Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

CNN Heroes: 15 Years Of Changing The World. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired December 11, 2021 - 22:00   ET





ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): CNN Heroes, there are everyday people changing the world. In the last 15 years, we've honored more than 350 of them from across the globe. This year, they've helped in vaccination efforts, supported families juggling remote learning, provided aid to the people of Afghanistan, and help young women express themselves. Ultimately, all CNN Heroes share the same mission, to make the world a better place.

Tonight, we're honored to catch up with many of our past CNN Heroes, including those who've received the ultimate recognition.

CNN Hero of the Year is --


COPPER (voice-over): This is CNN Heroes: 15 Years of Changing the World.


COOPER: Hey, I'm Anderson Cooper. What better way to persevere through an ongoing pandemic than to celebrate the people out there who are making the world a better, kinder and safer place every day? It's been 15 years since we started the CNN Heroes campaign. And during that time, we've recognized hundreds of extraordinary individuals, each making a difference in their own way.

Tonight, we celebrate this milestone by catching up with some of our past honorees. And it's amazing to see how they've responded to some of the world's biggest challenges, healing and helping so many people during these difficult times.

As we check in with some of your favourite CNN Heroes, I'm sure you'll be inspired by their latest efforts, and the inspiration will continue tomorrow night at the 15th Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute. Kelly Ripa will again join me as co-host as we honor this year's top 10 CNN Heroes live from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Now to kick things off, the world turned its focus this year to the promise of saving lives with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. And three CNN Heroes had a shared mission in that effort, breaking down barriers to vaccination for those who might otherwise be overlooked.


COOPER (voice-over): The CNN Heroes have seamlessly folded vaccinating into their essential work, helping to ensure that all Americans have access to these lifesaving injections.

Jake Wood would help start Team Rubicon which deploys military veterans to assist after natural disasters. When COVID hit, the group immediately responded. Delivering groceries, running testing sites and now assisting with vaccinations.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I get your appointment time and last name?

JAKE WOOD, CO-FOUNDER & CEO, TEAM RUBICON: We've supported hundreds of sites across the country. Doing the simple things like site setup and tear down, patient registration, optimizing patient flow to help ensure that their doctors, they just focus on what they do best.

COOPER (voice-over): Their volunteer to organize huge sites in cities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're getting close to 1,000 people coming through today.

COOPER (voice-over): Help students get vaccinated at schools.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Give me questions.

COOPER (voice-over): And traveled to rural areas, setting up clinics in small towns.

WOOD: We wanted to make sure that the American's ZIP code didn't determine the ease with which they had access to a COVID-19 vaccine.

COOPER (voice-over): The Navajo Nation has endured devastating losses during the pandemic. And Team Rubicon provided medical support for nearly 300 days.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many getting their shot today? Both of you? OK.

COOPER (voice-over): Now.

WOOD: We've supported over 12,000 vaccinations in Navajo nation which has one of the highest vaccine uptake rates of anywhere across the country.

COOPER (voice-over): They also joined with other veterans groups to encourage vaccinations, issuing a call to arms.

WOOD: It was really this harkening back to World War II, asking all of America to rise up to support this modern day, medical wartime effort to get doses into the arms of Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think everybody should get vaccinated. Stop this thing.

WOOD: We were really proud we'd be able to support nearly 2 million doses across the country.


COOPER (voice-over): Dr. Jim Withers has spent nearly 30 years bringing medical care to people experiencing homelessness in Pittsburgh. For this very vulnerable population, COVID-19 posed yet another threat.


WITHERS: Can I take a listen?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we really didn't know what to expect. We knew that people on the street die at 10 times the rate of the average population. And so they have a lot of risk factors.

COOPER (voice-over): In the spring of 2020, his team responded by bringing testing and other supplies to the streets.

WITHERS: It turned out over time that those sleeping outside actually had a low rate of COVID. And so, we've tried to prevent the disease from coming to them.

COOPER (voice-over): Amongst this fragile population, the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been a game changer.

WITHERS: One shot, you're done. Very portable, very appropriate for our population, where you just may have a lot of trouble finding someone later on. All right, let's roll.

The motto of Street Medicine is go to the people. You really have to go to where someone is, and to cut down those barriers. It's totally about trust and connection.

If I had a lollipop, I'd give it to you.

When you provide something that can save a life, and the lives of people that they come in contact with, it's a really unique and powerful feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you for a ride.

