8 times the 'helpers' eased the pain of sad situations in 2015.

2015 was an intense year.

Some pretty amazing things happened. The Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage, we made incredible progress in space exploration, and yet another country eradicated polio.

But we faced some seriously difficult times, too. There were many mass shootings in the U.S., Paris suffered a terrible terrorist attack, and all around the world, girls as young as 8 years old were still being forced to marry. And like every year, 2015 was another that saw ongoing problems, like homelessness and hunger.


But even in the tragic and sad times, there were so many people who showed us the very best of humanity. So many people who reminded us that the good far outweighs the bad.

Mister Rogers calls them the helpers.

Actually, his mom called them the helpers, but close enough!

Sometimes the helpers are those who, in the wake of a tragedy, are quite literally saving lives. There are also the quieter helpers. The ones who are there to do what they can, long after the news cameras have gone. The ones who see serious everyday problems and know that even small gestures of compassion can make a world of difference.

There were a lot of helpers in 2015.

Here are eight of them that I want to remember because they remind me of the good in the world and inspire me to do my part when I can, no matter how small, to help make the world a better place.

1. A California mom found a way to help Syrian refugees with young children.

Image via "Today."

By now, we've all read about the Syrian refugee crisis: Millions of people have been forced to flee Syria, leaving everything behind. They have to travel great distances, often risking death, to reach safety.

When Cristal Logothetis noticed how many refugees were carrying their babies and young children for long distances, she decided to do something about it.

She raised money and began collecting baby carriers, which she and other volunteers personally deliver to those who need them as they're traveling to safety. She called her movement Carry the Future. And as a result of that movement, refugees are better able to travel more safely and comfortably with babies and little kids.

"All they're trying to do is get to a better place and protect their family," Logothetis said in a Today interview. "Not only do they have a problem solved for them by receiving a carrier, but they realize that people care about them, that people want to help."

2. Two Muslim organizations joined forces and helped the families of the San Bernardino shooting victims by raising nearly $200,000.

Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The day after 14 people were killed in the San Bernardino mass shooting, two Californians knew they needed to do something to help. Neurologist and president of MiNDS Network Faisal Qazi and founder of CelebrateMercy Tarek El-Messidi got together and formed Muslims United for San Bernardino. Their original goal? To raise $50,000 for the victims' families. But with the help of many people who donated money, they raised over $215,000 for the family members of those whose lives were tragically stolen.

"This united American Muslim campaign aims to reclaim our faith from extremists by responding to evil with good, by rebuilding what they destroy," El-Messidi said in a press release. "We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action."

3. This Ohio pizza shop fed the hungry on Thanksgiving.

Photo by Bada Bing! Pizzeria/Facebook, used with permission.

Homelessness and hunger are both big problems that many people face every single day. Over 48 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they have "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods."

Jason Hague, owner of Bada Bing! Pizzeria, was already planning on having a Thanksgiving dinner for his friends and family. He thought: Why not invite more folks? He put out on open invitation for anyone who couldn't afford a meal to join them. Hague initially thought they'd have maybe 15 guests, but after news of their offer spread, he realized they needed to be prepared for more. His pizzeria bought enough food to feed 100 additional guests. It was just one meal on one day, but imagine how much of a difference it would make if everyone who was able helped in small ways, like donating to food banks?

4. A paramedic left in the middle of her own wedding to help the victims of an accident.

Photo by Marcy Martin, used with permission.

In between her wedding ceremony and reception, Sarah Ray learned that there was an accident a mile away. It turned out that her father and grandparents were involved. She and her new husband, also a paramedic, immediately left their wedding and raced to the scene, where she assisted her family members — while still rocking her wedding dress.

"This is a testament that people that work in EMS are always on duty. It is a testament to the willingness to help others," Jimmie Edwards, who is both Sarah and Paul's boss, said. True story! Thank you to the helpers who are the first responders in difficult situations.

5. Muslims raised money to rebuild Christian churches that were damaged and destroyed by fires.

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

In June, there was yet another terrible mass shooting that stole the lives of nine members of a black Christian church in Charleston, South Carolina. As if that wasn't awful enough, at least eight churches with black congregations were burned in the wake of the shooting, many of them as a result of suspected arson. The suspected reason for the fires started by arson was racism. The outward displays of it seemed to worsen following the mass shooting, which was racially motivated, and subsequent call to remove the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse.

A handful of Muslim American groups began raising money to help members of those Christian congregations rebuild their houses of worship. The Muslim groups exceeded their funding goal of $100,000 — now that's an example of people living out faith through their actions.

6. This family invited homeless people to enjoy a wedding reception dinner when the groom backed out.

When their daughter's fiancé called off the wedding at the very last minute, the Duane family from California decided not to let all that amazing food go to waste. Sure, they were sad for their daughter, but as the intended bride's mom said, "When I found out on Monday that the wedding would not be taking place, it just seemed like, of course, this would be something that we would do to give back."

As with the Ohio Pizzeria, this one-time event didn't solve hunger, but it made a difference to the guests who enjoyed salmon, tri-tip beef, gnocchi, and other delicious food. If we all used opportunities — big or small — to help the hungry, it would add up.

7. Instead of ticketing people who panhandle, the mayor of Albuquerque found a simple way to help them.

Photo by the city of Albuquerque, used with permission.

Feeding the homeless is one way to help. Offering them the opportunity to work is another. When Albuquerque mayor Richard Barry saw someone with a "will work" sign, he thought they should have the chance to do just that. His administration expanded a homeless assistance program to include work by the day. Those who accept the offer work five-and-a-half hour shifts for $9 an hour.

"We want to give the dignity of work for a day," Berry told Upworthy. "The dignity of a day's work for a day's pay is a very good thing. It helps people stabilize, it helps them with their self-confidence, and it helps them get back on their feet." At the end of each workday, the driver who transports the workers drops them off at St. Martin's Hospitality Center, which offers food, shelter, and other services.Here's hoping other cities will follow suit.

8. This couple provides a safe home for gay children who were rejected by their families.

Photo via Deb Word, used with permission.

Deb and Steve Word, observant Catholics, learned their son was gay when he was 23 years old. They asked why he didn't tell them sooner — and they learned he was worried they might not approve because of their religion.

That made the couple realize that others kids faced the same struggle — and they might not have parents who receive them with open arms, which is particularly problematic if they're still young and living at home. So they decided to open up their home to LBGT kids who needed a place to stay.

During the past six years, they've fostered a dozen such kids, many of them rejected by their own families. "[It was a] WWJD kind of thing," Deb told Upworthy. "We really just welcomed hurting kids into our spare bedrooms." It feels a whole lot bigger than that — and Deb and Steve are an amazing example of what a difference helpers can make.

I'm certain 2016 will have it's share of challenges, but here's to a new year full of the kindness and empathy in action these helpers have shown us.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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