These 10 people are making the world a better place and now, they have been named the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2021.
They were all nominated by you – our audience – and selected by CNN to each receive a $10,000 prize. And now you can vote on who you think should be named CNN Hero of the Year and receive an additional $100,000 for their cause.
To find out who is named Hero of the Year, you’ll have to watch “The 15th Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute,” hosted by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa on Sunday, December 12, starting at 8 p.m. ET.
CNN Heroes has been spotlighting the impactful work of people across the world since 2007. Here’s a look at this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes:
Jenifer Colpas: Bringing clean water and power to rural villages in her country
Her cause: Jenifer Colpas co-founded Tierra Grata in 2015, a non-profit that provides access to clean water, solar-powered lights and electricity along with eco-toilets and showers for remote rural communities throughout Colombia. Colpas and her team currently serve 35 communities and their services have helped improve the quality of life for more than 10,000 people.
What inspired her: Growing up in Barranquilla, Colombia, Colpas was mostly shielded from the poverty outside her door. After college, she moved to India for a job in information technology. There, she became aware of vast social inequalities.
“Something inside me (was) saying, ‘You need to do something about it,’” Colpas said.
She decided to change her career path and return home, where she co-founded Tierra Grata, which means “gratitude to the earth” in Spanish.
Lynda Doughty: The seal rescuer
Her cause: For the past decade, Lynda Doughty’s nonprofit, Marine Mammals of Maine, has provided response efforts, assistance and medical care for more than 3,000 marine animals.
The group monitors 2,500 miles of coastline and operates a 24-hour hotline, responding to calls about distressed or deceased marine mammals, and it has federal authorization to provide temporary care for critically ill and injured seals. Data gathered on these animals allows Doughty and her team to monitor trends in diseases and human impact on marine mammal health.
What inspired her: Growing up in coastal Maine, Doughty developed a passion for the marine wildlife living along the coast and knew from an early age that she wanted to dedicate her life to protecting them.
“I just remember being so amazed (by them) and wondering what’s happening in their life,” Doughty said.
She also became aware that their livelihood was jeopardized by pollution, habitat destruction and other human-related activity.
“I knew that I wanted to do something to help these animals,” Doughty said.
She became a marine biologist and worked for several years with organizations that provided emergency response and rehabilitation for sick and injured marine mammals. But as nonprofits and state agencies lost funding or closed their doors, Doughty decided to step in and fill the gap.
David Flink: Creating a new way to learn
His cause: David Flink’s Eye to Eye program pairs middle school children who have a learning difference with a college or high school mentor who also has a learning difference. Eye to Eye’s 18-week program centers on a specific social-emotional learning objective. Each lesson builds on the previous, moving students from self-doubt to empowerment.
The organization is in 150 schools nationwide and has more than 1,350 mentees impacting middle school children each week. Eighty percent of Eye to Eye students graduate from college – an impressive rate considering children with learning disabilities are three times more likely to drop out of high school.
What inspired him: Growing up, Flink had a hard time focusing in school, and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t learn the way other students did.
At 11, Flink was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. With the support of his parents and the right school, Flink graduated high school and went to Brown University.
When he got to college, he found a community of students who also had learning differences. Together with five of them, Flink started a mentoring program for nearby elementary school students who had a learning disability.
Dr. Patricia Gordon: Saving women from a preventable disease
Her cause: Dr. Patricia Gordon operates CureCervicalCancer, which delivers screening, training and supplies to clinics around the world. The organization has since worked in 10 countries, including China, Haiti, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Vietnam.
The non-profit has screened more than 150,000 women and treated more than 8,600 to date. It has also established 106 sustainable clinics to screen and treat women in remote and underserved areas.
“That there are 8,000 women who are alive and well and able to provide for their families is honestly the most rewarding thing that I could have ever imagined in my life,” Gordon said. “I think I’m the luckiest doctor that ever lived.”
What inspired her: Gordon, a radiation oncologist, traveled with a group of doctors in 2012 to bring a new radiation device to a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. While there, she saw how many women were needlessly being killed by a preventable, treatable disease: cervical cancer.
“There are 350,000 women dying a painful, undignified death globally. And it’s almost 100% preventable,” she said.
