Massive fish are making a comeback in the Amazon River

The second longest river in the world, the Amazon River, is known for a lot of things – specifically its biodiversity with animals like the giant otter, river dolphin, caimans, and piranhas.

But some of the most interesting are the massive river monsters of the Amazon River: fish that can be as tall as basketball hoops and as heavy as a large ape. These massive creatures, like the pirarucu, were facing external pressure feeling the effects of environmental degradation. 

But the massive fish throughout the Amazon are making a comeback. 

What’s the good news?

Well, speaking of the pirarucu, they were particularly vulnerable to poachers. The massive fish, like the saltwater tarpon, is an air-breathing fish meaning that they have to surface regularly to breathe. As a result, they were easy to spot and hunt by poachers meaning that they all but disappeared in parts of the Amazon River.

Thankfully, concerted efforts including sustainable fishing programs and much stricter quotas have seen the pirarucu return to areas it was missing. 

There isn’t strict observance all over the river though, so in areas outside of nature reserves where there isn’t nearly as much law enforcement local villagers have taken it into their own hands to discourage poachers and people fishing illegally.

Many of the larger fish are tagged so the people buying them can know if the fish was caught legally or not as well.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Life Below Water.


A unique homelessness approach built for women

The US is in a housing crisis, and with a potential recession looming and the cost of living continuing to climb, it’s becoming harder by the day to make ends meet.

People are ending up on the street, and as winter months loom that can be deadly in colder states.

To combat this, a New York City non-profit is taking a ‘housing first’ approach, especially for women in crisis.

What is HousingPlus?

HousingPlus has been around for about two decades. Its founder, Rita Zimmer, noticed that most homeless shelters were made with men in mind and saw a need for shelters focused on giving women a place to go and by extension their children.

 “When they’re homeless, the children are homeless,” Zimmer said. 

HousingPlus works a little differently than normal shelters. They offer everything from studios to 3-bedroom apartments at drastically reduced prices, being capped at 30% of an individual’s annual income. They currently have leased out 150 such properties sprinkled throughout Brooklyn with another 100 under construction. 

Tenants pay their share to the organization which then pays the rest to the landlords of the locations. 

The goal is to provide stable housing so these women can seek help for other problems plaguing them like drug dependency or mental health conditions.

“Our first tenants were formerly incarcerated women who had completed their sentences but could not find supportive housing that would accept them,” they say.

“Ever since, HousingPlus has helped women navigate the structural barriers encountered when re-entering the community following imprisonment—public benefit/entitlement services, the foster care system, and seeking living-wage employment.”

Rita’s work earned her the AARP Purpose Prize in 2022.

This article aligns with the UN SDG No Poverty.

Equality Wellbeing

The Ruth Ellis Center gives a home to LGBTQ+ people in need

Safe spaces, where you can go and be yourself without fear of rejection, are incredibly important for the LGBTQ+ youth community, who are at a disproportionate risk of being bullied because of their identities. 

Sometimes the lives that LGBTQ+ people are coming from are purely unsustainable and they need support or new housing, and that’s what a place like the Ruth Ellis Clairmont Center is for.

The Ruth Ellis Center began a foster program about a decade ago to little fanfare, not wanting to draw attention to themselves due to the overall acceptance or lack thereof of the LGBTQ+ community. In contrast, they recently held a ribbon cutting unveiling their new permanent supportive housing and services facility for LGBTQ+ young people. Hundreds of visitors and community members were joined by a parade of local and national politicians.

“Nationwide, up to 40% of all youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ, to combat this disparity Ruth Ellis Center has developed Clairmount Center,” the organization tells Smiley News. “This 43 – unit permanent supportive housing program for young people experiencing chronic homelessness and living with a disability opened in September 2022. This facility offers integrated health services, career readiness and skill building programs, community spaces, and a youth advisory art therapy studio. Ruth Ellis Center considered all social determinants of health and wellbeing when deciding the location and design of the building.”