WITHERS: We were able to both get her a COVID vaccination and housing all within 45 minutes. So it's kind of like baseball. When it happens, you got to be able to react. So that's good. We're in this together. And so, I think it behoves us to try to protect the most vulnerable people.


COOPER (voice-over): Dr. Wendy Ross has spent her career advocating for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities like autism. Now she's making it easier for people with these challenges to get vaccinated.

ROSS: A lot of them get easily overwhelmed in crowds. They have a lot of sensory issues. They tend to be very anxious in new experiences and new environments.

It was so nice to meet you guys.


ROSS: And thank you for coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where more kids (ph) is better for him to not be around a whole lot of people. He already doesn't like it.

ROSS: Anthony (ph), I just want to say hi.

ANTHONY (ph): Hi.

ROSS: Do you want to come check out our seat?

COOPER (voice-over): For people with autism, Ross's low stress, sensory, friendly clinic is a welcome refuge.

ROSS: You like it?

ANTHONY (ph): Yes.

ROSS: There's less waiting online. And we provide tools like fidgets. So overall, we just sort of slow down the pace and make it more relaxed.

You're ready?

ANTHONY (ph): Yes.

ROSS: We're going to go right this way, OK?

COOPER (voice-over): These accommodations are about more than comfort. They can help save lives.

ROSS: What we discovered was that those with intellectual disabilities are at very high risk for both getting and dying from COVID.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to touch this a little bit? It's cold and wet. There you go. And that's what I'm going to clean your arm with, OK?

ROSS: All of our vaccinators are educated to be sensitive and have strategies for vaccinating this population.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's OK, it's OK. And it's OK. COOPER (voice-over): Even with all of this support, it can still be a challenge.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And your mommy is right here, I promise.

ANTHONY (ph): No.

ROSS: I don't want you to worry. We have all the time in the world. We're going to get it. I mean, and that's why we're here.



ROSS: Good job. Who is that? I forgot his name.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well done. Well done. Good job.

ROSS: You're done.

ANTHONY (ph): Yes.

ROSS: Awesome, awesome.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't think I was going to happen. You've been insulted (ph) in situations where sometimes people say they can and they can or they're not willing. And I didn't feel that here. So I appreciate it.

ROSS: You did an amazing job. It didn't hurt like you thought?

ANTHONY (ph): It was OK.

ROSS: All right. So next time, can you remember that it was OK?

ANTHONY (ph): Yes, I'll remember.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my gosh, I feel so much better. So much better. That's my baby. So, anytime you have the opportunity to be included, it's good. It's nice.

ANTHONY (ph): Oh, yes, you're proud of me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so proud of you. You did awesome, buddy.

ROSS: Thank you for coming. Bye.

Getting the vaccine to this population, absolutely a saving lives. I just feel that everyone matters and has value and that everyone should be included. COOPER (voice-over): Coming up, find out how one Chicago police officer went the extra mile to support families during the pandemic.



COOPER: And welcome back. The pandemic upended everyone's lives for families that were already struggling, particularly those with young children, life became even more of a challenge. When Americans began to return to work, many parents were left in a really difficult position. Who would take care of their kids who were attending school remotely? And that's where CNN Hero Jennifer Maddox stepped in.

During the last school year from September to June, she turned her after-school center into a remote learning hub, providing students essential support and giving families much needed peace of mind.


COOPER (voice-over): Amid the violence on Chicago's South Side, Police Officer Jennifer Maddox gives young people a safe haven to learn, grow and succeed.


COOPER (voice-over): Since 2011, her nonprofit has provided after school mentoring and tutoring for more than 100 children living in the parkway garden apartments. She was honored as a top 10 CNN Hero in 2017 for her efforts.

During the pandemic, Jennifer and her team transformed their center into a hub for students doing remote learning, received the support and technology they need.

MADDOX: Many of the families here was hit very hard with COVID and it really just turned their lives upside down. A lot of people lost their jobs. And now they're gradually starting to go back to work. Many of the parents can't really afford to stay at home to supervise their kids while they're on remote learning.

Come on.

The kids normally arrive one by one. We take their temperature.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Normal temperature.

MADDOX: If they don't have a mask, we provide a mask for them. They'll get a squirt of hand sanitizer in their hand. And then they'll go to their assigned desk.

You got a question on this?

We were able to step in like being a surrogate parent.

M, Y, my.


MADDOX: We were there on site for them. So the kids didn't really have to travel far. They knew our staff, our team, they were comfortable with their kids coming here. So it was kind of like a win-win, you know, for everybody.

