Last weekend, CNN continued its annual tradition of honoring ten brave and thankless role models throughout the world. Headlined by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa, the “CNN Heroes” award gala took place at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The two-hour live event featured clips detailing the work of each hero, and at the end, 2016’s Hero of the Year was revealed as chosen by the viewer audience.
From adventurous kayaker Brad Ludden’s First Descents to young father Sheldon Smith’s Dovetail Project, the organizations represented were truly diverse, with notables including those furthering progress in the developing world.
CNN Heroes kicked-off by celebrating Luma Mufleh and her organization, Fugees Family. Founded in 2004, Luma assists refugee children to the United States by offering free academic enrichment programs and coaching after-school soccer games. As a Jordanian refugee herself, she targets children displaced due to war, and tailors services to meet individual needs, whether overcoming language barriers, learning about American institutions or combating discrimination. To date, Fugees Family has assisted more than 850 kids from 28 countries.
Another highlight is Umra Omar’s Safari Doctors which began in 2014. Umra temporarily lived in the U.S. but returned to her home in Kenya to provide medical care to the remote Lamu archipelago near the Somali border. Faced with frequent threats and spillover attacks by Al-Shabaab terrorists, most professionals in health care and education fled the Lamu area. However, Umra looks past the danger and now delivers immunizations and other basic health services, arriving on her own by boat. She estimates that she has treated over 2,000 people so far and maintains that these dire communities would benefit most from the return of trained professionals.
Finally, the 2016 Hero of the Year? Jeison Aristizabal, a native of Cali, Colombia, began a project known as ASODISVALLE to assist disabled persons in one of the poorest areas of his home country. Jeison suffers from cerebral palsy and since 2000, has worked to triumph over prevailing stigmas for all. Part of his mission focuses on the identification of other disabled people in the region, but the more important part focuses on providing inclusive rehabilitation and educational services to integrate these citizens back into the community. He offers everything from job training to healthy meals, stimulating the opportunities and happiness of thousands in the area.
Hosts Cooper and Ripa were seen getting emotional more than once at the event, a testament to their support for such projects around the developing world. Cooper has been a part of the program since its inception 10 years ago, and Ripa joined just this year, though making appearances as a presenter during the last two ceremonies. Ripa is also a known supporter of UNICEF.
While the real stars of the event are undoubtedly the remarkable CNN Heroes honorees, it is likely that Cooper and Ripa will both continue to use their presence to draw attention to similar causes in upcoming years.
– Zachary Machuga