Special Report

Biggest Heroes of the Year

Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

There’s an old adage that says “no news is good news.” In 2019, we had plenty of news. Many of the largest news stories certainly were not “good news” — covering anything from the ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump to multiple large-scale acts of violence to severe weather events and the looming threat of climate change. Yet among these disheartening headlines, there were many instances of heroes helping out their fellow citizens, their communities, and the world at large.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed positive news stories from a variety of outlets, including Good News Network, to determine 20 of the biggest heroes of 2019.

Heroes come in many forms. Some are humanitarians who work tirelessly to improve the lives of those around them. The humanitarian heroes on our list have dedicated themselves to many different causes, be it providing much-needed health care in the developing world or providing transitional housing to get homeless veterans back on their feet after serving. Here are 19 hero humanitarian workers you should know about.

Other heroes were simply in the right place at the right time, helping others who were facing dangerous circumstances. These people risked life and limb to pull people out of burning cars or sinking ships. Several of these good Samaritans were either law enforcement officers or members of the military who have had years of experience and training running towards danger instead of away from it. These are 50 of America’s most decorated war heroes.

Click here to see the biggest heroes of the year.

Source: Courtesy of Stafford Fire Department

1. Edward Cyr

Edward Cyr is a good Samaritan whose actions saved the life of a fellow motorist on a Stafford, Connecticut, road in November. Cyr was on his way to dinner with his wife when he saw a car engulfed in flames. Without regard for his own safety, he rushed to the scene and unbuckled the dazed driver, pulled him out of the car, and removed his hat and coat which caught fire.

The driver, Glennwood Little, suffered from a few burns but was otherwise okay. Little had been driving home with fuel tanks in his trunk. When one of them spilled, his cigarette ignited the fuel, causing an explosion.


Source: Odaw / Wikimedia Commons

2. Abiy Ahmed Ali

Serving as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia since April 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The committee attributed their decision to several of the new leader’s pledges, which include resolving the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea, implementing reforms to improve quality of life, strengthening democracy, and engaging in peace and reconciliation projects in the region.

In a stark break from how the east African country has been ruled in the past, Mr. Abiy has adopted a more liberal approach to government and wants to foster a sense of national unity and overcome ethnic divisions while also celebrating diversity. He outlined his vision in his book “Medemer,” which was released in Ethiopia in October.

Source: Courtesy of Vista Equity Partners Management

3. Robert F. Smith

In the United States, student loan debt has reached crisis levels. Americans owe $1.4 trillion in student loans, more than any other form of debt after mortgages. While politicians argue about the best way to address the issue, billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith did something about it.

In May 2019, Smith pledged to pay off all student loan debt for Morehouse College’s graduating class of 2019. The collective bill totaled $34 million, and includes the debt the students’ parents took out to put their kids through college. His announcement came when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Morehouse, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta.

Source: Courtesy of Chicago Police Department

4. Mike Nowacki

Nineteen year Chicago PD veteran Sgt. Mike Nowacki was running a 15k race — in 50 pounds of SWAT gear in a show of appreciation for law enforcement — when, less than 200 yards from the finish line, he heard calls for a medic. Nowacki stopped running and found a crowd gathered around an unconscious woman who wasn’t breathing. Along with a firefighter, Nowacki provided life saving CPR until an ambulance came to take the woman to the hospital. Nowacki then went on to finish the marathon, and after crossing the finish line, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend. She said “yes.”


Source: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

5. Greta Thunberg

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg embarked on a new venture to draw attention to the climate crisis. The 16-year-old set sail from Plymouth in England earlier this year aboard a solar-powered yacht for the United States. She reached New York in late August before the start of climate talks in the U.S. She had initially planned to continue her voyage to Santiago, Chile but that changed when the Chilean government decided to no longer host the U.N. climate conference due to ongoing protests. Thunberg did address the U.N. and spoke at a rally in New York, and her remarks resonated with many worldwide.

Source: U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Mandy Foster

6. Kenneth O’Brien

U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Kenneth O’Brien was flying to Dallas from Okinawa to receive the 2019 Outstanding Airman of the Year award when he noticed a 1-year-old choking. After another passenger failed to clear the baby’s airway, O’Brien performed CPR and back thrusts until the baby regained consciousness. In a characteristically modest way, O’Brien simply said: “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”


Source: Courtesy of Dixie Divers

7. Dixie Divers

In June, 633 divers at Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier in Florida broke the Guinness World Record for the largest underwater cleanup. The group, known as the Dixie Divers, retrieved well over 1,000 pounds of debris, garbage, and fishing equipment. Locals say the record-breaking cleanup has noticeably improved the quality of Deerfield Beach’s water, and they are optimistic the area’s marine life can thrive as a result.

Source: Courtesy of U.S. Army

8. Chris Stout

Since 2015, Chris Stout and the rest of the Veterans Community Project have worked to support former service members readjust to civilian life and end veteran homelessness. Stout says many veterans refuse to go into homeless shelters when returning from service and end up on the street.

To combat this issue, VCP provides former service members in the Kansas City area who are facing a housing crisis with a tiny house in their transitional community. Veterans can also receive food and transit support, as well as assistance with their mental and physical health and finances. Thanks to the success of the program in Kansas City, VCP has expanded to Longmont, Colorado and now plans to expand to St. Louis, Missouri, and Orlando, Florida.

Source: Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

9. Clearwater Marine Aquarium

In September, a group of four dolphins got caught in a canal in St. Petersburg, Florida and could not find their way out, believing the bridges to be blocking their path. Luckily, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s team of trained staff came to the rescue. They made a human blockade to encourage the dolphins to swim out of the canal and back where they belong.