The team arranged to provide cervical cancer screenings for women in a remote and hard-hit area of Senegal. Using a method Gordon and others call “See & Treat,” screening can be done without needing electricity and with a few transportable supplies.
It was a far cry from the way things operated in her Beverly Hills office, but the experience stayed with Gordon, whose own family history of breast cancer is a driving force in her work.
After 27 years, Gordon left her private practice in 2014 to devote all her time to CureCervicalCancer. She takes no salary.
Hector Guadalupe: Giving former prisoners a second chance
His cause: Hector Guadalupe’s non-profit, A Second U Foundation, helps formerly incarcerated men and women get certified as personal trainers and build careers in the fitness industry so they can support their families. Guadalupe and his team of volunteers offer a free eight-week program for 10-15 students every quarter to prepare for the national certification exam.
In addition to study materials and exam fees, the program now also provides each student a free tablet with keyboard, transportation, new clothing, software classes and a $1,300 stipend. Coaches also mentor students, helping with far more than classwork.
Once students have passed the exam, Guadalupe helps them get jobs. More than 200 people have graduated from the program since 2016 and only two have reoffended – a recidivism rate of less than 1%.
What inspired him: By the time he was a teenager, Guadalupe had lost both parents and ended up spending 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. There he became obsessed with fitness and got certified as a personal trainer. When he came home, he was determined to work at one of Manhattan’s elite gyms.
“Six days out of the week, I’m literally at every corporate health club … filling out applications,” Guadalupe said. “Nobody was calling me back … and I knew why: because of my past … But I didn’t give up.”
After nine months, he landed an opportunity and worked without a day off for four years to establish himself in New York’s fitness scene. Now, he devotes much of his week to helping others do the same.
Michele Neff Hernandez: Finding a way through grief together
Her cause: Michele Neff Hernandez created Soaring Spirits in 2008, three years after her husband’s death. Her nonprofit connects widows and widowers, allowing them to heal in a community that understands the pain of losing a partner. It has grown to include 70 regional chapters all over the US, as well as pen pals and programs specifically for the LGBTQ community.
To date, the organization has reached more than 4 million people worldwide.
“It’s about helping widowed people live life in community with each other, so that someone who has borne witness to their pain also bears witness to their life as they continue making their way forward,” Neff Hernandez said.
What inspired her: Hernandez and her husband, Phillip, were enjoying the active life they built as a couple. But everything changed in August 2005 when Phillip went for a bike ride and was hit by a car and killed.
“I didn’t even know what to do with myself,” Neff Hernandez said. “Every single thing about my life changed.”
While she had a great support system, none of their friends and family knew how to handle her grief.
Hernandez realized she wanted to connect with other widows to learn how they dealt with their new reality.
“I thought if I could bring these widows together, what a difference that would make,” she said.
Zannah Mustapha: Building a strong and peaceful future generation
His cause: For more than a decade, Zannah Mustapha has devoted his life to providing hope and peace for children in northern Nigeria caught in the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency. He and his staff educate more than 2,000 students from both sides of the conflict at the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School.
The school offers psychological and social support to help children with trauma. Students, who all live nearby with relatives or family members, are also provided uniforms, books, meals and health services.
Mustapha said 1,023 students have graduated, and many have gone on to college or careers.
“These are children (who are) ravaged by the disturbances that Boko Haram has brought in,” he said. “Children … are not even having this war.”
What inspired him:
Mustapha said he believes the way to achieve true and lasting peace in the devastated region is through education, and he has defied all odds to keep the doors to his three schools open.
He started the program in 2007 with 36 orphans and expanded, even as others fled the region. As Mustapha continued to expand to meet the needs of children, he saw more and more women struggling when their husbands were killed in the conflict. So, he developed a program in which women could learn a trade to help support their families.
A peace leader, Mustapha envisions a Nigeria where there is no more violence, where education and acceptance are encouraged for all.
“(When I) see the faces of these children and how these children are dreaming, it gives me the hope that still there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Shirley Raines: Beauty 2 the Streetz
Her cause: For the past six years, Raines and her organization, Beauty 2 the Streetz, have been a mainstay on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, providing food, clothing, hair and makeup services – and most recently health and hygiene items – to thousands of people.
