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CNN Live Event/Special

CNN Hero Special "CNN Heroes: Sharing the Spotlight". Aired 8- 9p ET

Aired December 09, 2023 - 20:00   ET



JON HILSENRATH, AUTHOR, "YELLEN: THE TRAILBLAZING ECONOMIST WHO NAVIGATED AN ERA OF UPHEAVAL": The most important thing that could happen for this economy right now for -- is for inflation to continue to slow, because then people start feeling their pocketbooks, their paychecks going further than they'd been going the last few years.

You know, like we were just talking about the price of a meal at a Chick-fil-A.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: I was just thinking -- we were talking that during the break. We're out of time. But yeah, when you go into a fast food place and the price is 30, 40 percent, 50 percent --

HILSENRATH: You know, if you paid $10 for a package of hamburger meat a couple of years. It's $15 now. And you're still feeling that. We need to see more relief on that front.

ACOSTA: Absolutely.

All right. Jon, we'll bring you back, talk about this further.

Jon Hilsenrath, thank you very much.

HILSENRATH: Thank you.

ACOSTA: In the meantime, thanks very much for joining me this evening. I'm Jim Acosta. Have a good night.

In the meantime, celebrities helping make the world a better place. It's a CNN Hero special that's coming up next. Have a good night.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: CNN Heroes -- each year, we honor everyday people who are making extraordinary efforts to build a better world and we celebrate them.


COOPER: Nelly Cheboi.


COOPER: But tonight, we recognize some not-so every day individuals, star athletes who are taking action on issues close to their hearts. Gymnastic icon Simone Biles helping vulnerable children find a long- term support they need to thrive.

SIMONE BILES, GYMNASTIC ICON: You can still bring big and do amazing things.

COOPER: Legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk providing under-resourced communities the safe spaces to skate and connect.

TONY HAWK, LEGENDARY SKATEBOARDER: The best thing I could do with it I thought was to provide more state parks.

COOPER: Soccer superstar Alex Morgan bringing opportunities to women and girls on and off the field.

ALEX MORGAN, SOCCER SUPERSTAR: I am so happy to be here.

COOPER: NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon driving research to treat pediatric cancer.

JEFF GORDON, NASCAR CHAMPION: These engineers are creating ways to revolutionize how we look at cancer.

COOPER: Celebrated figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi making the magic of books accessible to children in need.

KRISTI YAMAGUCHI, FIGURE SKATER: Other words are open to you when you read a book.

COOPER: Alisyn Camerota, Erica Hill and Coy Wire join us as we recognize the work of these renowned sports figures to each found their own way to get back.



I'm Anderson Cooper.

For 17 years, we've recognized hundreds of impressive individuals as CNN heroes. These passionate men and women work tirelessly, often without a lot of money or attention, to solve problems that they see in their communities.

Tomorrow night, we're going to be honoring the top ten CNN heroes of 2023 and naming a new CNN hero of the year on "CNN HEROES: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE" live from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Tonight, we're doing something different. For the next hour, we're going to be sharing the stories of sports figures who are channeling their energy into solving problems they see in the world. Whether working to improve childhood literacy or connect kids in foster care with an adult they can count on. They're using their access and power to help those in need.

Kicking us off is iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk. He pioneered modern skating, his gravity defying moves inspired generations of skaters, earning him the nickname the Birdman. For more than two decades, he's given others the opportunity to fly through his nonprofit, the skate park project with his help, millions of people now have a safe place to practice and share their passion for skateboarding.

Coy Wire caught up with Hawk to find out how his work helps others soar.


COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tony Hawk is the face of skateboarding. A world champion for 12 years in a row, winner of 73 titles, inventor of dozens of skateboarding moves. He turned pro at age 14, and within two years, he was considered one of the best competitive skaters on earth.

But before his meteoric rise, he was an energetic 9-year-old who needed an outlet, something he found in skateboarding.

HAWK: It spoke to me in a way that other activities and sports didn't. It just felt like this open book, and that you could do it in any fashion, in any style, you didn't have to rely on a team, didn't have to listen to a coach. And there was definitely a daredevil aspect that was probably rose to the top for me because I was kind a daredevil kid even though I was pretty scrawny.

The first time I went to a skate park I saw people flying out of pools. I was like, that's for me. I want to do that at all costs.

WIRE: How about accessibility when you were first getting out and trying to do this thing you loved to do?

HAWK: Oh, there were very few facilities.