The home is named for Ruth Ellis, a Black lesbian born in 1899 who always kept her doors open for queer people in need. 

The building offers not just affordable housing but also health services and even built-in, but well-hidden safety features to keep the residents safe in what is becoming an incredibly polarizing climate for the community. 

“Many of our LGBTQ community are at a higher rate of homelessness, exposing them to violence,” says Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, who secured $1 million in federal funding for the Clairmount Center and was on hand for its opening. “[If] you live [at the Clairmount Center], you get the services you need, and the love that you need, and the public health access that you need.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Good Health and Wellbeing.


‘Conversations can change people’s lives’

We all have mental health, and – according to OurWorldinData – just over 10 percent of all people, or 792 million people deal with a mental health disorder.

While many places around the word have access to support – such as education, therapy, or even medications – not everywhere has that luxury. This is something that Vedica Podar, the founder of Kangaroo Minds, took to heart. 

Vedica has previously worked in schools in India. “One thing I noticed was the lack of awareness around mental health,” she tells Smiley News. “The stigma might be different between living in urban settings versus in rural settings but both have a lack in understanding.” 

This is where Kangaroo Minds comes in.

The name was inspired by kangaroos in the wild, jumping from one spot to another, much like the mind jumps from idea to idea, and also how they leap forward, hopefully to brighter pastures. Vedica founded it to offer people mental health support in the form of education. To do this they developed a technique called the A.S.K. model.

The A.S.K. model is broken up into three parts: Awareness, Support, and Knowledge. The first centers on spreading awareness of mental health disorders, helping people understand that anyone around them might be going through something. The second focuses on offering a helping hand when and where people need it. The third is about helping people learn how to help themselves and those around them. 

“I used to get from the students I spoke to,” Vedica says. “‘This is the first time I’ve felt seen and heard,’ or ‘this is the first time someone has had this conversation with me,’ and that is something that’s gonna stay with me that, you know, I actually feel more of a person.’”

To meet their ends, Kangaroo Minds employs just about every means of communication on the internet: educational videos, conversations with experts, social media campaigns, a collection of mental health hotlines for countries all over the world, and much more. 

They serve all over the world but with a particular focus on South Asian countries. While they started with small meet and greets early on, they moved to a primarily online model after the pandemic threw everyone online.

“I really believe in the power of conversation,” Vedica says. “Conversations can change people’s lives, and sometimes you just need to reach out and check in on someone.”

“There are gonna be people along the way who are still struggling, so just holding that kind of space, I think makes a huge difference.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Good Health and Wellbeing.


This orchestra aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness

Music is an art. It brings people together.

From concert halls, to crowded living rooms or outdoor venues, people often bond through the music surrounding them. Yet still, there are barriers to entry. Classical music, in particular, is populated by elitism that makes it hard to break into and enjoy for the layman, even more if you’re in society’s margins. 

That’s where an orchestra like Me2 comes in.

Me2 started with one goal in mind: making classical music accessible, primarily by opening it up to people who are struggling with mental illness. The first conductor and co-founder, Ronald Braunstein, lost his previous role due to a bipolar episode he was experiencing.

“[Ronald] came to me one day and said, ‘I’m not going back into this the same old rat race, I’m not going to put myself in a position where I can be stigmatized and discriminated against because people expect me to fit into a certain mold as a conductor,’” the Executive Director and co-founder of Me2, Caroline Whiddon, tells Smiley News.

“‘My brain obviously doesn’t work that way. I need a safe space. So I want to create an orchestra for people like me.’”

Caroline and Ronald founded Me2 in 2011. “I started to Google and of course realized very quickly that there was no such thing like us, especially in the classical music world, it’s kind of like the antithesis of the way that we’re trained,” Caroline says.

“Ronald went to Julliard, I went to the Eastman School of Music. Any of these schools, they train you to show up, be prepared, play the notes, do your job, and it’s really stressful.

“[So he said]… I want to get together with people like me who may not be quite as consistent, who may need a little extra help getting to rehearsal functioning within the group.”

