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Photo: Brian Feulner, Special to the Chronicle
Joan Vickers, 92, was a snowflake in the first production of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” in 1944.

I was surprised to learn that the “Nutcracker” ballet — which my youngest granddaughter and thousands of little girls and boys around the world were part of this past Christmas — was first performed in the United States in 1944. I guess I thought it was eternal. How could there ever have been a time that the “Nutcracker” was not performed at Christmas? But such is the case. And every ballet company that performs it now does something different to make the event its own.

Sam Whiting reports at the San Francisco Chronicle, “It was wartime 1944 when San Francisco first felt the magic of a Christmas Eve snowfall. It lasted 10 minutes, and Joan Vickers remembers it clearly.

“Vickers was in the first full-length ‘Nutcracker’ to be staged in America, a San Francisco Ballet production at the War Memorial Opera House. Act 1 ended in the Land of the Snowflakes, according to the program, and there were no special effects. There was only a 17-year-old Vickers and 15 other corps members dressed in white. They each held a stick with a white star at the tip of it, and they waved them around like sparklers.

“ ‘We became the snow,’ said the now 92-year-old Vickers, from her home in Alameda. ‘The audience was amazed and in awe.’

“Bay Area audiences continue to be in awe as the holiday tradition continues, and the snow scene has only intensified over the decades. ‘Nutcracker’ has been updated four times — in 1954, 1967, 1986 and 2004 — with the last revision orchestrated by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who took the setting from snowbound 19th century Europe to 20th century San Francisco … when a jeweled city rose straight out of the sand to form the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

“Despite the Mediterranean climate, the snow still falls, though in this production, it comes in the form of 600 pounds of confetti dropped from the fly space by a six-person crew. …

“ ‘As a child (in Iceland), I was always amazed at what a snowstorm can look like and how monumental and beautiful they can be,’ said Tomasson by email from Copenhagen, where the company was on tour. ‘I wanted to re-create that personal memory for San Francisco.’

“The snow falls with a ferocity probably unmatched by any other production of ‘Nutcracker,’ which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 with an original score by Tchaikovsky and is now revived in some form each Christmas season by just about every ballet company.

“The ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ is so beloved that it has its own YouTube category. … In San Francisco it comes down like it does in the film ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ which is to say once it starts it doesn’t stop. It gets in the hair and the eyelashes of the dancers, and piles up on the floor to slicken the stage. …

“Jasmine Jimison, a 17-year-old member of the corps de ballet, said it can be arduous to dance upon ‘the snow’ each night, even with caking her slippers in rosin to take the stage.

“ ‘Dancing in the snow scene is an experience like no other. It’s scary and exciting at the same time,’ said Jimison, also reached in Copenhagen last week. ‘There’s always the stress of not slipping or having enough stamina, especially once the snow starts falling really hard toward the end. I’m so exhausted by that point that my legs feel like Jell-O and I can barely see, but adrenaline helps push me through, and the escalating music adds to it.’ …

“Artistic Director Willam Christensen designed [the first US ‘Nutcracker’] as a one-season production inspired by a San Francisco visit by George Balanchine in the fall of 1944. Balanchine had danced in the full-length production of ‘Nutcracker’ in Russia and encouraged Christensen to create his own. …

“The restrictions of the war effort necessitated that budgets and materials were tight. There was only $1,000 allotted for costumes … so all of the red velvet for the outfits came from the curtain of the Cort Theater on Ellis Street, which had been demolished. … The opera house was under a blackout order, and air raid wardens were in the audience ready to blow their whistles.

“The production then went on the road to Oakland, Sacramento and Stockton, and that was to be the end of it. The following Christmas, Christensen mounted ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘it was a failure,’ Vickers said. They tried other productions, but nothing else worked, so in 1948 Christensen brought back ‘Nutcracker’ for good.”

More.

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Photo: Alan Greenblatt/NPR
Growing up, Liam Foley (left) was in charge of dishes and never cooked. He was still able to help chop the onions, though, at a burrito-making project for the poor in San Francisco.

