NASCAR driver donates book vending machine to his elementary school

Reading is incredibly important for early development, but not every child has consistent access to books. However now, elementary school students at Byron Elementary in Michigan can earn them from a token system thanks to a recently donated book vending machine.

The machine was donated by NASCAR driver Erik Jones, who went to the school himself many years ago, and was donated to help celebrate March as Reading Month.

Students can earn tokens for the book vending machine through a reading recognition system throughout the month of March.

A former teacher of Erik’s, Tammy Laurin, contacted him about the idea to bring the book vending machine to the school and help give back to his hometown. 

“I am trying to bring the love of books to the next generation of readers and am so grateful to the Erik Jones Foundation for purchasing us a machine,” Tammy said. “I was determined to get one somehow and was ready to hold fundraisers to do it. Erik providing it means we can immediately start putting books into the hands of kids.”

Erik heard that and just wanted to give back.

“I went here and grew up here and so to be able to do something like that – I think it always has a little extra meaning,” he said. “That’s the cool thing for me.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


Viral TikTok results in entire group of shelter cats getting adopted

The internet can be an incredibly powerful tool and something as small as a video going viral can change lives. Such is the case of an entire group of cats at a Kansas City, Missouri animal shelter.

The shelter, Wayside Waifs, posted a video to TikTok with the intent of showing off some of their cats available for adoption. The internet caught wind of it and the video went viral. At the time of writing, the video sits at over 1.6 million views. 

With the cute video urging people to adopt, people took to action, adopting all but two of the cats featured in the video.

“It was actually something that one of our feline care technicians thought of. What kind of animal likes people? What kind of animal would wanna snuggle with the other kittens?” Casey Waugh with Wayside Waifs said.

Wayside Waifs is the largest pet adoption campus in Kansas City, and helps over 5,000 animals a year find new homes. The organization has been around since 1944, at one point under another name, and today sits on a 50-acre farm.

They even have a massive pet cemetery called Wayside Waifs Pet Memorial Park.

“[Our mission is] preparing pets and people for the bond of their lives,” they write.

Support the nonprofit through donations or volunteering – find out more.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


Junior in high school sets up nonprofit to diversify learning

Finding ways to make education more interesting and fulfilling is something teachers everywhere grapple with. Take that and all the education lost to the pandemic as students had to learn from home, there has been an educational decline for many.

This was something Sophia Libman took to heart. It was incredibly important to her that people get the education that they need while trying to find an interesting way to do it. So she founded X-Time

“I really wanted to find a way for children to explore and engage in educational activities from their home because it was right in the midst of the pandemic,” Sophia tells Smiley News. “And so we started with free online classes, and have now expanded to in-person classes, summer camps, and explore stations.”

Sophia herself is still incredibly young: only a junior in high school, and she started X-Time just over two years ago. She saw something that was happening around her and wanted to make a difference. 

Put succinctly, her favorite part of everything in her programs is the children and seeing them grow. “I love seeing how excited they are and engaged when working with us,” Sophia says. “So in our summer camps or in-person classes, their excitement is contagious.” 

A lot of the work Sophia does is providing educational accessibility to kids who may not have options otherwise.

“For me, it’s really important that children have access to these fun educational materials,” Sophia says. “We try to reach underserved communities, children in hospital settings, for example. I make sure I’m able to provide that because I had the chance when I was younger to find my passion by trying a lot of different activities.

“I want to be able to provide that for others.”

Since its inception in 2020, X-Time has had more than 300 student registrations for classes taught by professors from the University of Illinois, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, local business owners, published authors, and K-12 teachers. The classes range across the board from standard school subjects like math and science to even things like ballet, hip-hop, and martial arts. 

The educational materials take the form of X-Plore stations that condense the material into entertaining and digestible chunks. And the stations themselves are specialized for different environments depending on the needs of the kid. 

“When at hospitals, it was really important that I communicated closely with a child life specialist, as they know what materials can one be easily sanitized and are good for children to be able to use inside the hospital environment,” Sophia says.

“Where an X-Plore station in a community center looks a little different as a lot of the materials can be touched multiple times, they’re not sanitized after each use, so I think that’s been a really big learning point for me, making sure we’re really meeting the needs of our location and the needs of the community as well.”

Ultimately, Sophia wants to help kids learn in whatever way she can.

“I just want them to be excited to learn, excited to be able to have access to materials, and be able to find their passion,” Sophia says. “I think it’s really important that you’re able to find your spark something that you get excited about and are interested in learning and so being able to provide children with all these different activities, I hope that they can find their passion and take that with them.”

Find out more about getting involved or how you can support X-Time on their website.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


This group turns waste glass into beautiful kitchenware

Glass bottles, like any other kind of waste or trash, are usually discarded and disregarded by most people. According to the EPA, we only recycle about 31% of our glass, and glass waste makes up about 5% of the trash in landfills. 

One person didn’t see that glass as waste and wanted to find ways to reuse it, turning it into small-batch home and kitchen accessories.

Danielle Ruttenberg is the co-founder, alongside Rebecca Davies and Mark Ellis, of Remark Glass, a Philadelphia-based company that takes old glass and upcycles it into something new.

