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Alice Coles, Community Builder

Until 2003, most of the 114 residents of Bayview, Virginia, lived in the kind of abject poverty that is difficult to grasp: two- and three-room shacks with no running water and no heat, and the constant threat of fires from faulty electrical wiring. In the last year, most of those people have moved into modern housing, thanks largely to the efforts of Alice Coles, 53.

In 1994, this single mother of two learned that the state of Virginia was planning to build a maximum-security prison on land that her ancestors had farmed for more than 300 years. "We decided to fight it," Coles recalls, "because we didn't have anywhere to go and we didn't have anything to lose." Coles, who at the time was making $5,000 a year handpicking the meat out of crabs, educated herself about how the Department of Corrections worked and traveled to Richmond to testify against building a prison less than a mile from where her children attended school. "I didn't have two pennies to rub together, but I told them about our dedication to our land and our children. And they listened."

Flush from that victory, Coles organized her neighbors and began applying for federal and state housing grants to turn the eyesore that was her community into a jewel. Today, 42 of a planned 132 homes are built, as are a greenhouse and a community technology center. "We have to look within ourselves for that one gift God has given us and use it," Coles says. "We just need to look around and see how we can make this world a better place to live."


*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.