And I got very lucky in that I was from San Diego, and one of the last skate parks in the U.S. was in San Diego.

WIRE: Del mar, right?

HAWK: And Del Mar Skate Ranch, that was my home away from home. At some point I figured out which bus route from school went closest to the skate park so I didn't have to go home first. I just spent all my not waking moments in school and that place.

And it wasn't just about the training grounds of it. It was more the community of it, like I just -- I found my people. I found my tribe there. And I found my support group. That was my salvation.

WIRE: After going pro, Tony realized how lucky he was. Many kids around the country didn't have access to a skate park. So they resorted to skating in public areas where they were often viewed as a nuisance. Tony wanted to help give them a place of their own where they could skate legally and safely. HAWK: So when I had some sort of success or a voice that kind of

resonated beyond skateboarding, the best thing I could do with it, I thought, was to provide more skate parks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tony, right here.

WIRE: I 2002, he founded the Tony Hawk Foundation, now known as the Skate Park Project. Since then, his nonprofit has granted almost $13 million to help build nearly 700 skate parks in all 50 states. More than nine million visitors annually have a safe place to skate because of Tony's efforts.

HAWK: The mission is to provide more skate parks in underserved areas, and to provide that salvation and that sense of belonging and community to kids who feel disenfranchised and kids who have found a sport like skateboarding but don't have anywhere to do it. That is designated. It's been the most rewarding thing I could do with my success.

WIRE: You've helped fund projects for skate parks in rural areas, on native American reservations, inner cities. Why is that important to you to offer such diverse groups and communities?

HAWK: I think skateboarding in and of itself is one of the most inclusive activities that's ever existed, especially now. And I think this is what is unique about skateboarding. If you go to any skate park right now, there are most likely people of all races, all genders, all ages, all enjoying it equally, and some of the best in the world will be there with absolute beginners. And I can't think of any other sport where that collective exists.

To be able to provide more of those facilities to places and kids who maybe would have never had access to something like that, especially inner cities, indigenous lands, that's the best thing we can do with it.

I mean, the cities that can afford these facilities and in more affluent areas, for the most part they're taken care of. You know, we can help guide them so that we can help the design process better, but our efforts are much more to underprivileged areas.

WIRE: You recently created a fellowship program. Tell me a little about that.

HAWK: We wanted to help -- I don't want to say kids, I'm old. So, you know, 18 to 24 --

WIRE: Kid at heart.


HAWK: -- kids, because I have kids that age.

WIRE: Right.

HAWK: But youth to advocate for skate parks in their area and to help with the design process. We have a training program, and it's been hugely effective because they are on the ground. They're right there in that city. We can sit here in California and go, oh, it would be great to have a skate park this that town and that town, and let's talk to some of the city council members.

These fellows are on the ground in that area knowing exactly what it's going to take, and it's way more effective that way and way more efficient.

It was usually important to include BIPOC fellows because that is the state of skateboarding. It's hugely diverse. We want to have everyone represented. And have it be very inclusive. And to be someone that you can identify with. And so I'm really proud of the program.

WIRE: What's the wildest trick you ever pulled off?

JORDAN PATTERSON, SKATEBOARDER: Probably the rail back there.

WIRE: I met up with one of the fellows at the Historic Fourth Ward Skate Park in Atlanta which is funded in part by Tony's nonprofit. Twenty-four-year-old Jordan Patterson (ph) is currently learning how to build, advocate, and create programming for skate parks in his community.

What have skate parks meant to you in your live?

PATTERSON: I always found a skate park as somewhere that I wanted to be. For me, it gave me so much to grow up at.

WIRE: What has the skate park project fellowship program meant to you?

PATTERSON: I was really excited to finally see I can make the change that I wanted to see in more skate parks being developed. I've definitely got a lot out of the fellowship, I would say.


WIRE: The 12 fellows were flown to San Diego for training and given opportunities to visit other parks around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Think about how this fits in with everything else --

WIRE: Soon, Jordan hopes to work with the local government to create more parks across Atlanta. He's already got a vision of his perfect skate park.

PATTERSON: Having it offset from council is not too loud. Not going to cut down trees, being sustainable. And then definitely having public transit so we can get to it, whether people walking, people on train, people on bikes, have multiple ways of getting there beside a car. I feel it's a growing sport especially in Atlanta, to have it more spread out like in a network kind of way to make sure we have access.