Here’s another great story about ordinary people stepping up to try to make a dent in some of life’s knottier problems. This initiative is about making a dent in hunger and getting to know a few people experiencing homelessness.

Alan Greenblatt writes at National Public Radio, “Jimmy Ryan’s recipe for burritos is really pretty simple. It calls for 50 pounds of rice, 50 pounds of beans, a couple of cases of canned tomatoes and several hundred tortillas.

“That may sound like a lot, but Ryan is one of the organizers of the Burrito Project in San Francisco, an informal charity that makes and distributes about 500 burritos to the homeless once a month. On May 21, the group celebrated its second anniversary and rolled its 10,000th burrito. …

“The desire to distribute healthy, easily portable burritos is catching on. … A couple of the entities have registered as 501(c)3 charities, but others remain completely informal. Anyone is allowed to use the name as long as they’re providing burritos and not making any money off the service.

” ‘From what I understand, we have one of the only burrito projects that runs four days a week,’ says Rai Doty, a coordinator in Salt Lake City. ‘Four days a week, we feed 200 to 500 people a night.’

“The groups rely on a mix of donated food and sponsorships. In San Francisco, different companies pay the bills each month, helping out with both funding and manpower. …

“The crowd [I saw] was mostly young and white, but several other racial and ethnic groups were represented, with at least one grandmother helping out. For some, this effort represents just one stop along their personal charity journeys, which also include efforts such as working at animal shelters or churches. But for others, this was a quick and painless way to give back. …

“The organizers say they’re trying to make the event fun and welcoming, asking everyone to introduce themselves and providing kombucha and cake to celebrate their anniversary. …

“The soup kitchen that allows the Burrito Project to use its kitchen is located on the edge of the Mission District, which is ground zero for gentrification pressures in San Francisco. …

“The Burrito Project encourages volunteers not just to hand out food, but to stop and interact with individuals who are often neglected or avoided. …

“No one is under the illusion that handing out an occasional burrito is going to solve anyone’s problems.

“Some Burrito Project outposts try to do more than occasionally feed people. During the snowy season in Salt Lake City, the group partners with Warm the Homeless, which distributes blankets, coats and hats. The long-running project in Bakersfield, Calif., has been adopted by high school and church groups who hand out clothes and shoes when there are donations. Their ninth anniversary event on July 8 will provide a forum for representatives from other local groups that provide housing, health and legal assistance.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Elizabeth Hafalia, The Chronicle
Facing a need for affordable housing and arts space, San Francisco’s Mission Economic Development Agency is joining with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers to repurpose this neglected 1919 building.

Have you ever visited San Francisco’s Mission District? A poor, immigrant neighborhood, it is nevertheless a vibrant experiment in people-oriented housing and support for food entrepreneurs and the arts. The creative energy there is tangible.

Moreover, the neighborhood’s community-development folks never stop turning dreams into reality. J.K. Dineen has an update at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“A historic but long-neglected commercial building at Mission and 18th streets in San Francisco is poised to be rejuvenated with a mix of affordable housing, child care and dance.

“The dilapidated 1919 structure, a former furniture store that was remodeled with an Art Deco flair in the late 1930s, has been on and off the market for more than a decade. …

“Finally the Mission Economic Development Agency, a politically powerful group that often opposes market-rate housing, reached a deal to buy it by collaborating with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers, which will open a child care facility there.

“ ‘We are all going in together to do a new model of cooperative living and dancing and taking care of our children,’ said Krissy Keefer, executive director of Dance Mission Theater. ‘It’s going to be very communal.’ …

“Brokers with the San Francisco office of the realty firm Marcus & Millichap … said market-rate developers were scared off by the Mission’s anti-gentrification political environment and that ‘MEDA was very good to work with.’ …

“The building will be the group’s first home ownership project — the others are rentals — and the first targeting middle-income families rather than low-income folks. Mission Neighborhood Centers is providing some of the project funding, along with two nonprofits: Low Income Investment Fund, a financial intermediary that provides capital for community developments, and the Neighbor to Neighbor fund.”

