Over the past year, Reporter Newspapers has spotlighted local individuals and groups who have dedicated time and energy to improving our cities and neighborhoods.

They contribute in a wide variety of ways. Some sew or knit clothing or blankets to warm people in hospitals. Some help raise money for schools or charities or provide executive skills needed to operate nonprofit groups efficiently. Others throw a party for needy families during the holidays or spend a few hours picking up trash from the side of the road.

As 2012 draws to a close and 2013 rolls in, we’d like to once again salute these individuals and organizations making a difference in our communities.

Todd Banister, Adam Caskey and Darren Miller, three buddies in Brookhaven, decided to join forces with a neighbor about five years ago to start a fundraiser for Ashford Park Elementary. They organized the Brookhaven Bolt, a 5-kilometer road race that has become a Brookhaven institution and a major source of discretionary funds for the school. “Brookhaven’s our spot,” Miller said. “I love this place. It makes a better community if we’ve got a sweet little school in the middle.”

Jim Cochrane, a Georgia Tech grad who spent his career programming and designing computers, had a brainstorm about ways to help his neighbors at the Lenbrook retirement community in Brookhaven. The 70-year-old organized the Geezer Squad, a group of tech-savvy retirees who make free house calls to fix their neighbors’ computers. And he teaches beginner computer classes so residents can learn to email their grandchildren. “The Geezer Squad is not experts, and there are some things we can’t fix,” Cochrane said, “but a lot of problems can be fixed without being an expert. Most likely, the thing’s not plugged in or the printer queue is stuck.”

Community gardens have spread across local communities as more residents want to grow their own fresh vegetables. The gardens yield another benefit – more, and fresher, food for local food banks and soup kitchens. Many gardens set aside some space to grow food for charity, and private gardeners often will donate some of their excess produce as well. The Dunwoody Community Garden, for example, helped build a garden for Malachi’s Storehouse, which provides emergency groceries to low-income families. “They really have helped us feed our clients nutritious, organic produce,” Malachi’s co-director Kathy Malcolm Hall said. “It’s been so great.”

Betty Golden started knitting caps and scarves for kids at local children’s hospitals in 2009. She began her project to honor a paramedic who helped her husband, who passed away three years ago. Soon others joined in and the Buckhead 86-year-old was the center of a band of knitters that has produced thousands of hats and scarves to warm hospitalized children. “I get hats from people I never see, even out-of-towners who knit at home and send me hats,” Golden said.

Bill Grant, a Dunwoody builder and board member of the city’s chamber of commerce, decided back in the 1980s that he should do something to clean up a scruffy triangle of land at the intersection of Ashford-Dunwoody and Mount Vernon roads. With that, Dunwoody’s Adopt-A-Spot program was born. Soon others around town were volunteering to clean up spots, too. Once Dunwoody became a city, the new government took over the program and expanded it. Grant still has his hand in: He oversees about five “spots” scattered around the Dunwoody Village area. “I have people I’ve never seen in my life walk into my office and thank me,” Grant said.

Jen Guynn of Dunwoody and her friend Jeni Stephens were talking about how to get kids involved in volunteer work and Stephens mentioned her idea for “a birthday party with a purpose.” From that notion grew Pebble Tossers, a nonprofit the two founded to help kids get involved in their communities as volunteers. The idea was to spread volunteer work like ripples created by tossing a pebble into a pond. “We wanted to watch the ripples expand,” Guynn said. “The ripple effect – it starts with one little kid finding the right project.”

Dan and Edna Hollums have devoted more than two decades to supporting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as volunteers. The Sandy Springs couple served coffee to the volunteers working on decorator show houses, worked as docents when the houses were open to the public, even ushered for symphony outreach programs. “We’ve been foot soldiers,” Dan Hollums said.

Keep Atlanta Beautiful, a nonprofit dedicated to a cleaner city, expanded its recycling operations into Buckhead last year and residents immediately responded. The Buckhead drop-off point operates the first Saturday of each month at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. When it first opened, it drew about 40 cars a day. Within just a few months, the number of vehicles had jumped to more than 200.

Christa Krause of Brookhaven says she’s volunteered for just about every job at Northside Hospital “except pastoral services and work in the pharmacy.” She’s escorted patients to and from their cars, answered phones on the oncology floor, spent time in the emergency room and been president of the hospital auxiliary. Along the way, she’s logged 29,000 hours at the hospital as a volunteer. And when she’s at home, she knits blankets for the hospital nursery. “I’m a professional volunteer, I suppose,” she said with a laugh. “But I love it.… I can’t just sit around. And having the camaraderie of all the great volunteers has been wonderful.”

Jim Miller Jr., a long-time Buckhead banker, received Senior Connections’ Community Connections award, which honors an older adult with a track record of community and business leadership. Miller has devoted time to philanthropic causes from the Atlanta Opera to the State Botanical Garden to the Shepherd Center. “Giving is what life is about,” he said. “If you just focus on yourself, you’re missing out on the whole point. It sounds sort of corny, but it’s the truth.”

Peach State Stitchers. With needle and thread, the 56 members of the Dunwoody-based chapter of Peach State Stitchers sew and donate blankets for use by cancer patients at Northside Hospital.

radKIDS, a personal empowerment and safety program for youngsters, has been offered in a number of churches and Y’s around our local communities in the past several years. The program started in Massachusetts, where a former small-town police chief named Steve Daly said he wanted to put an end to the victimization of children. In Georgia, about 65 classes a year are offered through an organization called Keep Georgia Safe.

Bill Schwendler contributed his business training for more than two decades to the Interfaith Outreach Home, which helps homeless families get back on their feet. The Dunwoody resident twice was president of the home’s board of directors and for a while worked part-time as its financial officer. “I am fundamentally a businessman,” Schwendler said. “What gets me are underused assets. These folks are assets. Interfaith helps homeless families get to where they will never homeless again.”

Claire Smith and June Weitnauer met three decades ago while volunteering at the Shepherd Center’s gift shop, which they said started out as a card table, a box of chocolate bars and a jar of chewing gum. The two friends now live in the Lenbrook retirement community in Brookhaven and continue to volunteer and raise funds for the center.

Rob “Waldo” Waldman of Dunwoody and his twin brother, Dave, organized the “Ultimate Wingman Georgia Heroes Banquet” to raise money for the nonprofit Wingman Foundation, a charity intended to raise money and awareness for groups that support military personnel and their families. “I want to be a conduit of awareness for all the nonprofits that have professionals in place to help our veterans,” Rob Waldman said.

Adam Wickley enjoyed coaching his sons’ baseball teams. But when his son Jackson wanted to play, his speech delays and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder meant he didn’t fit on most teams. So Wickley started the Frontier League at Murphey Candler Park for kids like Jackson. The new league quickly grew to four teams. “I wanted Jackson to have the same opportunity as his brothers to play real baseball,” Wickley said.

Amy Zeide was just 12 when she saw a news report that a local shelter had been robbed of the toys it had collected for the holidays, and had the notion to throw a holiday party of her own for needy families. Now 30 and religious school director of Congregation B’Nai Torah in Sandy Springs, she still hosts her annual Amy’s Holiday Party. The gathering offers games, food, photos with Santa and a visit to a toy room where partygoers can pick two presents. This year’s party was to have a new volunteer helping out: Zeide’s 4-year-old son, Jeremy. “We’ve talked about what it means to give back to people who don’t have as much as we do, and he’s ready to make sure others have toys they can love as much as he loves his,” she said.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.