Why the U.S. women's gymnastics team is truly America at its finest.

America is in the midst of some tough conversations. Strong opinions and uncomfortable truths about race, politics, and social justice can make it seem like we're more divided than ever.

There's an unlikely place where we can look forward with hope, however:


The 2016 U.S. women's gymnastics team.

There are big reasons we should celebrate the diverse group of female gymnasts representing the U.S. at the Olympics in Rio this year.

Photo by Jason Lavengood/U.S.A. Gymnastics.

Sure, on the surface, gymnastics doesn't have much to do with those bigger, important conversations currently unfolding across Facebook and dining room tables.

But there's probably never been a better time for an Olympic squad to remind us that yes — we should all be on the same team, regardless of our background or skin color.

The five gymnasts representing the USA in the Olympics are fabulous, badass, and incredibly talented:

1. Chances are you've heard of the awesomeness that is Gabby Douglas.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

"I do want to be sharper," Douglas explained. That may be a tough goal to reach, seeing as she dominated the sport in 2012, becoming the first black gymnast to win an individual Olympic gold.

"When I look at my performances, I’m like, ‘Oo, you’re lagging behind, Gabs.’ The one thing I tell myself is to not get lazy. Nothing is handed to you; you always have to fight for yourself."

2. Laurie Hernandez, the first U.S.-born Latina to join the team since 1984, is a standout at just 16 years old.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

"Wow — that's all I can really say," Hernandez said of joining a team with such stellar athletes. Her passionate routines landed her the nickname "human emoji."

"I didn’t realize how much mentally and physically older I got in the past four years, so looking back at this little girl watching the Olympics on her phone, I would never think I’d be here right now."

3. Simone Biles is a 19-year-old Texan who many consider to be among the greatest gymnasts of all time.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

"I’m excited about being with the girls all the time because we all know what it’s like to go through this," said Biles, who has snagged a history-making 14 world championship medals (and is just all-around awesome). "We have each other to lean on, and I think that’s the best thing that could have happened."

4. Look out for Madison Kocian, who will be killin' it on the uneven bars.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

"It’s just something so special that I will never forget her announcing my name," Kocian said of learning she was going to the Olympics. She won the uneven bars world title in 2015.

5. The team's veteran athlete, Aly Raisman, is a Jewish 22-year-old who's used to bringing home the gold, silver, and bronze.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

"I think it just hasn’t really sunk in yet," Raisman said of landing a spot on the team again this year after competing in 2012 — an Olympics she finished as the team's most decorated gymnast.

One of the best things about the Olympics is that it brings our country together. That's something we need this year, especially.

So far, it's been a year filled with sweeping front-page headlines as well as complexities and tough questions about race relations.

Is there widespread systemic racism in law enforcement? Are we mischaracterizing our brave men and women in blue?

A Dallas vigil for the officers who were killed following an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Photo by G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images.

America, we've got some soul-searching to do. And one inspirational Olympic team certainly won't make these questions any easier to answer.

These five women, however, serve as a symbolic reminder of why our country is so great — and why it's vital we keep fighting for a better, more equal tomorrow.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

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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."

We know that mammals feed their young with milk from their own bodies, and we know that whales are mammals. But the logistics of how some whales make breastfeeding happen has been a bit of a mystery for scientists. Such has been the case with sperm whales.

Sperm whales are uniquely shaped, with humongous, block-shaped heads that house the largest brains in the animal world. Like other cetaceans, sperm whale babies rely on their mother's milk for sustenance in their first year or two. And also like other cetaceans, a sperm whale mama's nipple is inverted—it doesn't stick out from her body like many mammals, but rather is hidden inside a mammary slit.

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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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