Introduced in December 2002 by Volvo Cars of North America (VNCA), the Volvo for life Awards became the largest-ever national search for and celebration of everyday heroes. Since 2002, VCNA received more than 10,000 nominations from all 50 states, provided more than $1 million in awards and contributions in honor of heroes, and more than $5 million to help hometown heroes continue their extraordinary work in their communities.
In its first year, Volvo called for nominations of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and more than 2,000 hero nominations were submitted. At a New York awards ceremony in April 2003, judges – Hank Aaron, Paul Newman, Caroline Kennedy, Bill Bradley, Jane Goodall, Maya Lin, Sally Ride and Eunice Kennedy Shriver – named Robert Young the top hero. Volvo provided Young and his organization $60,000 in grants, and a Volvo every three years for the rest of his life.
Five more heroes would be named after Young, and throughout the summer, we will re-tell their amazing stories of inspiration and fill you in on what they’ve been up to since Volvo named them America’s Greatest Hometown Heroes.
In 2003, Robert Young – former resident of Bozeman, Mont., and current resident of Seattle – was named America’s Greatest Hometown Hero by celebrities including Hank Aaron, Paul Newman and Caroline Kennedy in the inaugural Volvo for life Awards (VFLA). Young, now 50, was recognized for his work through the organization he founded, Bozeman-based Red Feather Development Group, which helps American Indians experiencing a severe reservation housing shortage by building housing out of a sustainable resource: straw bales. He received $60,000 in grants for Red Feather, and a Volvo every three years for the rest of his life.
“It was incredible to be honored by Volvo with such a prestigious and generous award back in 2003,” Young said. “In fact, it has had an enduring impact on my life and the lives of those Red Feather supports. So much of Red Feather’s ability to impact the soaring homelessness rates on the reservations can be directly linked to winning the Volvo for life Award.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported that of the approximately 2.5 million tribal members living on American Indian reservations, more than 60 percent lack adequate housing and live in life-threatening, substandard conditions. Many more live together – in groups of up to 20 people in some cases – in dilapidated, noninsulated trailers. All too often, native elders have frozen to death in their homes during severe winter storms.
The grant from Volvo supported Red Feather’s effort to design a straw bale model as a homebuilding approach three times more energy-efficient than a typical home. With Young’s help, some families were even able to save enough in monthly heating costs alone to pay the majority of their home mortgage. More importantly, they have found a lasting solution to a problem that has plagued native communities for decades.
Where are they now: Red Feather
For 7-8 years that followed the award, exposure and media attention was substantial. “There were too many articles and stories to count!” said Young.
“The VFLA award, with its prestige, exposure and connections to other pioneering heroes, had an impact on Red Feather greater than even our most high profile media stories,” quipped Young. “I think it just goes to show how hard the Volvo for life Award worked for the organization. The connections and leverage has been invaluable.”
Prior to receiving the award, Red Feather had a difficult time gaining the public’s attention and the funding needed to operate its much-needed program. “Thanks to Volvo, Red Feather was able to show the nation that there really is a housing and poverty issue on our reservations – and a group working with native people to identify a possible solution,” said Young. “Volvo brought that to life.”
Red Feather has now shifted its focus to serve as an educational resource partnering with native communities to determine the most efficient ways to allocate resources to address homelessness. “Red Feather is teaching the teacher and teaching the communities how to do it on their own so they can best address housing concerns from within, in a sustainable way.”
Where are they now: Robert Young
After 20 years with Red Feather, Young transitioned to a role with Seattle-based Camp Korey, one of Paul Newman’s SeriousFun Camps, which provides a free camp experience for children and their families facing serious illness.
Young said the connection to SeriousFun Camps came twofold through VFLA ties: Alex Scott, the beneficiary and inspiration for VFLA’s Butterfly Award and founder of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and Paul Newman, a VFLA judge.
“Having the opportunity to meet Alex and seeing what she was doing – raising $1 million for pediatric cancer research while battling cancer herself – affected me and my wife profoundly. That stuck with me,” said Young.
Since 2003, Young stayed in touch with Newman, and his daughter, Nell, who helped influence his decision to accept the opportunity at Camp Korey.
The kids Young has met through his new role with SeriousFun Camps reminds him of the time he spent with Alex through the Volvo for life Awards.
“We get to see kids come to camp and have an amazing time. It changes their outlook on life and they move away from feeling broken as we all would when dealing with something like cancer,” said Young. “They learn what defines them – which is not their illness. They leave here thinking they can accomplish anything they want to do. It’s this kind of hope that Volvo has supported through VFLA and other initiatives through the years, and I’m eternally grateful. If I can take anything from Volvo it’s that you help provide that experience to a kid.”
Young chose a 2004 Volvo XC90 as his first vehicle. In October 2006, he turned in the car for another free Volvo XC90. And another in 2009.
“It fits us well,” said Young. “We were in Montana for almost 10 years, and the Volvo XC90 was perfect. We never had an issue. More than that, there were so many special and important drives we’ve made in our Volvo across the reservations, from Montana to North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona. Our family would pile in and visit our various projects on the reservation. It was always comfortable, always safe and a great way to get around. The best way to travel is in a Volvo.”
With a new lease in 2012, Young and his wife are excited to test out a new model: the Volvo XC60.