Things like old wine bottles can become brand-new kitchenware like bowls, cups, or even something like a chandelier.

The process starts with them cleaning and de-labeling the bottles, cutting them to whatever proportion they need, and prepping the glass for heat. Once it’s ready they melt and reshape the glass to whatever their need is. They also try to maintain some of the characteristics of the original glass object to maintain its essence. 

They use this as a tool to help address the recycling crisis and find a new use for objects that would be otherwise discarded and take up space, potentially at the bottom of the ocean. 

“By creating small batch home accessories from post-consumer bottle glass, we aim to build a more sustainable artform and manufacturing practice that simultaneously reduces glass waste on a local level,” they write on their website. 

They even started a sister non-profit called Bottle Underground to help address the problem further.

“Bottle Underground is committed to innovating and localizing systems for collection, recirculation, recycling, downcycling and upcycling,” they write on their website. “By maintaining a high-quality collection system, our team is dedicated to reducing waste now and making the best use of glass for our future.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


An Arizona plant will pull carbon from the air and put it in concrete

The most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. It traps and radiates heat and without CO2 the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect would be too weak to keep the average global surface temperature above freezing. 

The problem is that since the industrial revolution, the US has supercharged the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and is now one of the largest contributors to global warming and therefore climate change. 

To address this a plant in Arizona is working to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and trap it in cement. 

Cement is incredibly carbon-intensive to produce and startups and established construction firms alike have begun devising lower-carbon ways of making concrete. Three companies are working together on an industrial lot in Flagstaff, Arizona to do just that.

 Block-Lite, a family-owned masonry business, announced plans to produce concrete using an alternative cement process made by CarbonBuilt in combination with a process by Aircapture that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The trio got a $150,000 grant from the 4 Corners Carbon Coalition which is a network of local governments in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

“Atmospheric carbon dioxide removal and carbon utilization into products is on the critical path to addressing climate change,” said Matt Atwood, CEO of Aircapture. While the common assumption of industrial carbon application is that of a short lived product, we are demonstrating a novel solution to create permanent carbon storage sinks in our built environment.” 

The plan is to begin production in 2024 after retrofitting one of Block-Lite’s facilities and that plant will produce 30,000 metric tons per year of concrete, while also removing some 500 tons of atmospheric CO2 annually. This entire process will ideally cut CO2 emissions from concrete production by about 70%.

“We intend for this project to become a blueprint that can be replicated at many of the thousands of concrete manufacturing plants around the world,” said Rahul Shendure, CEO of CarbonBuilt.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action.


Rebuilding lives and neighborhoods through blooms

The last place you’d think to see blooming flowers in small farm plots would be the metropolitan cities across the US, but the Chicago Eco House is changing that while also promoting sustainability to help alleviate inner city poverty.

Chicago Eco House started out of the Southside of Chicago in 2014 as the brainchild of Quilen Blackwell. He took opportunities granted to him by his family and ran with them, first starting in the Peace Corps and later in ministry school which is what brought him to Chicago,

It was then, in Chicago, he realized what he wanted to do.

“I started tutoring at a high school here and getting to know these kids and their families and their stories,” Quilen tells Smiley News. “Just through that process, I really just felt like I had a choice, either I could continue to live my life the way I did, which was largely for me, and the people I cared about, or I could dedicate my life to serving a higher purpose.”

He went with the latter and the Chicago Eco House was born. Quilen wanted to find a way to help communities be more self-sustaining with better opportunities. 


“One of the things we quickly recognized is that there really isn’t an anchor industry in the hood,” Quilen says. “You think about a place like Silicon Valley, the anchor industry is tech, right? You think about Napa Valley, the anchor industry is wine, grapes, and the vineyard. When you think about places like Englewood on the Southside of Chicago, there isn’t that industry that people can really lean on.”

Quilen wanted to help make an anchor industry for inner city neighborhoods and landed on planting and selling flowers. But he wanted to do so in a way that was good for the planet.

“Once we started growing flowers we really wanted to do it in a way that would be sustainable because many people don’t realize the flower industry is one of the most environmentally degrading industries in the world,” he says. 

“Our farms are all solar-powered, we use rainwater catchment systems to irrigate our flowers. We don’t use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers or anything like that.”

Once they started growing their flowers, they then needed to figure out a place to sell them and that’s where their storefront, Southside Blooms came in. Southside Blooms opened in 2020 and since then they’ve worked as a direct-to-consumer flower-selling business. The business they generate helps provide work and support for at-risk teens in the community.

A big part of the expansion of the Chicago Eco House is making use of the empty lots that populate Chicago, with many being nearly unusable due to chemical pollution in the ground. Chicago Eco House is giving those pieces of land a second life. 

“We’ll come to clean all the trash when we set up,” Quilen says. “We’ll put compost, we’ll build our flower beds, we’ll set up our range or rainwater catchment tanks, build shed solar, kind of the whole nine yards.

“And then it basically helps to bring that space back to not just economic life because now we’re producing a cash crop and flowers, but it’s also helping to bring it back to life from an environmental standpoint.”