I’m sure everyone has read about the housing crunch in San Francisco, with tech employees pushing prices up. It’s good to hear of anything designed to ease the shortage. More here.

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Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle 
Artificial turf is installed in a park under construction in San Francisco, which claims to be the first city with a park near every home.

More and more research is showing that access to nature and urban parks improves not only quality of life but the health of city dwellers. Municipalities save, too, when they have healthier residents.

Recently San Francisco was able to claim the distinction of being first in the nation to offer a park 10 minutes from every home.

Lizzie Johnson reports at the San Francisco Chronicle, “In 10 minutes, you can load a TV episode on Netflix, check your mail waiting for BART or make an avocado toast. Now, you can add to that list: take a walk to the park.

“San Francisco is the first city in the nation to have every resident live within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space. The percentage is calculated by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that facilitates the creation of parks and analyzes park systems for the 100 largest cities nationwide. …

“But don’t expect to see a small army of city workers and volunteers with stopwatches in hand counting their steps. The data were gathered using a complex geographic mapping program. The average person can walk a half-mile in about 10 minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which counts even your two legs as a mode of transportation. The distance has to include sidewalks — crossing highways or skirting canals doesn’t count.

“ ‘We developed this as the gold standard,’ said Adrian Benepe, the Trust for Public Land’s director of city park development. ‘A 10-minute walk to a park is an important indicator of the livability of a city.’ …

“Criteria for the nonprofit’s annual ParkScore analysis also includes the number of individual parks, overall spending and facilities upkeep. …

“The city has spent $355 million in bond and general fund money over the past four years to purchase land, renovate dilapidated parks and improve open spaces. In 2012, voters passed the $195 million Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond to fix up neighborhood parks.

“Those measures made the difference in reaching the No. 1 spot, said Recreation and Park Department Director Phil Ginsburg.

“ ‘It speaks volumes about this city’s commitment to open space,’ he said. “It is the reflection of literally a century and a half of decisions regarding parks and open space.’ ”

More at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Two women in San Francisco felt compassion for homeless people who have nowhere to go during the day. So they arranged with a local Catholic church to welcome them.

Patricia Leigh Brown wrote the story for the Christian Science Monitor series called “People Making a Difference: Ordinary People Taking Action for Extraordinary Change.”

“Tina Christopher’s day begins at 5:45 a.m. as she cleans the sidewalk in front of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin, the once-colorful vice district in San Francisco now better known as a province of the poor, the desperate, the addicted, and the down and out. …

” ‘All right my beautiful brothers and sisters!’ Ms. Christopher says in her always-chipper voice. ‘Good morning! Time to get up! Wakey wakey!’ Then she unlocks the church’s heavy iron gate.

“Soon, St. Boniface’s 74 backmost pews will cradle some 150 homeless people seeking ‘sacred sleep,’ the sound of snoring permeating the incense-filled room. Beneath the saints painted on the church’s glittering dome, they stretch out for nine hours of vital slumber, resting their heads on ad hoc sweatshirt and T-shirt pillows or sometimes their folded hands. For a brief moment, their faces, beatific and babylike in sleep, do not betray the nights of fearful wandering and the way concrete seeps into a person’s bones and stays there.

“Christopher is the program director of The Gubbio Project, a pioneering effort, believed to be the country’s first. … Cofounded in 2004 by the Rev. Louis Vitale, a well-known peace and human rights advocate, the program provides a place for homeless people to sleep during the daylight hours, when most shelters are closed.

The project is named after Gubbio, the Italian town where, the story goes, residents befriended a wolf after realizing the animal wasn’t dangerous, just hungry.