Attempting to break the formality that they were used to in the classical music world, Caroline and Ronald wanted to make Me2 – a registered nonprofit – accessible in ways that no other orchestra was. 

They started off by adopting basic rules that have been maintained until today. The first is that there are no auditions, if someone is willing and able to play in the orchestra they are allowed to join. Next, there are no fees involved since they “didn’t want socio-economics to play into it.” And finally, no stigma is allowed.

“We’re just really trying to set the example, through our words, but also through our actions from the very beginning that everybody is welcome,” Caroline says, “and that if somebody’s having a bad day, that’s cool. That’s okay. We’re there for you.”

Beyond the acceptance that they wanted to foster, Me2 quickly became a safe place for a lot of the people in it. Whether struggling with incarceration, drug addiction, or many of life’s other maladies, Me2 stood available. 

“We’re a once-a-week orchestra, and we’re a safe place and a place for people to be,” Caroline says. “We’re not therapists, and we’re not caretakers but what I’ve started to focus more on is making sure that we’re a safe place for people to land. So if somebody needs that time off, if somebody’s in the hospital or they are wrapped up.”

To join, support, or find out more about Me2, visit their website.


This grocery store lets you pay what you like

As the cost of living increases, people throughout the United States are stretched thinner by the day.

The housing crisis is already exacerbating the cost of living enough, and now people are struggling to make simple ends meet.

According to the USDA, in 2021, 13.5 million US households experienced food insecurity, meaning there were times when there wasn’t enough money to feed everyone in the family. 

MARSH Grocery in St. Louis wants to make the growing prices more palatable for the everyday shopper. When you shop there, you can pay what you like.

Pay what you like?

It’s not as simple as paying a few cents for a whole cart of groceries, but the grocery store lets people pay up to 20 percent less or more on items than the listed price opening up an affordable, high-quality food option in the area. 

Serving as a non-profit grocer, you might assume they struggle to break even – but apparently the option to pay more on grocery options nearly matches dollars lost making breaking even fairly easy.

“It feels like exactly what I hoped for, that we would create connections between relational economy, sustainability, climate resilience, community building, quality of life,” MARSH founder Beth Neff says.

“Even if we don’t yet sell enough food to say we made money at the end of the day, we’re certainly creating a foundation for those things.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Good Health and Wellbeing.


Disney’s pledges to ‘keep our oceans amazing’ in unique way

Nearly 13 years ago, Avatar hit theaters. Remember that?

Known for its stunning visuals and poignant story about colonization and land exploitation, the James Cameron film went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time – bringing in over 2.9 billion dollars at the box office. 

Now, over a decade later, a sequel named Avatar: The Way of Water is slated to come out on December 16.

To drum up support, and help support a good cause, Disney has launched a new program to protect the oceans. 

What’s Disney doing?

Oceans cover over 70% of the planet and produce most of the oxygen we breathe, but less than 8% of the ocean is protected. So Disney is working to protect more waters. 

As part of its ‘Keep Our Oceans Amazing’ campaign, Disney has released Virtual Pandora Ocean, an online experience that allows people to scan in and create their own Pandoran creatures using features common to the fictional world.

The site has tidbits of information on real-life ocean habitats and organisms to help teach the people coming through. 

The biggest part, though, is that Disney is planning on donating five dollars to the Nature Conservancy for every creature created – up to $1 million to help fund the fight to protect the ocean.

The Nature Conservancy is fighting to have 10% of the ocean officially protected by 2030.

“The entire planet depends on the health of our ocean to support and sustain it,” said Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection at The Nature Conservancy.

“We need to do our part to protect it. That’s why we are thrilled to collaborate with Disney and Avatar on this campaign. Our mission is driven by working together with those who believe we can shape a brighter future where people and nature can thrive together.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Life Below Water.


Look at McDonald’s new reusable packaging

Some of the most common producers of waste and single-use plastics come from large food service corporations, providing things like plastic forks and spoons, to-go packaging, straws, and much more.