That was yours. OK.

Many of the students didn't have laptops, and they didn't know how to navigate through the remote learning system. We were able to provide the laptops that they needed.

OK, come on in.


We provide them with a safe space. We go around, making sure the kids are online, on track, on tasks, and able to complete their assignments and progress.

OK, very good. Good job.

We'll take them outside to the playground. And we'll let them just run around and just jump in and just get some of that energy. You know, moving around with them, because they've been sitting down for so long.

The kids in the community have been struggling with socialization. They are social beings. They want to be with their friends.

Yes, good.

They look to us for support and guidance. And sometimes they just may need a listening ear. So we're all of that.

You bring (ph) breakfast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's difficult, gentle handle on my assignments over the computer. So, I'm down here every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They help me with Math, they help me to read. And they make sure that I'm always on top of my stuff. She teach you like your family.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's been like my second mom. If we need anything, we should call her.

COOPER (voice-over): Jennifer and her group have also expanded to provide additional support for families.

MADDOX: We were able to hire an outreach team to go out and just give out resources to people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. MADDOX: Assist them with how to fill out for unemployment, how to fill out a job application or substance abuse, domestic violence. If they need these services, we want to make sure that they get them.


MADDOX: Yes. And so we're set (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm working on atoms and matter.

MADDOX: You on target. You're on point.

We want to make sure that they're getting the support that they need so that they continue to grow and move forward.

COOPER (voice-over): Coming up, three CNN Heroes who continue to step up to help the people of Afghanistan.

BRANDON CHROSTOWSKI, EDWINS LEADERSHIP & RESTAURANT INSTITUTE: What does it feel like to be a CNN hero? I can tell you that it feels great.

SHELDON SMITH, THE DOVETAIL PROJECT: It was amazing because I knew we had an opportunity to change the world with being on a global stage.

NAJAH BAZZY, ZAMAN INTERNATIONAL: It changed my life quite honestly. But for the organization, it gave us the greatest booster that we needed.

BRIDGET CUTLER, MOMS HELPING MONS: I was completely floored. And to be honest, I still feel that way today even seven years later.

AARON JACKSON, PLANTING PEACE: The support that came to Planting Peace, it still comes today, 15 years later.




COOPER: Welcome back to CNN Heroes: 15 Years of Changing the World.

Last August, the world was transfixed by the dramatic events in Afghanistan when the U.S.-led coalition forces rapidly pulled out after nearly two decades in the country. The Taliban gained control of the government in days throwing millions of lives into turmoil.

Among those impacted were three CNN Heroes that we've recognized during the past 15 years. And while the new situation Afghanistan presents them with really tough challenges, they've all continued to do whatever they can to help.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Afghanistan now under Taliban control. COOPER (voice-over): After the Taliban takeover, tens of thousands desperate Afghans tried to flee Kabul. Those who worked with coalition forces were in imminent danger.

MATT ZELLER, CO-FOUNDER, NO ONE LEFT BEHIND: If we leave these people behind, the Taliban are going to kill them.

COOPER (voice-over): Afghan war veteran in 2018 CNN Hero Matt Zeller has worked for years to bring them to the U.S.

ZELLER: I wouldn't be alive today right now, had it not been for my Afghan interpreter. He saved my life in a battle 13 years ago.

COOPER (voice-over): It took more than four years to get his interpreter, Janis, to the U.S. Soon after, they decided to do the same for others.


COOPER (voice-over): Since 2013, their organization, No One Left Behind, has helped more than 15,000 people leave Afghanistan and build new lives.

ZELLER: Welcome home. Welcome.

SHINWARI: How are you? Thanks for everything. How are you?

ZELLER: Thank you. Welcome to your new country.

COOPER (voice-over): Since August, their mission has become exponentially harder and the consequences dire.

SHINWARI: Whoever worked for the U.S. military, they're all in hiding. Not only them, but their family members.

ZELLER: I got to keep people alive.

COOPER (voice-over): Matt, Janis and other veterans who've tried to guide them to safety using online tools.

ZELLER: If an Afghan overseas said I need help, we will arrange to get them into a safe house and then to the airport. Ideally, onto a plane.

COOPER (voice-over): Matt recorded his calls with one man he referred to as Saki (ph) who was in hiding more than 250 miles from Kabul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday they came here. I heard their voice. It's really dangerous for me. Not only for me, for my kids, for my wife. I will let you know when I reach to Kabul.

