You don't have to be a world leader to make a difference. It's all in how you define leadership.

What can you accomplish through personal relationships, listening to others and caring enough to follow up? This year's recipients of the Newman's Own awards offer solid examples of the possibilities.

Laurie Phillips' son Chris was in business school when several of his friends returned to Richmond, Virginia, from deployments in Afghanistan, and had trouble finding jobs. One of the friends was sleeping on others' couches. Chris asked his mother whether there was something they could do to help, given her background in computers. They came up with an idea to refurbish computers donated by businesses — which normally must pay to have them recycled — and give those computers to nonprofits who work with veterans.

Chris wrote a business plan outlining a proposal, fulfilling a requirement for a class he was taking in the entrepreneur program. His professor gave him a C on the proposal, and said it would never work.

That didn't stop Chris and his mother.

Two years later, the nonprofit Tech for Troops is thriving, providing transitional jobs to veterans who transtion to higher-paying, more permanent positions. The program received a $30,000 grant from Newman's Own, which will help expand the model to other areas of the country.

"We're at the point now where we are hiring veterans to help process computers," said Laurie Phillips, who added that it's a "thrill" to be able to give jobs to vets.

Companies also are asking the nonprofit to send veterans to them, and they'll train them and hire them. "It's turned into its own ecosystem," she said.

The veteran who once slept on Chris' couch was able to work for the nonprofit, and through that experience and the connections he made, has landed a full-time job. "He's in a great place right now," Laurie Phillips said.

So are a lot of other veterans who have been the beneficiaries of Tech For Troops computers donated to nonprofits who either provide computers directly to veterans or put them in their facilities, where they are used for a variety of purposes.

At a recent networking event, a veteran told the group that she had gotten her job because of a computer donated by Tech for Troops. Now she works helping other vets.

Chris said he hasn't told that doubting professor about the success of his proposal.

But somebody should. Chris saw a problem, and he and his mother cared enough to take the time and effort to come up with an idea, pursue it, and tackle that problem.

That's what it takes to make a difference — one person at a time.

Neither Chris nor Laurie Phillips had any military ties when they started this project.

They do now.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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