WIRE: As someone who advocates for skate parks, what's something that you want others to know about these spaces? PATTERSON: Really the friendships you can develop here, like it's not

just a skate space. It's where you can meet people, you can develop as a person. Not about really like your color or whatever you're into, you know what I mean? You can just come and skate.

WIRE: While Tony's foundation is working to train the next generation of skate park advocates, he's not done yet. The Birdman has big plans ahead.

HAWK: I feel like we are in a good stride with our foundation and with our projects, and we've given away over $11 million in the last 20 years. But more importantly, that money has gone to raise much more in matching funds and other donations. And I feel like there are still plenty of towns that could benefit from a skate park, plenty of indigenous communities that could benefit from a skate park. But I think what's next in terms of the more lofty goals is international facilities.

WIRE: An absolute legend on a skateboard and you're doing so much more now for communities all across the country and the world. What do you want your legacy to be?

HAWK: I hope someone that raised the profile of skateboarding in as many ways as possible. More importantly, provided facilities for kids to do it and not feel left out.


COOPER: Tony Hawk's organization says they plan to expand internationally next year. If you want to donate to the skate park project, go to

Join us tomorrow night for "CNN HEROES: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE" live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, soccer superstar Alex Morgan shares how she's giving girls the opportunities they deserve.


MORGAN: This empowerment camp was helping girls understand what they're capable of and using sport as a vehicle for that.


COOPER: And, later, gymnastics legend Simone Biles is on a mission to help vulnerable young people rise above their challenges.



COOPER: Welcome back.

Alex Morgan is an icon of women soccer. Her skills and determination helped lead the U.S. women's national team to Olympic and World Cup glory and helped make her an international superstar. She's always been a fierce advocate for women's rights and gender equity. And recently, she decided to channel that passion into a nonprofit of her own.

Erica Hill caught up with Morgan to find out how she's helping empower women and girls on and off the field.


ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Alex Morgan is one of the most celebrated players in women's soccer history. A two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, she is the highest paid female player in the game today.

But her impact transcends soccer. She's also a children's book author, entrepreneur, and sports icon who in 2022 had more endorsement deals than any other female athlete in the world. She's also a fierce advocate for women and girls, both on and off the field, a passion that recently inspired her to start her own charity in her hometown of San Diego.

Earlier this year, you started the Alex Morgan Foundation. Tell me about that. What's the focus?

MORGAN: Sports equity is a big one. Growing confidence and opportunities for girls and giving support to moms, especially new moms.

HILL: So, I was really struck by that last one. Support for moms.

MORGAN: The mom piece I was really passionate about having a 3-year- old daughter.

I think the burden falls on the mom a lot more in a family, and so I wanted to provide as much support as possible.

HILL: Her foundation has partnered with Casa Familiar, a local nonprofit, to support their work helping low-income women become community advocates.

Alex has also teamed up with Nike to provide essential kits to new mothers.


MORGAN: I think with a lot of moms sometimes all they need is a little extra support here or there to help their family and help themselves, too.

HILL: And also, I mean, here you are as a working mom, right?

MORGAN: It is so truly difficult. So lending any support I want to provide that to other moms.

HILL: But it's not just moms. Alex has long been focused on creating more opportunities for girls. One of her newest efforts, Alex's Homebreak, brings girls' soccer

teams to see her professional team, the San Diego Wave, play in person.

CROWD: Defense! Defense! Defense!

MORGAN: Some of them haven't had an opportunity to come watch a professional women's soccer game in a packed stadium. Something I think like changes when you go to that first game.

HILL: It's also an experience that Alex didn't have in her early years.

When you were 7, you said you wanted to be a professional soccer player. You didn't have necessarily an Alex Morgan to look up to at that point. Now young girls can point to you and say, that's exactly what I want to do when I grow up.

MORGAN: When I was 7 years old, I couldn't turn on TV and see women's soccer, let alone women's sports.

HILL: That changed in 1999 when 10-year-old Alex watched U.S. women's national team win the women's World Cup.

MORGAN: I was just completely inspired by that.


MORGAN: I knew that was my calling, that's what I wanted to do. I was so competitive, and it just brought something out of me.

HILL: Ultimately, the drive and talent made Alex Morgan one of the most successful female players in the sport.

In 2015, she helped the U.S. women win the World Cup once again in a final that was, at the time, the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history.


HILL: The victory helped usher in a new era for women's sports in the U.S. and abroad.

MORGAN: You guys are absolute best. Honestly, the best fans in the world. You guys are just awesome.