In general, Quilen just wants to make a difference in his community and eventually expand out Chicago Eco House to other metropolitan areas like Detroit to help the inner city.

“Our ultimate vision is to basically bring the floral industry to every major inner city in the United States,” Quilen says, “and really curtail a lot of violence and urban blight and drugs and the poverty that the inner city, unfortunately, has come to be known for.”

Find out more about Chicago Eco House and what you can do to support.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


An Arizona neighborhood is an urban forest and community pantry

A neighborhood outside of Tuscon, Arizona, called Dunbar Springs, has become an urban forest of sorts, with unpaved roads surrounded by food-bearing plants that are watered using rainwater diverted from the streets. The entire idea was to create an urban food forest that could serve as a natural pantry for the community. 

It all began about 30 years ago and serves as a tool to deal with climate change and rising food costs providing food for residents and roughage for livestock, plus a massive tree coverage in the third-fastest warming city in the nation. The amount of food they have is incredibly wide-ranging as well, with over 100 plant species in a single block.

“Since 1996 we’ve collaborated with our neighbors to plant over 1,600 native food- and medicine-bearing native trees and many hundreds of multi-use native understory plants,” the Dunbar Spring Neighborhood Foresters organization shares on its website.

All of that is fed by a stormwater system that irrigates the whole thing.

The original plan was just to plant weather-resistant shading trees to help alleviate some of the blistering heat in Arizona and now 30 years later its become something else entirely. 

“We can plant resilient native trees that are not dependent on imported water for irrigation,” said Brad Lancaster, a resident and co-founder of the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Foresters organization.

“Trees shade the street, reduce heat stress and provide food for our neighborhood.”

Find out more and see how you can support the neighborhood here.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Partners of the Goals.


Missouri schools are providing free period products to students

Feminine products can be costly. Generally, products geared toward women and feminine presenting people have something called the ‘pink tax’, which refers to state sales tax on menstrual products, like tampons, and feminine pads. To some people, these products can be too expensive for them to have consistent access to.

This is something that educators and school nurses in Missouri were noticing as they say their students struggle to afford period products and have missed school because of periods.

In response, Missouri school districts are now offering free menstrual hygiene products to students thanks to a new source of state funding.

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has $1 million to reimburse schools for menstrual hygiene products and now schools are going to start carrying them for free for students to help keep them in the classroom. 

“We have heard stories about students not being able to fund these products for themselves,” Bart Washer, Interim Assistant Commissioner with the Office of College and Career Readiness, said. “The fact that they can stay in school because they now have access to products that they need, we can focus on that level of care to help them continue learning.”

Every district qualifies for at least $500 in reimbursement but can apply for more if they have more students or higher-need students.

“We’re socialized to kind of overlook some of the issues that impact girls,” Jennings Senior High School Principal Cryslynn Billingsley said. “So here’s another opportunity for us to address some of that socialization, and that you don’t have to be ashamed about having a period.”

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


Reducing radon effects around the US

Something that not many people are aware of is radon and the effects that it can have on you. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and nearly one out of every 15 homes in the United States has high radon levels.

Some organizations and companies are trying to bring awareness to radon and its dangers. One such company, EcoSense, created a radon detection system called the EcoQube for just that reason. 

The EcoQube was built to also track the fluctuating levels of radon in the home.

“The general public does not know much when it comes to radon issues,” Insoo Park, the founder of EcoSense, tells Smiley News. “Something people did not know until my product was available was radon levels are fluctuating all the time. So even in a single day radon levels can fluctuate between safe and unsafe levels.”

Through their company, they are also trying to raise awareness about radon and how it can affect your body. The device itself tracks things in the short term while also monitoring long-term changes in the household.

“It’s very crucial to use a device that can do a short-term testing and also long-term testing in a very accurate and fast manner,” Insoo says.

They’re working to eliminate preventable deaths from radon exposure.

“21,000 people are dying to radon in the US every year,” Insoo says. “If we do the radon Testing the right way while being able to check the radon level in real-time and then by using a really accurate and fast manner device, then we can save a lot of lives so those 20,000 people don’t have to die.”

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


Swiss startup to equip raillines with solar panels

We’re really starting to get creative with how we generate power and energy as the effect of climate change start to become more apparent. One place trying its best to utilize space more efficiently to generate power is Switzerland.

Swiss railways are rolling out a project to install solar panels on their railways to generate power and ideally not take up as much space as solar farms usually do, creating a situation where railways are going to have multiple uses. 

Swiss start-up Sun-Ways is installing panels near Buttes train station in the west of the country in May as long as they get the signoff from the Federal Office of Transport. This is among a lot of other projects in the EU, finding creative places to put solar panels like reservoirs, dams, roadsides, and farms. 

But the Sun-Ways system is removable if needed, making it a first of its kind.

“That is the innovation,” co-founder Baptiste Danichert tells Swissinfo.

Sun-Ways has big ambitions for its project too, hoping to start rolling it out in other countries too. 

“There are over a million kilometres of railway lines in the world,” Danichert tells SWI Swissinfo. “We believe that 50 percent of the world’s railways could be equipped with our system.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action.