Meet The Inspiring 2012 Purpose Prize Winners Selected By

You can have your Oscars, your Kennedy Honors, even your Hasty Puddings. For my money, the most important award of the year is the one that was just announced today: The Purpose Prize, given to people 60 and older who are truly making a difference in the world., the nonprofit whose mission is to “promote second acts for the greater good,” gives the annual award and $100,000 to five winners; the seven-year-old program is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and The Atlantic

A former drug addict who spent years in and out of jail, Burton is an advocate for women who are also former inmates. She is founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in Los Angeles, which helps female parolees — and their children — start fresh, by offering them housing, legal services and job training.

Lorraine Decker, 64

This financial planner is president and chief executive of Skills for Living, a Houston nonprofit that provides free financial, career and college-planning workshops to local low- and moderate-income adults and at-risk students.

Thomas Cox, 68

After spending decades as a lawyer representing mortgage lenders, Cox, of Portland, Maine, blew the whistle on the huge foreclosure fraud known as “robo-signing.” That led to a $25 billion settlement for consumers. He is now volunteer coordinator for Maine Attorneys Saving Homes, a nonprofit providing legal assistance to low-income homeowners facing foreclosure.

Bhagwati (B.P.) Agrawal, 68

As the founder and executive director of Sustainable Innovations, in Fairfax, Va., Agrawal is working to mitigate the water shortage in his native India.

Judy Cockerton, 61

The winner of the Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation, sponsored by AARP, Cockerton aims to transform America’s foster care system through her Treehouse Foundation. The nonprofit has created a mixed-income housing community in Cockerton’s native Easthampton, Mass., where families who have adopted foster children (or plan to) live among “honorary grandparents” age 55 and older and volunteers serve as mentors, tutors and counselors

Awards With an Eye to the Future

“The Purpose Prize makes a big investment in social innovators over 60, not for what they have accomplished, but for what they will do next,” says Michelle Hynes, the Purpose Prize team leader, based in Portland, Ore.

Hynes cites Cox as a perfect example. “I think the work he’s doing now, training attorneys, has tremendous potential for its future impact not just in Maine, but across the country in the way courts and banks deal with many homeowners who are suffering,” Hynes told me.

Similarly, Cockerton’s work can have “an enormous impact on children that many of us don’t see and don’t think about every day,” Hynes says.

In addition to the five winners, is also recognizing 35 finalists as Purpose Prize Fellows for their outstanding contributions in their communities. (Agrawal was a 2009 Encore Fellow.) The 40 men and women were selected from a pool of more than 800 nominees.

How the Prizes Propel Causes

The Purpose Prize winners are free to use the $100,000 any way they like. But don’t expect to see them buying hot, red Camaros with their windfall, like the Missouri Powerball winners.

“If you’re a small or new organization, $100,000 can really change the trajectory of what you’re doing,” Hynes says. “And we’ve already seen that happen.”

One example: Conchy Bretos of Miami, one of the inaugural Purpose Prize winners in 2006 for her work creating the first public housing project to bring assisted living services to its residents. Since then, her Mia Senior Living Solutions has ballooned by developing, operating and owning senior living facilities in the Northeast and Southeast. Bretos was named one of America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs of 2011 by Bloomberg Businessweek.

These days, when the world seems smitten by people who’ve achieved celebrity status for no particular reason, it’s a pleasure to celebrate these humble men and women giving a purpose to their lives — and ours.

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