HILL: Last June, Alex's group partnered with another local nonprofit, Let's Go South Bay, to host a girls' empowerment camp for young soccer players.


MORGAN: The biggest reason why I was so excited was that it wasn't all just about soccer. It was also just getting in groups and talking through really difficult things. Mental health, situations at home, how sport can give you confidence, opportunity, a sense of community. I really leaned on sport growing up to provide so much more to me, and I know that this empowerment camp was helping them understand what they're actually capable of and using sport as a vehicle for that.

HILL: Thirteen-year-old Nina Asnani (ph) was thrilled to be a part of it.

NINA ASNANI, THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD: I've been playing soccer since I was 3 years old. For as long as I can remember, Alex Morgan's been my idol. And you know, she's a huge inspiration to girls like me, not only on the field but off the field. She's supporting girls in sports. It was great to hang out with girls who stand for the same thing I stand for and admire Alex just as much.

HILL: And even though Alex was away at the World Cup --

MORGAN: I'm so happy to be here.

HILL: -- she zoomed in for a virtual visit.

ASNANI: It was a breathtaking moment. I was freaking out. I was fan girling a little bit.

HILL: Nina's experience at the camp also inspired her to make a difference. As a girl scout, Nina is working on a project about girls and sports and wants to help level the playing field for all female athletes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody, Alex Morgan.


HILL: In October, at the Alex Morgan Foundation's celebration of confidence event, Nina was honored with a leadership award. She finally got to meet her idol and is excited to help Alex continue to advocate for girls.

ASNANI: Empowerment in this case means supporting girls and having them fight for what they believe in.

HILL: Girls like Nina helped motivate Alex to take on her biggest fight -- a battle against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay. The women's national team had always been paid substantially less than the men's team for international play despite all of their wins. Alex and other team leaders first filed a complaint in 2016 followed by a lawsuit. When the U.S. team won the women's World Wup again in 2019, the crowd voiced their support.


HILL: Finally in 2022 --

REPORTER: The end of a six-year-long legal battle, equal rate of pay going forward, that includes lucrative World Cup bonuses.


HILL: That $24 million settlement was a victory for the team and for all women.

MORGAN: I've always played team sports. I completely buy into the idea that you can do so much more together than alone. As much as I can continue using my voice and my platform to speak out for women in situations where they are discriminated against, I will do so.

Rainbows are like my favorite.

GIRL: Me, too.

MORGAN: Really?

HILL: Alex hopes her foundation will enable her to do even more in the years to come, helping to build an equitable future for all women and girls, including her 3-year-old daughter, Charlie.

How has being Charlie's mom changed your focus?

MORGAN: I want to create the best future possible for her. I want her to be able to be proud of her mom. I want her to know that her mom has really changed a lot of lives for the better. And I think that I'm on the right path.


COOPER: In the coming years, Alex Morgan hopes to expand her work to reach girls and women nationwide. If you want to support her efforts, go to

And join me tomorrow for the 17th annual "CNN HEROES: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE" live right here on CNN.

Coming up --




COOPER: He helped make NASCAR part of popular culture.




COOPER: Jeff Gordon tells Alisyn Camerota how he's now steering cancer research in new directions.

And later, gymnastics icon Simone Biles shares her deeply personal reasons for helping kids in the foster care system.



COOPER: Welcome back.

Nearly 10,000 American kids are diagnosed with cancer each year. And the impact of the disease is devastating. While survival rates have improved in recent decades, many of the treatments that help these kids survive can lead to health problems later in life.

When NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon watched a close friend's young son battle cancer, the experience moved him deeply and propelled him to take action.

Alisyn Camerota caught up with Gordon to find out how he's driving new research to find better options for kids with cancer.


CAMEROTA (voice-over): Legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon took the race car world mainstream in the 1990s, becoming a household name.

But what's less well-known about this four-time NASCAR cup series champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner is his dedication to finding cures for childhood cancers.

What started your connection to pediatric cancer?

GORDON: Yeah, it sort of began here, here at Hendrick Motorsports, because my crew chief, Ray Evernham, at the time, we were both young and new to NASCAR. His son was diagnosed with leukemia at 1-year-old. It was just a shock to him, shock to everybody. And it was the first time that that had really hit home for somebody close to me. That was 1993. In 1999, I decided to start my own foundation and really focus everything on pediatric cancer.