ZELLER: I wish I could come get you myself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They will kill me, so I have to take chance.

ZELLER: He ended up, disguising himself as a woman. He got on a bus and for 10 hours, had to endure Taliban checkpoint. After Taliban checkpoint, we got him into one of our safe houses.

I called up connection I had at the gate. I've given him a passphrase, "I like orange juice. Will you please send someone out to get him?" And so, an American soldier went out into the crowd and met him and the next thing I know, they put him on a plane to Qatar.

COOPER (voice-over): Saki (ph) is now at Fort Bliss in Texas with his family. Matt and Janis are also helping other evacuees who've spent months at military bases.

ZELLER: The Afghans who arrived at the United States came wearing nothing more than the clothes that were on their backs.

You can see we got a truck full of stuff here to drop off when we get there at the warehouse.

COOPER (voice-over): In late October, the White House announced a new program that will let veterans and others sponsor evacuees and help them resettle.

ZELLER: My interpreter was my cultural ambassador. But now here in America, that's what we get to be for them. They stood shoulder to shoulder with us for over 20 years. We need to bring them home.

COOPER (voice-over): Englishman Pen Farthing served in Afghanistan with the British Royal Marines. With the stress of his deployment is eased by his friendship with a stray dog he named Nowzad.


When he returned home, Pen worked for months to bring Nowzad to the U.K.


COOPER (voice-over): Since then, his nonprofit name for his dog has done the same for thousands of soldiers, while also caring for stray animals in Kabul. In 2014, he was honored as a top 10 CNN Hero, and --

(on-camera): The 2014 CNN Hero of the Year is Pen Farthing.

FARTHING: I know for a moment, this is that we'd actually win it. But being named CNN Hero for 2014 was absolutely crucial. We were then able to expand our work.


We were, you know, the first animal welfare charity that was actually out there on the streets with an open clinic. All of our vaccinations for Afghan nationals was free for their pets. We also tackled rabies.

COOPER (voice-over): He also cared for working animals and created a sanctuary for donkeys that had been abandoned or abused. Nowzad grew to have a staff of 25 men and women.

FARTHING: We're really, really proud that we have to employ the first ever female Afghan nationals, as fully qualified veterinarians.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They gave me a job offer and I was the happiest girl ever on that day. I love to work there.

COOPER (voice-over): But last August, all that changed.

FARTHING: The Taliban are now on the outskirts of Kabul. It's game over.

COOPER (voice-over): Pen felt he and his staff and their work were all in danger.

FARTHING: The Taliban, you know, are not great fans of women working for the Taliban in Helmand Province. We had dogs and cats that had been adopted. I realized that we need to get both our people and our animals out. And so the obvious thing to call the whole mission was Operation Ark.

We've got to get our team out of Afghanistan.

COOPER (voice-over): So he launched a social media crusade.

FARTHING: Message your friend, message your family, message everybody. I'm not leaving, so they cut out (ph).

Can you please message again via social media --

COOPER (voice-over): His please drew lots of attention. But amid the country's chaos, some criticized his efforts to evacuate animals.

You always knew that we had the capability to rescue both if we bought our own cargo plane in.

This rescue aircraft that's coming in is paid for by donations. We're going to fill that aircraft with people. We can't pop people in the cargo hold, but we can pop dogs.

COOPER (voice-over): Finally --

FARTHING: Operation Ark is a go.

COOPER (voice-over): But it didn't go according to plan.

FARTHING: The Taliban refused to let us into the airport proper. As we turned around, sadly, that's when the two suicide bombers detonated at the Abbey Gate. It really came out to chaos. The staff decided that it was time for me to leave because I could leave because I had a British passport. And then I would figure out another way of getting them out.

Literally, two weeks after I left Afghanistan, we managed to get our team smuggled across into Pakistan and then flown into London. I think it's the biggest achievement that Nowzad as a charity has ever done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone has cried when we left Afghanistan. It was very hard for all of us.

When we came to U.K., we feel that we get our freedom now. There's no one to tell us, you should get married, you should not go to work.

FARTHING: Can you imagine doing this in Kabul?

We're supporting them with resettlement training, so getting them welcomed into the U.K. society.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh wow, you're from Nowzad. I'm so happy you guys are safe.

FARTHING: We've actually got a shortage of veterinarians here in the U.K. So they're all going to basically go straight into jobs once they've been re-qualified.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel good for my future. I can work in my field. I can support my family. So I am happy for this and I know everyone will have a bright future here, inshallah.