The fast-food giant McDonald’s is one such massive contributor – but they’ve actively been making efforts to improve their global footprint, particularly in France. 

Twitter user Juan Buis, who lives in Paris, shared a photo on social media of the silicone-style reusable packaging the fast food giant is trialling.

“Absolutely loving the design of this reusable packaging that’s being introduced at McDonalds France,” he wrote.

Why France?

In 2020, France passed something called the AGEC Law (Waste for a Circular Economy) which essentially banned many single-use plastics in the country.

Among the products banned by the AGEC Law are many containing microplastics, polystyrene fast food containers, plastic fast food cutlery used on site, plastic fast food toys, plastic packaging for mailings, plastic water bottles at public events, and certain non-recyclable plastic packaging. 

To be able to continue business in the country without breaking the law, McDonald’s started developing reusable alternatives for things like its burger boxes and plastic packaging and cutlery.

Ultimately, these packaging changes could prevent 8,000 tons of waste per year as part of the “zero plastic” strategy championed by the brand. 

“For years, a key pillar of our packaging strategy has been to reduce the materials we use by lightweighting and optimizing our packaging,” McDonald’s writes in a release. “We’ll accelerate our progress to reduce materials across our portfolio, redesigning some of our most iconic products to eliminate unnecessary packaging and increase opportunities for recovery.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action.


The college helping homeless cats on campus

They say a man’s best friend is a dog – but a close second is our furry feline friends, cats.

The animal, known for knocking over water glasses and causing general mischief in the household, is a staple of American homes and families. But sometimes they escape, are neglected, or abandoned, and they find themselves in the wild ending up sick, hungry or feral.

An ongoing program at the California Polytechnic State University has been working to address this and give these cats a chance. 

Introducing: Cats on Campus

The program to help homeless cats began in 1992 as a senior project designed to solve the rising population of feral cats on campus. It was initially concerning, trapping and then euthanizing feral cats but that was quickly scrapped in order to promote a more humane approach.

This work eventually led to what today is a cat sanctuary with the goal of rehabilitating cats and resocializing them while providing them a safe space from the wild. 

“We take in many scared, elderly, special needs, and shy cats that other shelters deem unadoptable,” they say.

“Our dedicated volunteers work with these wonderful cats to socialize them, relieve their stress, provide a safe and comforting environment, and help them adjust to new situations, resulting in a more adoptable pet.”

The program is fully non-profit and runs on donations, so consider donating to help keep the program running.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Life on Land.


Best friends share lottery winnings with local charities

Winning the lottery is life-changing – let’s be honest. But have you ever pondered over what you’d do with the money?

Two best friends – JoAnn MacQueen and Marlisa Mercer – who were already sharing the winnings have decided to give a lot of money back to their community. 

“It just came up as $1 million and a free play,” said JoAnn to OrilliaMatters, when talking about the win. “I thought I was reading the zeros wrong, so I scanned it again and it said $1 million, big winner, plus a free play.”

Instead of pocketing the money, they started identifying charities and causes near them that they wanted to help out and started distributing money. 

Some of the first places that they donated to were the Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, the Orillia SPCA, and the Farley Foundation, an Ontario-based charity that helps low-income pet owners take care of their animals, places that JoAnn’s recently deceased brother may have accessed while he was alive. 

They also decided to donate to the Salvation Army, the Royal Canadian Legion poppy campaign in Orillia, Mariposa House Hospice, the Comfie Cat Shelter, and the Sharing Place Food Center, which helps the economically disadvantaged get a hold of good, healthy food. 

“They are completely focused on how can they help to make this community a better place through this win,” Chris Peacock, executive director of the Sharing Place, told OrilliaMatters. “Not many people win a million bucks and have the core goal of spending it on others and improving this community.”

Any remaining money they have the pair plans to share with friends and family as well as doing a few home repairs.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partnership for the Goals.