CAMEROTA: Most of Gordon's financial contributions go towards research.

GORDON: And that kind of goes back to racing for me. You know, my experience as being a part of a race team is when we go and find ways to make the car go faster, find ways to win races -- find ways to get an edge over our competition, it's usually through research and development.

When I go into a lab and I'm around researchers, it remind me of these engineers that are finding and searching and creating ways to revolutionize how we look at cancer and find better long-term treatments to it.

And so I've seen the results of that on the race track, and I've seen the results of it in research lab, as well.


GORDON: This one? Is this the one?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. GORDON: That one looks fast. I like it.

CAMEROTA: While survival rates for pediatric cancer have improved drastically over the last few decades, as many as two-thirds of those survivors will struggle with long-term side effects from treatment. Something Jeff is working to change.

I mean, if you're not in this world, you think, okay, it's awful a child is diagnosed with cancer, but then they're cured.

GORDON: Right.

CAMEROTA: You don't know all of the repercussions.

GORDON: It's great that there have been huge advancements on the cure rate side of certain types of cancers, and yet, you know, we don't focus as much on the rare ones. We don't -- to your point -- focus on, you know, what are the secondary effects and the long-term effects and how toxic many of these treatments are. And while you might -- may be cured of the type of cancer that you were diagnosed with, that they don't always pick up on what happens beyond that. And that's not always a part of the statistics.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Two things I really like are dogs, like guys in the Mandalorian.

CAMEROTA: Children like Aidan who's battling a rare type of cancer, inspired Jeff to keep fighting for less toxic treatments.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're constantly told there's long-term effects to the chemo. Could this have been prevented with some -- with a treatment that wasn't 30, had40 years old? There just wasn't the options there, and to have more would have been fantastic.

I don't want anybody else to feel the way that we felt in these past few months. Having the funding for research like these clinical trials and future clinical trials, it is going to change these kids' lives one day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To help advance pediatric cancer research --

CAMEROTA: Jeff's foundation has granted more than $22 million for research for less toxic, more effective treatments for childhood cancers. One of his biggest annual fundraisers is the Corvette for a Cure program which over the years has raised more than $15 million.

GORDON: Ready for a ride?

CAMEROTA: I got the opportunity to ride in this year's car with the world-famous race car driver himself.

GORDON: Don't forget to buckle up.

CAMEROTA: Oh, yes. Does it come with a helmet?

GORDON: Not today. CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh. Oh, no. Jeff, stop -- these guys are -- Jeff!

So somebody's going to win this car, your car. Somebody's going to win your car, and then you're going to take them for a ride.

GORDON: Absolutely. This is a program we've been doing for about 18 years now. This is really our biggest fundraiser that we have every year. This car means a lot to our foundation and to pediatric cancer. It represents a lot, not just is it fast and cool looking and goes fast, but the amount of money that's been raised through our Corvette for a Cure program has really -- it's changed people's lives.

CAMEROTA: So -- stop. Stop. Stop. Ah! Oh, my God --

I'm alive. That was insane and so fun.

GORDON: I had to take the Jeff Gordon expressway because I figured I wouldn't get a ticket there. I don't want to say how fast we were. It was fast.

CAMEROTA: I know. It felt about 200. That's what I think it was.

GORDON: As long as it felt like 200.

CAMEROTA: Jeff has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to finding cures and improving the lives of children with cancer. Today, his resolved is just as strong, and the fight is still as personal as the day he started.

GORDON: I have a 16-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old son. And because of my experiences and being in hospitals, I realize every day that that could be us, right, that could be me walking into a doctor's office with my daughter or my son.

So I guess what I want is for no parent ever to have to go through that because I can't imagine that. I think that would be terrifying, but I know it's real. I don't take it for granted because I have seen it too many times. It doesn't discriminate. It can happen to anybody.


And you know, that's my goal is just to make sure that no parent ever has to hear their child is diagnosed with cancer.


COOPER: You can help Jeff Gordon fight pediatric cancer and even get a chance to win that car at

And find out who will be named this year's CNN Hero of the Year tomorrow night on "CNN HEROES: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE".

Coming up, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi shares how her gold medal win helped her find a new mission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KRISTI YAMAGUCHI, FIGURE SKATER: It's pretty crazy after an Olympics, feeling that support like, yeah, there's something more I can do.


COOPER: And later, find out why Simone Biles is using her star power to help kids in need.


COOPER: Welcome back.