FARTHING: As the future of Nowzad, sadly, there's always going to be a need for animal welfare somewhere in the world. So, once our staff hopefully resettle, then we're going to look at where we can go next.

COOPER (voice-over): A native of Afghanistan, Razia Jan wanted to build a better future for girls in her homeland. In 2008, she opened a girl's school in a rural area outside of Kabul.


COOPER (voice-over): Refusing to bow to threats of violence. Four years later, she was honored as a top 10 CNN Hero.

JAN: My organization was very small. And for me to be recognized was such a great help at that time.


COOPER: Afterwards her school flourished. By 2021, it had grown from 350 students to nearly 800.

JAN: There is so much demand. I have about 300 girls for kindergarten on a waiting list.

COOPER: She even expanded her work, training women to be midwives at the Razia Jan Institute. In the spring of 2021, when 24 students graduated, their futures seemed bright.

But months later, that changed when the Taliban swept across Afghanistan. Razia was back in the U.S.

JAN: That was terrible for me because I was very far away, and I wished I was there, so I could help my students.

COOPER: She knew all she built was at risk.

JAN: It took 20 is for woman to stand and be recognized. And to see that it was awful. COOPER: Under the Taliban's new all male government, women lost ground right away. The Ministry of Women's Affairs was closed. While women were still permitted at some universities in segregated classes in many schools, including Razia's older girls were barred until so- called security concerns could be resolved.

But in September, girls up to grade six were allowed to head back to their classrooms.

JAN: I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see these girls in the courtyard playing and also in a classroom and trying to learn is just amazing.

COOPER: Eventually, Razia got permission from authorities for her older students to use the school's library, enabling them to continue their studies at home. She's hopeful they can return to school next year.

JAN: I have a great support of the community and the girls they want to learn. That gives me hope.

COOPER:77-year-old Razia is eager to return to Afghanistan as soon as she can.

JAN: I'm not fearful at all. If I'm there, I can negotiate with them. The Taliban, they have mothers, sisters, wives, and if you don't educate them, that is such a loss. Maybe it won't be the same. But we can do something to educate these girls. Because I'm not going to give in.

COOPER: Well, coming up for poetry capture the world's attention to the Biden-Harris inauguration, find out how she was helped by a CNN Hero when we return.



COOPER: Welcome back, we've all seen her words have the power to move and inspire. And back in January, we certainly saw an example of this when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman recited her poem, The Hill We Climb, at the Biden-Harris integration.

On the global stage her vivid language and expressive voice captured the world's attention. And one of those watching was a proud CNN Hero, Keren Taylor, whom we honor in 2014 for her nonprofit, WriteGirl, for more than two decades, her program has been empowering teens to find their voice. Amanda now arguably one of the most famous poets in the world joined WriteGirl as a high school freshman. She's one of 1000s who benefited from Keren's support and guidance.

AMANDA GORMAN: Being American is more than a pride we inherit.

KEREN TAYLOR, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF WRITEGIRL: When we saw her perform at the inauguration, we could see the same things that we really embody at WriteGirl represented in her confidence, being willing to really be present.

GORMAN: We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

TAYLOR: We're always encouraging our girls to share their own story. What is going on in their world. Because they are the only one that can write that poem, tell that story, write that song.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said in our spot, clicking my pin, click clack, click clack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know yet, who I am or who I want to be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My fragments of history, my beloved piece of the past, my grandma.

TAYLOR: Many of our girls come from environments where they're really struggling with unstable family situations or violence in their communities. Our goal is to really try and reach the most teens we can that are in the greatest need.

Nice. Since receiving the Hero Award, we've expanded to include program for boys and coed groups. We have really tried to clarify our definition of girls by including non-binary girls, trans youth. It's going really well. We're really pleased.

We've also developed more programming for youth who are incarcerated, or systems impacted on probation, some pregnant and parenting teens.

Hello, welcome, everyone.

Since March of last year, we have adapted all of our programs to be online. Girls have been finding their way to us from Kentucky, Wisconsin, Florida, Mumbai, Brussels.

Live a life so you have stories to tell.

One of our goals is to introduce girls to all different kinds of writing, journalism, fiction, poetry.

Today, you get to write the drama, or the comedy.

We have a screenwriting workshop. We have a songwriting workshop.

The singer songwriters will take the lyrics that the girls wrote that day and then turn them into songs in front of their eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just want to love and loss, like everyone seems to do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That was so cool.

