no stopping him from bringing his plan to life to positively impact his community’s wellbeing.

Read more on Reginald’s project page

Pollinator Partnership in Chicago

Our youngest starter so far, Maddie de Funiak, is about to graduate high school and recently undertook a project building a pollinator garden in her school with children who have special needs. Now she wants to see more of those gardens spreading across her town.

“I am extremely interested in insects and wildlife and recently did a project on the aerodynamics of insect flight and my civics project on the declining bee population. I was able to begin planting gardens with plants specifically for bees and butterflies. I am also in contact with my Alderman to build a community garden focused on attracting bees.”

Maddie de Funiak, Pollinator Partnership, Chicago

Maddie has two places in the area in mind for her and her group to work on, one of them outside the Dunning Reed branch of the Chicago Public Libraries. The funding will go towards seeds, a DIY Butterfly Feeder activity and signs for each of the gardens.

Read more on Maddie’s project page


Copyright header photo: Arizona Sustainability Alliance

The Arizona Sustainability Challenge is closed now, but if you live in Chicago, you can still apply. 

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