In 1992, American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in Albertville, France. She was the first U.S. woman to achieve that feat in 16 years and first Asian American to ever win gold in the Winter Olympics. Her victory inspired a generation of skaters. And for nearly three decades, this Olympic champion has championed children through her nonprofit, Always Dream.


Well, today, her group provides 1,000 students in under-resourced communities with life-changing access to books each year.

Erica Hill sat down with Yamaguchi to find out how she's striving to improve childhood literacy by helping kids fall in love with reading.


HILL (voice-over): Kristi Yamaguchi is a figure skating legend, with an Olympic gold medal, a long pro skating career, even a "Dancing with the Stars" victory. Her athleticism and artistry have kept her in the public eye for more than three decades.

She was also widely respected for her charity work, especially with her literacy nonprofit Always Dream.

YAMAGUCHI: Poppy was a pig who dreamed big.

HILL: It's work she found after achieving her dream of Olympic gold in 1992. Kristi returned home a celebrity and quickly realized she could use her fame to help others.

YAMAGUCHI: Always set goals for yourself, have a dream out there, and don't be afraid to go forward.

HILL: There was so much excitement when you won the gold medal. I was reading at one point your mom said to you, okay, so, Kristi, now that you've done this, what are you going to do to give back?

YAMAGUCHI: I think it was really a great question. It's pretty crazy after an Olympics. People -- recognize you or say, oh, I was cheering for you, and you feel like, wow, feeling that support just like, yeah, there's something more I can do.

HILL: Performing with stars on ice gave her that opportunity. YAMAGUCHI: The tour benefited the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So we worked

closely with families, and that really inspired me.

HILL: San Francisco 49ers star Ronnie Lott who started a nonprofit to help kids urged Kristi to do the same.

YAMAGUCHI: He was like, there's no other female athlete doing this here. I really think you should do it, and was just an incredible role model.

Always Dream was established in 1996, and 27 years later, you know, here we are.

HILL: The name Always Dream, how did you choose that?

YAMAGUCHI: So always dream was actually how I used to sign off when I would do autographs.

HILL: A signoff inspired by something another Olympic gold medalist, Brian Boitano, had written to her.

YAMAGUCHI: He said follow your dreams, Brian Boitano. I was like, oh, that's so good. I can't copy him. So I would write, you know, always dream, Kristi Yamaguchi.

So when -- what should we call this organization, it just kind of fell into place. In the early years, we did a variety of different things. We did a camp in Hawaii with able-bodied kids who are paired with kids with disabilities. And it was all about inclusivity.

So it was really powerful, and we were able to work with the city of Fremont, which is my hometown, and built an all abilities playground. It's all about making every child feel like they're worthy.

The greatest reward one day, a dad came up to me and said, oh, my son loves your playground. Thank you so much for building that.

He is autistic, and it's a place we take him every week. So, moments like those motivate you to do it even more.

HILL: In 2011, Kristi published her first children's book, and soon, Always Dream began to focus on childhood literacy.

YAMAGUCHI: When you look at the chance of a child's success in life, education is really the foundation for that. And being a mom with two daughters, I just saw with my own eyes how critical those early literacy skills and the interest just in books and reading really are.

I love hockey, and I can give you a play by play of the games.

HILL: In 2012, Kristi launched the always reading program which partners with schools in low-income areas, making books accessible to students in California and Hawaii.

You were early adopters of tablets. Where did that decision come from? YAMAGUCHI: Having it on a digital platform, you have so much more

access. We did get a lot of pushback in 2012. They were like, you're going to put a tablet in a 5-year-old's hand? Like, are you crazy?

But our tablets are locked down, so they're really reading devices for the kids. They cannot access the internet. It's literally just an electronic book.

HILL: Those free tablets allow students to choose from more than 40,000 titles.


Families receive training, and those who need it also get a free Wi-Fi data plan. The goal --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes! You read with your mom?

HILL: -- to encourage adults to read with their kids for at least 15 minutes every day.

YAMAGUCHI: We're not an in-school program, but more after school and getting the parents the power to really be that all-important first teacher at home which is huge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I'm so glad that you came to my office hours --

YAMAGUCHI: We do have the support of a book coach for each of the families, and they receive text messages twice a week. And a lot of times they're reading strategies or reminder, hey, there's ten new books in the collection on the tablet.

HILL: The digital platform allows the book coaches to monitor each family's progress.