TAYLOR: And there's this feeling of like I wrote that. I can do that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It will still hungry. The face of the mass fell down -- TAYLOR: We try to give teens the opportunity to read their work in

front of a few people. Then in front of 200. Then in front of 500. Before long they become absolutely fearless and unafraid of the microphone.

GORMAN: We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, in the norms, notions of what just is, isn't always just is.


GORMAN: Amanda Gorman joined WriteGirl when she was 14.

GORMAN: Dragonflies hum and vibrant foods breathe.

TAYLOR: Her and her twin sister were part of WriteGirl for four years. She was always such a positive, bright light soaking up everything. She was sort of unstoppable.

GORMAN: And a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.

TAYLOR: Amanda is the only one that could put that particular story together, she put herself right in the middle of the poem, she shared it as herself.

GORMAN: For there was always lights, if only were brave enough to see it, if only were brave enough to be it.

TAYLOR: We had a watch party when Amanda was speaking her poem at the inauguration. What was really exciting to know was that she represents not only every girl that's ever been in WriteGirl, but she also represents every young woman in this country.

GORMAN: From the moment in which I entered the doors of my first WriteGirl workshop, I felt so loved and so supportive, being able to have that space as a young black woman with a speech impediment, or I could light my work. Net with others was huge.

TAYLOR: Say something that nobody else has said before. Because you have your own way of saying things.

We've worked with four to 5000 teens. It's a big number. They're doctors, they're lawyers. One is just completing her PhD. To learn that our alums want to be of service to their communities that they want to do work of meaning is really the most exciting thing for me of anything.

COOPER: Coming out, find out what's happening with those who are given the ultimate recognition CNN Hero of the Year.

LUKE MICKELSON, 2018 SLEEP IN HEAVENLY PEACE: Since 2008, and becoming a CNN hero, Sleep in Heavenly Peace has grown to over 270 chapters in four different countries. And we have built 1000 beds.

NANCY GIANNI, 2016 GIGI'S PLAYHOUSE: Back then we had 31 locations, now we have over 60 locations and startups across the country. And we're serving families in 55 countries with our free therapeutic and educational program.

DOC HENDLEY, 2009 WINE TO WATER: We worked in 48 different countries now around the world, we reached our million person with clean drinking water.

NICHOLAS LOWINGER, 2013, GOTTA HAVE SOLE FOUNDATIONS: The CNN Hero Award validated our work, not just to us but to the world, and has enabled us to support over 140,000 homeless children.



COOPER: Welcome back for 15 years we've celebrated the best humanity has to offer by recognizing people as CNN Heroes. We usually honor 10 of these amazing individuals at our annual events CNN heroes and All- Star Tribute. At the end of the night --

Ladies and gentlemen, it's my great privilege to announce the CNN Hero of the Year --

KELLY RIPA: Freweini Mebrahtu.

COOPER: One is revealed as the CNN Hero of the Year. Recognition that comes with a large cash prize to help them continue their important work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is for all the girls.


COOPER: That work is as unique as the heroes themselves. Past honorees have used pushcarts to educate children in the Philippines and started a school in Nepal with their babysitting money. They've given free housing to families with sick children in Peru and provided health care to ensure babies are born safely in Indonesia. They fought sex trafficking and rehabilitated women and girls in Nepal. And destigmatize menstruation and provided sanitary pads to girls in Ethiopia.

We caught up with some of our past heroes of the year to find out how their work has grown and evolved since this life changing moment.

The CNN Hero of the Year is Liz McCartney.

LIZ MCCARTNEY: I was authentically shocked when my name was called. I remember thinking whatever happens to not trip on the stage.

COOPER: Liz McCartney became the first CNN Hero of the Year in 2008 recognition for her work in New Orleans rebuilding homes that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

MCCARTNEY: I was so really happy for the people of New Orleans in Louisiana to shine the spotlight on people and problems post Katrina was a really important moment, and support came pouring in. A lot of donations. A lot of new volunteers. COOPER: Since then, her nonprofit, known as SBP has expanded its reach far beyond Orleans.

MCCARTNEY: We're in Joplin, Missouri responding to a tornado to Sandy, Hurricane Harvey in Houston. In the Bahamas, we responded to Hurricane Dorian, and in Puerto Rico as well. Since 2006, SBP has rebuilt more than 3000 homes in more than 15 communities.

COOPER: Now Liz and her team also work to reduce the impact of storms before they strike.

MCCARTNEY: We want to make sure that people have the right insurance and that homes are built resiliently. We want to make sure that people don't have to endure what many families had after Katrina.

