It is an awards show where you hear some unusual words coming out of the winners’ mouths, as in, "It’s not about me." And therein lies the spirit of celebrating everyday people who are changing the world in the two-hour program that is "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute.”
The sixth annual edition of the show, hosted again by the cable news net’s Anderson Cooper, was broadcast live Sunday, Dec. 2, from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and honored 10 individuals who are making extraordinary contributions to improving the lives of others – in communities from Kathmandu to Butte, Boulder to Port-au-Prince and Boca Raton to Cartagena.
Actor Harvey Keitel set the tone as he opened the show against a stark background by describing heroes like Malala Yousufzai, the young girl who was shot in Pakistan for promoting girls’ rights to an education, and the father who died as a result of Hurricane Sandy with his arms around the son he was trying to save from the floodwaters.
"As a young Marine, I was taught to help people who can’t help themselves," Keitel said. "Heroes speak the language of humanity. There are those who rise to the occasion and those who wake up every day and do heroic work."
CNN’s honorees are all inspirational individuals who seem to have certain characteristics in common. As their stories unfolded in well-produced pre-taped packages, it was apparent they were motivated by personal tragedy, such as losing a child, or were struck by a tremendous injustice, or in a moment of clarity, simply recognized a gaping need.
Many work with children, like Nepal’s Pushpa Basnet, who discovered eight years ago that children whose parents are sent to prison in Kathmandu are forced to live behind bars as well — in dire conditions. She started a day care center for the incarcerated children where they could learn to read, sing and draw, and eventually a home where dozens of children were able to live and start a new life. Within a few years, she hopes to build another group home with its own school for the kids and to create a college savings fund so they can continue their educations.
Basnet was introduced by Susan Sarandon, who is making a documentary about her. And like every one of the heroes, the audience gave her a heartfelt standing ovation. She was later awarded the Hero of the Year honor.
Then there was Connie Siskowski, introduced by Adrien Brody, who is shining a light on the more than 1 million children who are caregivers to disabled, ill or aging family members, and as a result struggle in school. She witnessed this growing crisis in her community of Boca Raton, Fla., and started the American Association of Caregiving Youth, which provides counseling, tutoring, transportation, computers and household items — with the goal of making sure that no child drops out of school because of caregiving responsibilities.
Young girls in Afghanistan have a difficult time getting access to education at all, and that’s where Razia Jan stepped in to make an impact. After living in the United States for 30 years and seeing what the Taliban was doing to her native country, she returned and acquired a piece of land on which to build a school for girls. After meeting with the village leaders and explaining why it would be a wonderful thing for their daughters to attend, it opened its doors in 2008 to 140 girls, 90% of whom couldn’t read or write. Now the youngsters study math, science and language, even while under constant threat of attack from those who oppose their learning.
"Please hold my hand [through this],” said Jan, after being presented with her commendation by actress Viola Davis.
Underscoring the treacherousness in that part of the world, Cooper then read a message from Malala, who is recovering from her gunshots in a British hospital, acknowledging the global outpouring of love and support she has received. In her message, she praised girls in northwestern Pakistan "who are continuing their studies despite threats from militants" and urged people to "work together to educate girls around the world."
The plight of girls and their lack of education is also being addressed by another CNN hero, Catalina Escobar of Cartagena, Colombia. After a newborn died in her arms while she was volunteering at a local hospital maternity ward because the baby’s teenage mother could not afford the $30 treatment that would have saved his life, Escobar endured another heart-breaking tragedy — her 16-month-old son was killed after falling eight stories from a balcony. She started a nonprofit named for him, the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, building a state-of-the-art neonatal unit at the hospital. Then, realizing that most of the mothers were just children themselves, often trapped in the cycle of poverty and abuse, she built an education center where they take classes and learn skills. More than 2,000 young mothers have passed through its doors in the past 10 years.
Trying to help heal the scars of war was what motivated another hero, Mary Cortani of Gilroy, Calif., who three years ago got a call from a Marine who had been waiting more than a year for a service dog to help him with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Herself a veteran and an experienced dog trainer, she was motivated to start Operation Freedom Paws in 2010. Since then, she has assisted more than 80 veterans struggling with outwardly invisible wounds of war by matching them with service dogs who can help them overcome their struggles and avoid anxiety attacks.
"We need to do more to let them know we care about them,” Cortani said in accepting her honor from Jane Lynch, who credited her own dog with increasing her emotional stability.
Lest this subject matter was all too heavy, there were a few moments of humor, most notably from David Spade, who inevitably joked about Lindsay Lohan in his introduction to one of the "Young Wonders” who were highlighted — kids doing significant work to help others, like the boy who raised $20,000 for a local food bank and the girl who thought to recycle cooking oil from her town’s restaurants and use it for home heating in low-income neighborhoods.
Ne-Yo’s performance of the song “Heroes” closed out the program with a fitting tribute to the exceptional people who were spotlighted, each of whom receives $50,000 from CNN and nonprofit training from the Annenberg Foundation.
(A full list of honorees is at www.cnnheroes.com.)