“The project’s guiding lights are two women who are devoted to the dignity of the people they call ‘guests.’ Laura Slattery, Gubbio’s executive director and public voice, is a West Point graduate-turned-social justice activist who wears jeans and hiking boots and exudes a sense of calm resolve, even in a crisis. Christopher is the exuberant all-hands-on-deck ground commander who knows the name of every guest and whose finely tuned antennae swiftly intuit their needs and issues. …

“At St. Boniface, Christopher writes daily notices on the whiteboard:

“Shower bus 8:30-2
“We have Blankets!
“Tomorrow – some socks.

“She is in constant motion, eyeglasses perched atop her head, dispensing cough drops, rubber bands, tampons, shaving cream, and other necessities from a converted confessional. She makes it a point to ask guests whether they’d prefer a pink toothbrush or a blue one, a black blanket or a brown one. ‘Even the simplest things are important to people who don’t have choices,’ she explains.

“Socks and other staples come from volunteers like Roberta Snyder, who has established relationships with housekeepers at nearby hotels and provides soaps, shampoos, and other items …

“[Slattery] thinks of The Gubbio Project as ‘the ministry of presence,’ one that dispels some popular myths about homeless people along the way. Quite a number of donations to Gubbio’s $350,000 annual budget, for instance, are made by guests. ‘Last week it was $42,’ Slattery says. ‘The week before it was 24. Flips the idea of panhandling on its head, right?’ ”

Click here to read about the women’s routes to their unusual calling — one through addiction, one through West Point.

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor
Tina Christopher (l.) and Laura Slattery run The Gubbio Project, which gives people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco a place to go during the day.

1107-pmad-mgubbio

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Here’s a guy who didn’t just ring his hands when he learned that a magnificent butterfly species was endangered in his part of California; he decided to do something about it.

Zachary Crockett reports at Vox, “It begins its life as a tiny red egg, hatches into an enormous orange-speckled caterpillar, and then — after a gestation period of up to two years — emerges as an iridescent blue beauty. Brimming with oceanic tones, the creature’s wings are considered by collectors to be some of the most magnificent in North America.

“For centuries, the California pipevine swallowtail — or, Battus philenor hirsuta — called San Francisco home. As development increased in the early 20th century, the butterfly slowly began to disappear. Today it is a rare sight.

“But one man’s DIY efforts are starting to bring the butterfly back.”

Tim Wong, a 28-year-old aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, tells Crockett, ” ‘I first was inspired to raise butterflies when I was in elementary school … We raised painted lady butterflies in the classroom, and I was amazed at the complete metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult.’ …

“Years later, he learned about the pipevine swallowtail — which had become increasingly rare in San Francisco — and he made it his personal mission to bring the butterfly back.

“He researched the butterfly and learned that when in caterpillar form, it only feeds on one plant: the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica), an equivalently rare flora in the city.

” ‘Finally, I was able to find this plant in the San Francisco Botanical Garden [in Golden Gate Park],’ Wong says. ‘And they allowed me to take a few clippings of the plant.’

“Then in his own backyard, using self-taught techniques, he created a butterfly paradise.”

Read more here. It sure takes persistence.

Here’s hoping an elementary school project in 2016 will lead to the rescue of another endangered species down the road.

Photo: Tim Wong (@timtast1c)

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You may recall a post I wrote about the Daily Table, which takes produce that would’ve been wasted and uses it to provide good meals at low cost.

Jennifer Medina writes at the NY Times that Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up, has also “been selling what it calls ‘cosmetically challenged’ fruit and vegetables. …

“Imperfect Produce delivers boxes of ugly fruit and vegetables to people’s doorsteps in the Bay Area. A large box of mixed produce — 17 to 20 pounds of fruits and vegetables, with five to eight types of items, depending on what is in season — costs $18, for example; a small box of fruit (10 to 15 pounds) costs $12 a week. [Chief supply officer Ron] Clark primarily relies on buying produce directly from California farmers …

“Ben Simon, the chief executive, and Ben Chesler, the chief operating officer, began their work on food waste as college students, when they saw trays of food from the campus cafeterias thrown out each night. Mr. Chesler and Mr. Simon created Food Recovery Network, which now has more than 100 colleges donating uneaten food to soup kitchens. …

“The pair met Mr. Clark, who had spent more than a decade working to bring produce that would have otherwise gone to waste to food banks across California. Using his relationship with suppliers, the three have created a business that has attracted attention from many of the tech luminaries in the region, including the design firm Ideo, which receives its own drop-off each week.” More here.

Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times  
Imperfect Produce, a San Francisco Bay Area start-up, specializes in produce that is misshapen or cosmetically deficient but otherwise perfectly edible. 

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After Brian Bailey started to follow this blog, I took a look at his own WordPress blog. The first thing I saw was the watercolor below. I said, “Oh, wow.” Then I looked through his other drawings and watercolors and liked them just as much. So I want to share the Art of Brian site with you.

I’ve always loved watercolors, the gentle suggestiveness, the uncertainty of how the the paints will run. Although good work takes a lot of skill, there’s an element of the unexpected that to me is about the randomness of experience and the beauty of randomness.

Here are some thoughts from Brian on one of his recent paintings.

“When pulling together the shapes and lines that make up a composition it can be challenging to determine how much information is enough.  Some of my favorite drawings and paintings exhibit a very economical approach to line, saying just enough to let the viewer see what the artist sees.  In recent weeks, I’ve been doing many gesture drawings, as I’ve mentioned before, and I’m trying to let my paintings be, somewhat, more gestural.  I started my painting today outside with lots of light and finished it at home by bumping up the shadows and contrast.  I’m really trying to stop myself from overworking each painting.”

Brian also has an Etsy store. I am liking everything I see there.

Art: Brian Bailey
The Orange Van, Watercolor, 4″ x 4″, © 2015

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stealth-poetry-project

I like reading about — and sometimes initiating — little stealth projects like buying a box of Georges Seurat note cards and putting them one at a time on shop shelves so folks will get a subliminal clue that the Players are putting on the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”

In 2012, I created the Stealth Poetry Project. Read about that here. I have also blogged about the reshelvers, who move bookstore volumes around  (if they think a politician’s autobiography belongs in the fiction section, for example).

So imagine my delight when a website I subscribe to, Good.Is, sent a message about an international group of people doing similar projects. They call themselves Creative Interventionists.

“The League of Creative Interventionists,” says an e-mail I received this week, “is here to insert the creativity and unexpected back into our cities. The League is a worldwide network of people working to build community through creativity. We create shared spaces and experiences in public space that break down social barriers and catalyze connections between people and communities.

“Each month we will get people together to carry out a creative intervention around a theme. We will also share our inspiration and the template for others to replicate the intervention or create their own intervention in their community.

“The League is launching in San Francisco on February 12 with an event and group creative action around the theme of love. We will be creating an installation in public space where we will share the stories of our first love on postcard-sized stickers. Random passersbys will be able to enjoy these stories and participate by adding their own story. We will also place these stickers in random places to be discovered by unsuspecting strangers who will then be invited to add their story to the installation.”

More at www.Good.is.

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Suzanne and Erik loved attending Glide Memorial when they lived in San Francisco. It’s a big, welcoming Gospel church. It calls itself “radically inclusive,” and having been there several times, I can attest to that.

“A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”

Lots of hugging goes on. Homeless people participate, society ladies, political celebrities, gay and straight … Perhaps you saw the church in the Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a true story.

Besides the extraordinary choir, which is the initial draw for many churchgoers, we liked the congregant testimonials about what Glide has meant in their lives. Some people had been through pretty dark times, and Glide had been one piece of the road out.

Today as my husband and I drove home from a visit to Providence, we put on a radio broadcast from a Unitarian Universalist church, where a friend sometimes reads the announcements on air. The minister introduced a new-to-the-church idea, which I hope works out as well in Boston as it does at Glide.