YAMAGUCHI: The book coaches are seeing who's read, who maybe hasn't picked up the tablet, and if there's a little dip, then there are some text messages that they will send out like, hey, do you need any assistance?

HILL: There's a really important window that if kids are not at a certain level by third, fourth grade, we really see the gaps start to widen.

YAMAGUCHI: Unfortunately one of the scary statistics is only one-third of fourth graders in our country are reading at or above grade level. It's indicative of whether they'll graduate from high school and how far behind they get. So yes, that's why it's so important to get kids interested in books.

UNIDENTIFIEDF EMALE: There you go. Good job, Juliet.

HILL: Students who read for 15 minutes a day are honored as star readers. And three times a year, all students are given hard copies of books to keep. YAMAGUCHI: We know hard copy books are not going away, and there's

something about turning the page. So we encourage both. But you know, we are able to just track better on the tablet.

HILL: And you have data that you collect. What have you found?

YAMAGUCHI: Last school year, we had 1,000 students in the program, and over 108,000 books were read --

HILL: Wow.

YAMAGUCHI: -- last year's school year. And you know, for a lot of families, the books that they are reading together are the only books in the house.

HILL: What about those anecdotal stories? What do you hear from families?

YAMAGUCHI: There was a mother and daughter who had housing insecurity during the pandemic, and they didn't know night by night where they would be. And the mom said -- her daughter said to her, mom, I'm grad we had the always reading tablet because no matter where we are, you're still able to read bedtime story to me. And you know, it was -- it hit home because there was a little bit of stability maybe that we were offering beyond just the books.

HILL: Kristi's program has also helped students make substantial academic progress, especially one young boy named Emilio.

YAMAGUCHI: A pre-K, he entered the program nonverbal. And he was on an individualized education plan, but his mama, his grandmother, took advantage of the resources and the coaching.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The book coach is always there to ask questions, give support, give advice. So when they gave the reading tablet, he loved it. He loved it. It was a place where he could escape and could learn, and he would just soak it up like a sponge.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: I can read this one. It has five trucks and dinosaurs.

YAMAGUCHI: I actually started reading to him and getting involved with the program. He started asking questions because he was interested in the things they were reading together. And by the end of his pre-K year, his teachers decided to mainstream him, and he became one of the top readers in his class as far as number of books read.

HILL: More than 30 years after achieving her dream, Kristi Yamaguchi is focused on giving kids the chance to find and pursue their own. The access that you provide to these books, how much do you think that encourages the children and the families in this program to cream?

YAMAGUCHI: I really feel books unlock the imaginations in children, and I think that's where dreams are born. Other worlds are opened up to you when you read a book. So yes, I really do feel like trying to instill and promote kids to dream is what we're all about. (END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Over the next four years, Yamaguchi hopes to expand her work and quadruple the number of students she serves. To support her efforts, go to


And please join me tomorrow for the 17th annual "CNN HEROES: AN ALL- STAR TRIBUTE", live right here on CNN.

When we come back, Simone Biles, a gymnastics legend, tells Alisyn Camerota how her childhood led her to help children in foster care.


BILES: So I know some of those hardships that those kids go through. It's a part of who I am, and I wouldn't be here without that part.



COOPER: Welcome back.

Simone Biles has dominated women's gymnastics for more than a decade and with her performance at the world championships last October, she it a major milestone. She now has 37 medals in global competition, making her the most decorated gymnast in history. For many, she is truly the greatest of all time.

While her athletic feats are legendary, her fans have also been inspired by the difficulties she's overcome. One of those challenges led her to work with Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that provides mentors to vulnerable young people, many of whom are in the foster care system.

Recently, Biles sat down with Alisyn Camerota to share her personal connection to this work and why she believes it can have life-changing impact.


CAMEROTA (voice-over): Over the last ten years, gymnast Simone Biles has become a legend.

She's flown higher, pushed farther and achieved feats unmatched by any other woman in the sport. Her name is synonymous with excellence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALES: Simone fricking Biles.

CAMEROTA: Yet this full fledged superstar has always kept it real.

BILES: Hi, guys. I'm Simone Biles.

CAMEROTA: Her openness about the issues that have impacted her and her advocacy on their behalf have earned her more recognition and respect.


Personal experience is what drives her work with Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that helps vulnerable young people, including many who have been in or are at risk of entering the foster care system.

Tell us why the organization is so close to your heart.