COOPER: This year on August 29, exactly 16 years after Katrina hit New Orleans, another storm barreled towards Louisiana.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A monster named Ida, the hurricane is intensifying as a category four storm.

MCCARTNEY: It is a devastating storm. Fortunately, Hurricane Ida mostly spared New Orleans. But tears extensive damage south the city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In most cases, they don't turn out to be as bad as they predicted. But this will just gobble, just real bad. A lot of years ago somebody come into him.

MCCARTNEY: The teams went working hard, it's knocked and gutted, put tarps on a couple 100 houses, they've cleaned up piles and piles of debris, and we're preparing to start rebuilding homes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know wash everything down, make sure they don't move on. And what they are doing is a big crook coming around helping people. We're also glad and thankful for what these people come out and do.

MCCARTNEY: We're so grateful for the CNN Heroes' campaign. That award allowed us to help a lot more folks. So, thank you.

COOPER: In Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia when parents are sent to prison, their young children sometimes end up going with them. Since 2005, Pushpa Basnet has worked to make sure no child grows up behind bars. For years, she cared for dozens of youngsters at a rented home in Kathmandu providing them food, shelter and schooling.


Then in 2012 --

Pushpa Basnet.

She was named Hero of the Year an Emotional Achievement.

PUSHPA BASNET: This is for my children. And this is for my back to my country, Nepal. COOPER: Pushpa use the prize money to buy land to build a permanent butterfly home for her kids.

BASNET: My kids every time people used to look at them in a negative way, but always I had that passion or dream that people looked at up butterfly home they would say, whose house is that? Is that a resort?

COOPER: In April 2015, construction was underway when a severe earthquake struck. More than 8000 were killed and hundreds of 1000s were left homeless, including Pushpa and her children. Her new butterfly dream home was destroyed.

BASNET: Everything fell down, everything, my dreams were all scattered.

COOPER: They had to live for months outside under a tarp, but Pushpa by didn't give up.

BASNET: I have to be strong for myself and for my 40 kids living with me.

COOPER: A German charity gave her money to rebuild. And in early 2016 Pushpa and her kids moved in.

BASNET: This is my dream world for my kids. We have a separate building for boys, for girls, library, computer room, a study room.

COOPER: With more funding in 2019, she was able to build another home for her older children studying at university. Among them was Lakshmi (ph), one of the first residents of the Butterfly Home. This year, she graduated from Kathmandu University with a degree in art alongside Pushpa who had earned a master's. Pushpa has now helped educate and care for more than 220 children and she has no plans to stop.

BASNET: When someone calls me a CNN Hero of the Year, I do blush out. My kids are my hero, because they are the ones who really inspired me to do this work.

COOPER: For almost 25 years, CNN Hero Chad Pregracke has been a man on a mission, cleaning up America's rivers. Its work he began at home in Illinois, picking up garbage along the Mississippi River.

CHAD PREGRACKE: You guys ready?

CROWD: Yeah.


COOPER: Since then, his cause has become a crusade with more than 118,000 volunteers joining him, pulling more than 11 million pounds of trash from 23 waterways.

PREGRACKE: Well, it's gone garbage. We've made a real difference.

COOPER: It's work that in 2013 led to this.

Chad Pregracke.

PREGRACKE: I was just kind of stunned that I went up there and was just like there's nine other wonderful people doing wonderful things for the world. And that's why I just decided --

I'm just going to give 10 grand to each of them because they're awesome. So yeah. Everybody wins. The World wins.

COOPER: He used the rest of his award money to help make the country greener.

PREGRACKE: I put it into expanding our tree nursery. And with that we have now either given away or planted over 1.6 million trees. And I just think it's a great sort of legacy to leave, you know.

COOPER: Now Chad has his eyes on a new project. The I-80 Bridge expands the Mississippi River connecting Illinois, Iowa.

PREGRACKE: In the next several years, we're going to build a new bridge, and I want to keep the old bridge and turn it into the longest wildlife crossing in the world. It's called Bison Bridge.

COOPER: That's right, instead of tearing down the old bridge, Chad hopes the highways eastbound lanes to be transformed. So, a herd of wild Bison could roam and graze freely.

PREGRACKE: Bison grid is a pretty wild idea, which is kind of a fun, but I'm kind of going with that.

COOPER: Westbound lanes would be for people, recreation paths and places to safely view and learn about the animals.