He called it My Story and gave his own spiritual story as his first example, inviting parishioners to let him know if they wanted to do the same in upcoming weeks.

If nothing else, it should help the service be more interactive. And it should let members get to know each other better, especially if they are brave enough to share their rough times, the things they don’t bring up at coffee hour.

By the way, life’s difficult passages may be well served by our favorite bit of wisdom from Glide: “A setback is just a setup for a comeback.”

How many friends and even public figures would you like to tell that to?

Photograph: http://www.firstchurchboston.org

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You remember the advice at the end of Voltaire’s Candide? “Il faut cultiver ton jardin”? Increasing numbers of people are finding the advice to cultivate a garden a good idea for our times. But the implication of minding one’s own business is not part of it as people become more neighborly and create better communities through gardening.

“In 2002,” writes Katherine Gustafson at YES! Magazine, “two neighbors armed with spades and seeds changed everything for crime-addled Quesada Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area.

“The street had been ground zero for the area’s drug trade and its attendant violence. But when Annette Smith and Karl Paige began planting flowers on a small section of the trash-filled median strip, Quesada Gardens Initiative was born. Over the course of the next decade, the community-enrichment project profoundly altered the face of this once-blighted neighborhood.

“Jeffrey Betcher is the initiative’s unlikely spokesperson. A gay white man driven to the majority-black area by the high cost of housing elsewhere, he moved into a house on Quesada Avenue in 1998 to find drug dealers selling from his front stoop and addicts sleeping beneath his stairs. He told me about the day that he returned home from work to discover that his neighbor Annette had planted a little corner of his yard.

“ ‘Even though there was a throng of people – drug dealers who were carrying guns, pretty scary folks – she had planted flowers on this little strip of dirt by my driveway,’ he told me. ‘I was so moved by that … I thought, that’s what life is about. That’s what community development is about. That’s what’s going to change this block faster than any public investment or outside strategy. And in fact it did.’ ” More here.

If you like this sort of thing, please read a little book called Seedfolks. You will love it.

Photograph: Katherine Gustafson

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When Suzanne lived in San Francisco, she told me about a guy in the Tenderloin district who wanted to do something for the homeless people who were his neighbors. He would stop and talk to people, and eventually he decided to hand out new socks, because that was what was needed. Small. Not solving any underlying problems. Just making someone feel noticed.

Recently I did a web search to see if I could figure out who the guy was and write a blog post. I found someone in San Francsico who started doing similar small kindnesses, but I’m not sure it’s the same guy. (If you know, please tell me.)

The person I discovered in my search is the founder of A Good Idea. He and others who have joined him do random things that connect them with strangers in a way that is sometimes greeted with suspicion, sometimes with delight. (It’s San Francisco after all. People are ready to be surprised.) Volunteers may distribute fruit, cookies, hugs, or services.

“Jared Paul’s life changed after he chose meaning over money. He abandoned a successful six-figure sales career and started a nonprofit organization, A Good Idea, in the summer of 2008.

“ ‘In April of 2008, I went through a life transformation: The more money I made, the more stressed I became, the more my passions began to fade, and the more I stopped dreaming,’ says Paul, 33, who had flourished in a variety of sales positions for nearly 10 years.

“Amid dissatisfaction with his job and his personal life, Paul decided to dedicate himself to making a difference. So he reached out to people via Facebook and Craigslist and began an informal discussion group that met at the Red Vic Peace Café in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The meetings led to the birth of A Good Idea (AGI).

“ ‘A Good Idea is a vehicle for social change that connects people in need with people who want to help,’ explains Paul.

“ ‘One of our first events was called Intentional Acts of Kindness, where we would do acts of kindness to complete strangers,’ Paul recalls. ‘When the San Francisco Chronicle decided to do a news piece, we received over 250 e-mails from people who were inspired and wanted to be part of A Good Idea. That’s when things really took off.’ ” Read more.

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