BILES: I actually was a foster kid, so I know some of those hardships that those kids go through. When my siblings and I entered foster care, it was because our biological mom was struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. I was 3 years old. I just remember like us as kids being so hungry and then I just remember this cat that would get fed and not like quite us.

And so we were taken and thankfully, we actually got to stay in one foster home and we were all together.

CAMEROTA: Simone spent three years in foster care, during which time her grandparents were frequent visitors.

BILES: It was like some of the best times ever. We were just so excited.

CAMEROTA: When she was 6, they officially adopted her. This new life soon led 6-year-old Simone to discover her passion.

Were you on a class field trip when you went to a gym? What happened there?

BILES: I never even heard of gymnastics before. I was just like oh, I bet I could do that. I was just playing around, copying some of the girls in the back and they did end up sending a letter home and my parents were like oh, this is perfect. It will get her energy out and we'll see what happens. I don't think anybody thought anything of it.

CAMEROTA: So basically you were just a natural born gymnast.


CAMEROTA: And the rest is history. Still, without constant support through foster care and adoption, Simone's life could have been very different.

You got lucky.

BILES: Having my parents and that support made me who I am today. So once I heard of Friends of the Children, I was like that's amazing. How can we get involved?

CAMEROTA: So, tell me about friends of the children and the service that they provide for kids.

BILES: It's a paid professional mentor and that friend stays with that child for 12-plus years and kind of is that constant in their life so they can attend like dance recitals, school, different outings and gives them love and support because that's what these kids need, to have that one constant means the world to them.

Hi, I'm Simone. Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In fact (ph) she doesn't know Simone Biles.



BILES: You've been mentoring her for eight years?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eight and a half, 9 years.

BILES: That's awesome. What's your favorite thing about Shambria (ph)? Is she like an older sister?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, and my best friend.

CAMEROTA: And this approach works. The group says 92 percent of program graduates avoid the criminal justice system and go on to college, get jobs or join the military. Some stay in touch with their mentors the rest of their lives.

Simone has embraced the group's mission, writing an op-ed in "USA Today" and doing Zoom calls with kids from the group.

BILES: Always super cute. I usually lead a stretch, talk, do a Q and A. It's really special I get to at least talk to these kids.

CAMEROTA: And last January --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's start out with just a warm Friends of the Children welcome to Simone Biles.


CAMEROTA: When she was featured on a cereal box, she shared that spotlight with the group.

BILES: Representation matters and me being a former foster kid, we kind of integrated that in so that people could get a deeper look inside of what I hold very near and dear to my heart, which is obviously working with foster kids.

CAMEROTA: The event also celebrated the organization's expansion to Simone's home town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're here today with you to celebrate Friends of the Children Houston.


CAMEROTA: You started the Houston chapter. Am I right? BILES: Yes. We worked together to open this Houston chapter because I

think the kids of Houston deserve that.

CAMEROTA: And the kids are ultimately what motivates her.

BILES: You see their eyes light up and it's super exciting because they realize I was in their exact position, interacting with them. Obviously they have so many questions.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: Did you have a mentor growing up before?

BILES: Well, I was adopted at a younger age. So my mentors were my parents and then as I got older it, became like my coaches, my teammates.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: Have you did a back flip before?

BILES: Have I did a back flip before? I've done several, yeah. I probably have done millions by now.

CAMEROTA: She'll be doing more at the Biles Invitational, a competition where she's also promoting the nonprofit.

BILES: So we are raising funds with a special addition GK Simone Biles Friends of the Children Leo, as well as a turtle. And these proceeds go to Friends of the Children so we can hopefully open new chapters, hire more friends and mentors.

CAMEROTA: Friends of the children is now in 36 cities nationwide. It hopes to expand to 50 locations and eventually reduce the number of young kids entering foster care in the U.S.

Simone is proud to support this work. Ultimately, she wants all vulnerable kids to reach their potential.

Why do you talk about this painful time in your life?

BILES: Because it's a part of who I am and I wouldn't be here without that part and hopefully those kids out there listening get to be like wow, I can be somebody and this doesn't have to hold me back. You can still dream big and do amazing things.


COOPER: To support Simone Biles' work with Friends of the Children, just go to There you can learn more about everyone you've seen tonight and donate directly to their organization.

And be sure to tune in tomorrow night for "CNN HEROES: AN ALL- STAR TRIBUTE". I'll be co-hosting with my colleague Laura Coates and we'll be joined by some of the brightest stars to celebrate this year's top ten CNN heroes.

Thanks so much for watching. Good night.