This type of rescue can be dangerous not only to the wildlife, but to the humans attempting it as well. In fact, it is illegal for anyone to engage in such a rescue without authorization.


Source: vladamk / Wikimedia Commons

10. Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev rank on this list for their mutual diplomatic efforts. The two leaders set aside decades of bitterness between their two countries when Greece became the first nation to ratify Macedonia’s NATO membership, after helping to stall it for years. Weeks prior, the two countries agreed to change Macedonia’s name to North Macedonia in a symbolic gesture that many Greeks opposed on the grounds that it represented the ex-Yugoslav state appropriating Greek history.

Source: Rich Polk / Getty Images

11. Dr. Jane Aronson

Dr. Jane Aronson, a pediatric physician, was named one of 2019’s Top Global Humanitarian Leaders for her work as CEO of Worldwide Orphans, an organization that provides education, medicine, and emotional support for orphaned and abandoned children across the globe. The organization has reached children in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.


Source: U.S. Army photo / Vin Stevens

12. Pfc. Glendon Oakley

Pfc. Glendon Oakley, a soldier in the 1st Armored Division, was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his actions during the Aug. 3 shooting at an El Paso Walmart. Oakley was shopping at Cielo Vista Mall when he heard the gunfire. He then noticed a group of frightened children who he guided and carried away from the gunfire to safety. “They were just scared, so I just did what I could do,” Oakley said, adding that he may not have reacted as he did if it were not for his military training. “I’m thankful to be in the military and for what they’ve taught me.”

Source: Victor Boyko / Getty Images

13. Dr. Tom Catena

Sudan has spent a good part of the 21st century in war and conflict. This strife has made it difficult for much of Sudan’s population to find access to quality health care — especially in remote areas like the Nuba Mountains, where humanitarian aid is restricted. Dr. Tom Catena is currently the only doctor permanently stationed in that region as part of the Sudan Relief Fund. Catena estimates that he performs over 1,000 operations annually.

Source: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

14. Conan

Following the U.S. military operation that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, President Donald Trump released an image of the only American injured in the siege — a Belgian Malinois. Though the dog’s name was classified when the dog’s photo was released, the public has since learned the four-legged fighter is named Conan, after comedian and talk show host Conan O’Brien.

Conan played a critical role in taking out Baghdadi, chasing him down a tunnel and cornering him before he detonated a suicide vest. Conan’s injuries were minor and treatable.


Source: Mike Coppola / Getty Images

15. Umra Omar

Umra Omar is the founder and director of Safari Doctors, a group that provides medical care to people along Kenya’s coast. This project fills a void left after a previous medical aid project in the area was scrapped because of security concerns over terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Across eight villages, Omar and Safari Doctors help treat hundreds of patients every month. The team has been lauded by the United Nations, CNN, and others.

Source: Courtesy of Coast Guard Station Brunswick

16. Coast Guard Station Brunswick

A Korean cargo ship, the Golden Ray, was disembarking from Brunswick, Georgia around 2 a.m. one September Sunday morning, on its way to Baltimore, when disaster struck. The boat began to sink. Soon after, 20 of the 24 crew had been rescued, but a fire on the sinking ship prevented any further rescue efforts. Fortunately, after more than a day, when they could finally approach the ship, Coast Guard rescuers heard tapping coming from inside. They cut a hole into the ship’s metal hull and rescued the four remaining crew members alive and well.


Source: Courtesy of World of Children

17. Grace Callwood

Maryland native Grace Gallwood demonstrated her selflessness time and again as a young child by organizing fundraisers for food banks and children’s hospitals. At age seven, Callwood was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

After her diagnosis, Callwood founded The We Cancerve Movement to help sick, homeless, and foster children. The organization has led to numerous spin-off causes and has helped over 14,000 children to date. For her hard work, Callwood was awarded the 2019 Youth Award by World of Children, a nonprofit that focuses on children’s issues like education, health, safety, and human rights. Now Grace is 15, cancer free, and starting high school.

Source: Courtesy of Chandler Police Department

18. Officer Aaron Little

Police officers are trusted with keeping us safe — from criminals, different dangers, and sometimes from ourselves. Officer Aaron Little of the Chandler Police Department came across a man who had climbed over the guard rail of a Phoenix, Arizona, overpass with the intention of jumping. Officer Little began trying to coax the man off the ledge, offering him compassion and a hug. Eventually, after a few minutes, the man climbed back onto the walkway and into Officer Little’s arms.

Source: Kid's Rights / Wikimedia Commons

19. Michaela Mycroft

Michaela Mycroft was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was less than a year old. Instead of letting her disability hold her back, the 24-year-old is working to make the world a better place for other people who face mobility challenges. Mycroft co-founded the Chaeli Campaign, which aims to make South Africa a more accessible and accepting place for those with special mobility needs. Advocacy group World of Children recently named Mycroft one of its Hero Award Honorees.


Source: Courtesy of Salisbury Police

20. Andrew Lunn

Andrew Lunn is one of several good Samaritans to rank among the biggest heroes of 2019. About to begin his shift at a rehabilitation center, 52-year-old Lunn watched as a motorist accidentally reversed his car into the Wicomico River. He quickly told nearby colleagues to gather life preservers and dial 911. When it became clear that law enforcement would not arrive on time, Lunn instructed the driver to remain calm and unbuckle his seatbelt. He then proceeded to jump into the river with a life preserver and pull the injured driver out of his car.

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