Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (CNN) - For years, Jennifer Cervantes struggled to make ends meet.
She worked 30 hours a week at Wal-Mart, but her paycheck - along with child support and disability payments - never seemed to cover living expenses for her and her five kids. Despite her best efforts, she kept falling further behind.
"Paying the rent, electric and gas - it takes everything I have," she said. "I don't like digging up change ... so I can buy the kids' food. I needed help somehow, somewhere."
Desperate, Cervantes decided to write a letter to Sal Dimiceli, whose newspaper column might be considered a "Dear Abby" for the down and out.
Within a few weeks, Dimiceli showed up on her doorstep. They talked for a while, and then he offered to pay one month's rent as well as her outstanding gas and electric bills. He also went to the local grocery store and stocked the family's empty refrigerator.
"I was shocked," Cervantes said. "I feel relieved. The kids are getting tired of macaroni cheese and Ramen soup every night."
It was just another day's work for Dimiceli, a 60-year-old real estate broker whose weekly column in the Lake Geneva Regional News focuses on people in dire straits. Through his column and his nonprofit, The Time Is Now To Help, Dimiceli has provided about 500 people a year with food, rent, utilities and other necessities.
San Antonio, Texas (CNN) - For Holly Hirshberg, gardening started as a way to bond with her children. But when the recession hit, her backyard hobby became a necessity.
"In 2008, my husband lost his job just like many other Americans, and we were living off of our garden," she said.
Hirshberg and her family of four ate a variety of homegrown foods - including broccoli, carrots, okra, squash and tomatoes - so they could make ends meet. She was pleasantly surprised by how simple and healthful they were.
"It was nice to know that not only could I take care of (my family) out of what I grew in my garden, but I could take care of them really well," she said.
After realizing how much nutritious food she was able to grow, Hirshberg began collecting seeds from her garden and sharing them with others.
In 2008, she started The Dinner Garden, an organization that provides free packs of seeds to people so they can grow enough food to feed a family of four. Since its inception, The Dinner Garden has provided seeds to 65,000 families across the United States.
Phuket, Thailand (CNN) - When Southeast Asia was rocked by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2004, Susanne Janson was glued to her television in Stockholm, Sweden.
Her two daughters - 14-year-old Eleonor and 12-year-old Josefin - were vacationing in Thailand at the time with her ex-husband and his new family, and she hadn't heard any news of their whereabouts because phone lines were unreliable.
With such a lack of information, it didn't take long for Janson and her partner, Hans Forssell, to hop on a plane.
"I was so sure that when we arrived in Thailand, I would have a (text) message telling me that I could come back home because we missed each other in the air," Janson recalls. "Unfortunately, I didn't have that message."
When Janson and Forssell arrived in Khao Lak, the city her daughters were staying in, they learned that it had been one of Thailand's hardest-hit areas.
"There was nothing left ... everything had disappeared," Janson said.
Eventually, she had to face a tragic reality: that her daughters had perished along with their father and three other members of his family.
"When I realized I wouldn't bring them back home alive, I wanted to die," said Janson, 47.
Hanoi, Vietnam (CNN) - Five years ago, Pham Binh Minh was a 15-year-old spending his nights on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam's capital.
With his father dead and his mother too poor to adequately feed or clothe him, Pham survived by collecting and selling scrap.
"I didn't have time to make friends," he said. "The friends I did have ... would take me to do work that wasn't good. ... We would rob and steal from people. ... I was scared I would get arrested. I was scared people would hit me. I felt unsafe."
It's an all-too-common story in Hanoi, where many Vietnamese youth - often poor children from outside the city - seek opportunity. If they're lucky, they're able to get by working odd jobs such as shining shoes or selling trinkets.
"Kids come to the streets hoping that it'll be better than living in poverty in the countryside, but often they find that things are much worse for them here," said Michael Brosowski, whose nonprofit foundation helps Vietnamese street children turn their lives around.
It was through Brosowski's Blue Dragon Children's Foundation that Pham was able to graduate high school and enroll in college. Since 2004, Blue Dragon has helped more than 350 Vietnamese children get off the streets and into school.
Atlanta (CNN) - That bar of soap you used once or twice during your last hotel stay might now be helping poor children fight disease.
Derreck Kayongo and his Atlanta-based Global Soap Project collect used hotel soap from across the United States. Instead of ending up in landfills, the soaps are cleaned and reprocessed for shipment to impoverished nations such as Haiti, Uganda, Kenya and Swaziland.
"I was shocked just to know how much (soap) at the end of the day was thrown away," Kayongo said. Each year, hundreds of millions of soap bars are discarded in North America alone. "Are we really throwing away that much soap at the expense of other people who don't have anything? It just doesn't sound right."
Kayongo, a Uganda native, thought of the idea in the early 1990s, when he first arrived to the U.S. and stayed at a hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He noticed that his bathroom was replenished with new soap bars every day, even though they were only slightly used.
"I tried to return the new soap to the concierge since I thought they were charging me for it," Kayongo said. "When I was told it was just hotel policy to provide new soap every day, I couldn't believe it."
Bariloche, Argentina (CNN) - During a visit to Argentina 11 years ago, Elena Durón Miranda was horrified to see children as young as 3 years old rummaging through a trash dump for food and valuable materials.
"I saw children collect green sausages, a bag of potato chip crumbs, a bag of noodles with cream, and recovered leftover yogurt next to a diaper," said Durón Miranda, a Mexican psychologist who was visiting Bariloche to do research. "The children began to gently clean the food - wiping each little noodle, each potato and peeling the sausage skin so methodically and accurately. It was as if they had done this same activity many times."
Durón Miranda said there were maybe 200 children at the dump collecting things to eat and sell.
"At that moment in time, my son was the same age as many of them," said Durón Miranda, now 41. "So that struck me as horrific."
Durón Miranda learned that many children in Bariloche, a popular city for skiers and tourists in southern Argentina, drop out of school and spend their lives working at the dump.
Determined to restore their dignity, Durón Miranda decided to stay in the country and start a nonprofit called PETISOS, which stands for Prevención y Erradicación del Trabajo Infantil SOS (Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor SOS). The organization aims to provide children with free education and extracurricular programs so they have an alternative to working.