Rain or shine, she sets up “shop” weekly at the corner of 5th and Townes to serve those she calls “Kings” and “Queens.” Her goal: to make the homeless feel human, whether that means a haircut, a facial, a hearty meal, or a hug.
Before the pandemic, Raines was making 400 meals a week in her one-bedroom apartment kitchen in Long Beach and driving three times a week to downtown LA to feed and bring supplies to people.
What inspired her: Raines’ 2-year-old son Demetrius was staying with her grandmother when he accidentally ingested medication and was hospitalized.
He died on Sept. 6, 1990, just shy of his third birthday.
“I blamed myself for not having stability. If only I’d had my own backyard. If only I’d had my stuff together,” Raines said.
Soon after, Raines also faced the loss of her grandmother and then her son’s biological father to cancer.
“I just fell apart. I lived a very unhappy life. I couldn’t keep anything together,” she said.
After struggling with anxiety and panic disorder for decades, Raines’ twin sister stepped in, urging her to find a purpose for her pain. That purpose came in 2017 when Raines joined a church group on a feeding mission.
“I went to Skid Row, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is where all the broken people are? Oh, I’ve been looking for y’all all my life,’” she said. “I never wanted to leave. It’s a place where people have amazing hearts, but nobody can see it because they can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Dr. Ala Stanford: Bringing Covid-19 testing and vaccines to Philly’s minority neighborhoods
Her cause: Since April 2020, Dr. Ala Stanford has been working to change Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy among people of color. Her group, the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium, has brought testing and vaccines to more than 75,000 residents of Philadelphia’s minority neighborhoods.
Throughout 2020, they provided free testing in the parking lots of local churches, mosques, community centers and SEPTA stations, eventually offering antibody testing and flu shots as well as Covid testing.
In January, Stanford and her team began offering Covid vaccinations and for the first few months, vaccinated an average of 1,000 people a day. The group also ran a 24-hour “Vax-A-Thon” at which they inoculated more than 4,000 people.
The volunteer effort that Stanford initially funded from her own pocket is now a large operation with 70 employees and more than 200 volunteers.
What inspired her: Born to teen parents in north Philadelphia, Stanford’s family often struggled to make ends meet. But that didn’t keep her from dreaming big.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was about 8 years old … and I never believed I couldn’t do it,” she said. “That grit that comes from being a poor kid raised in Philadelphia is what has given me the tenacity to press on, no matter what.”
She became a pediatric surgeon and built a successful private practice. But in March 2020, her work slowed dramatically when the country shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She was disturbed to hear about the high fatalities of Black residents in Philadelphia as a result of Covid-19. Then a Drexel University researcher reported that people in affluent White areas of the city were being tested six times more frequently than those in poor minority areas.
Stanford knew that people of color were more vulnerable to Covid-19 for many reasons, including that they were likely to be essential workers. Knowing they weren’t getting tested deeply upset her.
So, she gathered up protective supplies from her office, got testing kits, rented a van and headed out to bring free testing to areas where positivity rates were the highest.
“The first day we did a dozen tests. The second time we went out, we did about 150 tests. And the third time … there were 500 people lined up before we started,” she said.
Made Janur Yasa: A plastic clean-up program that’s feeding families
His cause: Made Janur Yasa’s non-profit, Plastic Exchange, allows local villagers in Bali, Indonesia, to exchange plastic trash for rice, a main food staple. This barter system benefits the environment and empowers the local people.
In May 2020, he hosted the first exchange in the village where he was born and raised. It was a success, and the concept quickly spread to other villages across Bali.
Villages hold community exchange events once a month in which residents can bring in plastic to trade in for rice. Yasa says the organization has so far helped feed thousands of families and collected nearly 300 tons of plastic for recycling.
What inspired him: Yasa owns a vegan restaurant on Indonesia’s island of Bali, where tourism is the driving economic force. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many residents lost their jobs.
“I saw people in my village start worrying about how they were going to put food on the table,” he said. “This concerned me.”
Yasa said he wanted to find a way to help people in his community during the pandemic while also addressing the ongoing problem of plastic pollution on Bali’s beaches.
“I got to thinking, inside the challenge there is an opportunity,” he said.