PREGRACKE: Bison are one of the toughest animals out there. They roam for like the Canada down to Florida for 60 million at one time. We basically decimated them down to a few 1000.

COOPER: Prepopulated. wild bison and restoring prairie habitat are just two ways, Chad says the bridge will benefit the area, he established a new foundation to support the project. But it's still closely tied to Chad's lifelong passion.

PREGRACKE: The real focus though is the Mississippi River, gives you a great vantage point to overlook the river. My ultimate goal just to make it a national monument similar to the St. Louis Arch, it will be the only thing like in the world.

COOPER: Growing up with cerebral palsy in Cali, Colombia, Jeison Aristizabal, pushed himself to defy society's expectations. He dedicated his life to bringing therapy and support to other young people with disabilities so they could also realize their potential.


Then in 2016 --

KELLY RIPA: Jeison Aristizabal. COOPER: Jeison Aristizabal.

As the First Hero of the Year from Latin America, he broken yet another boundary.

JEISON ARISTIZABAL (through translation): I want to tell you, but yes you can. You can dream and you can achieve your dreams.

So, it was really very happy and also a commitment, right? Because after CNN Heroes there came more responsibilities.

COOPER: Jeison used his award money to build a much larger Rehabilitation Centre. Now he's helping more than 1000 children and young people every day.

ARISTIZABAL (in foreign language): Now we have teams with more technology with more capacity more stuffs, more therapies, more services.

COOPER: And along with specialized therapies, his center provides students with free education and a host of other opportunities including dancing, sports, and music.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (in foreign language): Jeison is a good example because it is the personal fight that you never give up.

COOPER: His program also helps older students learn job skills and he's already purchased land for new projects.

ARISTIZABAL (in foreign language): We started dreaming about a university. That first university in Latin America for young people with cognitive disability.

COOPER: Now, a lawyer, Jeison is also working for the legal system.

ARISTIZABAL (in foreign language): How are you? Very good.

COOPER: Ultimately, he wants to show the world what anybody can achieve, if they're given the chance.

ARISTIZABAL (in foreign language): I think that human being need opportunities and we need doors to be opened for us and the CNN Heroes campaign what it's allowed it that many people can make their big dreams grant.

COOPER: Amy Wright created an innovative coffee shop that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Mission inspired by two of her children, Bitty & Beau, who have Down syndrome.

BEAU: Your first latte today.

COOPER: And in 2017 --

RIPA: Amy Wright.

COOPER: Amy Wright. AMY WRIGHT: I was flabbergasted. But I honestly, I was thinking about how Bitty & Beau were at home watching the show live. I want you to know Bitty & Beau that I would not change you for the world. But I will change the world for you.

COOPER: Over the next two years, Amy opened five more coffee shops around the country.

WRIGHT: We want to welcome you to the Bitty & Beau's Coffee. Every time we hire someone new, we surprise them with an apron. For most of them, they've never been offered a job before. And so, we make a big deal out of it.


COOPER: But when the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt.

WRIGHT: It was never an option that we weren't going to reopen.

COOPER: They got a PPP loan, and we're even invited to the White House. When their stores reopened, Amy soon embraced a new approach.

WRIGHT: What made the most sense for us was to teach people what we had done so that they could open shops, provide jobs in their community, and run viable businesses.

COOPER: This year she opened five more shops, including one in Charlotte, North Carolina.

WRIGHT: We have a son Ryan, who is 19 years old. He has autism and Tourette Syndrome. He will be part of our business.

Robert, are you ready for your shift?

ROBERT: Oh, yeah.

WRIGHT: We have over 200 people with disabilities working in our coffee shops. But that number is just multiplying.

Are you proud of all these workers that work here?


COOPER: With 13 more stores opening next year, Amy's impact continues to grow.

WRIGHT: These shops are changing every life that walks through the door. Hopefully people come in our shops and see what's possible.


COOPER: Her advice for the next Hero of the Year --

WRIGHT: Buckle your seatbelt it is going to be a wild ride.

COOPER: Such an incredibly inspiring group. So, there's a look at how many of our past honorees are continuing to make the world a better place. To learn more about them and all the people we've recognized over the last 15 years, go to And tomorrow night, tune in for the 15th Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute live to see how this year's top 10 honorees are changing the world, and find out which one of them will be named the 2021 CNN Hero of the Year. I'm co- hosting again with my friend Kelly Ripa. It's going to be very fun night and incredibly inspiring. I hope you join us. Thanks for watching. Good night.