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Hope Taft Helped Ohio Lead the Way to Make a Difference

Oct. 23 is Make a Difference Day. And that may be sufficient reason to chronicle Hope Taft's contributions to this annual demonstration of American altruism.

But the backstory is "Hope Taft's Make a Difference Life."

Sure, as Ohio's first lady, Taft devoted heart and soul to growing the service day's participation to record levels in her state. Her passion for giving back, however, simply crosses any boundary imposed by a day and a place.

"I'm 66, and I'm going to Mali," she proclaims. "For the second time."

That philanthropic trip is a couple of months off. Right now, speaking from her home in Dayton, the pluralistic activist, cheerful chairwoman and energetic mother wants to talk about Make a Difference Day. Led by USA WEEKEND Magazine, this call to service — now in its second decade and observed on the fourth Saturday in October — draws more than 3.5 million people to volunteer activities across the country.

Nowhere, however, do the service day's roots run deeper than in the Buckeye State. Starting in 1999, when Taft moved into the governor's mansion in Columbus with Robert Taft, her husband and then the state's newly elected leader, turnout among Ohioans has increased each year. Taft's belief in the day's importance is a big reason why.

"I have been a volunteer all my life," she says, so she brought to Columbus an agenda for giving back. "There is no way that state governments can satisfy the needs of everyone. I thought Make a Difference Day would be easy to tie into, to give Ohioans a focus for their volunteer efforts, and to permit public/private partnerships."

Maybe not "easy," but as she found out, highly instructive. Taft is the daughter of a successful small businessman in Arkansas, and understands the importance of metrics, monitoring and incentive. Taft recognized these precepts as foundations of the Make a Difference Day program. To build the service program in Ohio, she and the state Community Service Council "tracked efforts, we asked for reports, we voted on the projects that seemed most worthy or unusual."

In 1999, Taft was a pioneer in best practices, results-oriented volunteering, and Ohio led the nation 10 years running in Difference Day projects, she says. Still, behind the stats lie stories, acts of kindness and commitment. Of the thousands, Taft chooses this one to tell.

"One woman in a senior citizens high-rise collected canned goods from the people on her floor. She donated them to the church-run food bank that was nearby. As it turned out, the center supplied food to some of the people who lived in the very same building."

It says a great deal about Taft that, rather than interpreting the anecdote as a tale of urban isolation, she finds a parable about respect and sensitivity. "That really touched my heart," she says. "They were helping their neighbors, but in a way that their neighbors would feel good about being helped."

There's no better testament to the power of Taft's Difference Day machine than how it roared on after she left the governor's mansion. At least until recession-era budget cutting began. Shrinking government funding was the first blow to the statewide program, she says, but "the recession hit everyone. In the past we got a lot of private partners involved. That is hard now."

Ohio's official recognition program has been shelved, but the service day will go on in the state. Just check the national project registration website for the more than 60 volunteer projects scheduled to take place in Ohio alone.

Taft's personal giving-back agenda roars on as well. She has traveled to South America and Africa working in villages (mostly secondary schooling) under the auspices of the Tandana Foundation, created by her daughter, Anna.

When in Ohio, she can be found kayaking on Little Miami River — while bagging litter. "After Columbus we moved to Dayton and I loved the river. I noticed all this trash, and a neighbor and I decided, 'Why don't we start a group.' " Many cleanups later, she has set her sights on an Adopt-a-River campaign much like the successful Adopt-a-Highway.

Of special importance to Taft is her work with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. October is Red Ribbon Month, a campaign designed to reduce the use of illegal drugs, and a time when she would like to increase attention to the vulnerability of teens to addiction diseases. And to the support older Americans can offer.

"Kids listen to their grandparents even more than they listen to their parents," she says. "If grandparents were really forthright in their message to their grandchildren — that they love them, they want them to be their best, and that they can't be their best if they get involved with alcohol and drugs — it would make a tremendous difference."

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