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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Aired December 6, 2007 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening.
I'm Christiane Amanpour at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where an unprecedented event is about to take place. Acclaimed public figures, world leaders and artists have all gathered here to sing the praises of a group of heroes. These heroes are individuals whose names may not be familiar, but their stories are remarkable. They have fought for human rights, for the environment, for the protection of children and many other crucial causes. And they've done it with the simple desire to help those in need.
Tonight, on this live broadcast, they will be honored. Inside the museum, the walls are carved with a call to arms by Theodore Roosevelt: "Be practical as well as generous with your ideals," he said. "Keep your eyes on the stars and keep your feet on the ground."
That spirit has made it possible for ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary goals. These are the men and women who defied the odds to change our world. This is CNN HEROES.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Anderson Cooper.
ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Thank you so much.
Welcome to CNN HEROES.
We are here tonight to celebrate the courage of some truly amazing people. Now, I must confess I'm not much of a fan of award shows. They go on way too long. There's people running all around the stage. They give awards to people who have already, frankly, been awarded enough. I mean if you are pulling in $20 million, do you really need a fake gold statute?
I don't think so.
And I don't like award shows because they no longer have those Debbie Allen dance numbers. I do miss those.
Tonight, though, I have the privilege of being among some people who truly deserve the accolades and the attention they're going to receive. They're men and women who save lives and do what is right in this world, which, frankly, often does not reward doing the right thing.
We use the term heroes far too much these days. Will Rogers once said, "We can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by."
Well, tonight, you will meet real heroes. And I am honored to stand on this stage and applaud as they go by.
They come tonight from every corner of the Earth and from all walks of life. They athlete doctors and activists and teenagers. Some are what we call everyday heroes -- everyday superheroes -- regular citizens thrust into moments of great valor. No matter what the circumstances, though, all of them have faced setbacks and frustrations -- even persecution. They have persevered because they believe that people are worth fighting for.
Now, here's how the program works. More than 7,000 individuals were nominated by CNN's viewers around the world -- 93 separate countries. Those 7,000 nominations were narrowed down to 18 extraordinary finalists in six separate categories. And the stories of those finalists were presented to our blue ribbon panel, a group including Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, seven time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, Bishop T.D. Jakes, who is here tonight with his wife, Deepak Chopra, who is here, as well, tonight, and many others.
The panel chose six remarkable people to be honored this evening.
To introduce you to each of our heroes, we called together musicians and actors and humanitarians -- all of whom feel a personal connection to the vital work these people are doing. We've also got some powerful and inspirational musical performances. Tonight, Sheryl Crow is here tonight. So is Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones and one of my personal favorites, Miss. Mary J. Blige.
COOPER: At the end of the program, if there is time, I will also perform my own eight minute version of Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." So that should be something we're all looking forward to.
COOPER: I hope there's time.
Let's get started.
Here to introduce tonight's first hero in the category Fighting Justice is Jimmy Smits.
JIMMY SMITS: Thank you, Anderson.
Thank you very much.
SMITS: Thank you and good evening.
From a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And that's what drives our finalist, Lynwood Hughes, to be the voice for United States veterans and make sure that they get the benefits they're entitled to for serving their country.
That is what drives our finalist Rangina Hamidi to build economic equality for women in Afghanistan by teaching them a skill like learning to sew.
And it is the Earth's daily struggle for survival that drives the first hero that we honor tonight, Pablo Fajardo.
Pablo grew up in the Amazon region of Ecuador. He worked hard labor in the oil fields and he saw something terrible happen to his beloved Lake Agrio. He saw plants dying. He saw his neighbors and friends becoming sick. And so he went to work for justice.
He went to work to organize his people to protect their home. He went to work and graduated from law school. And he went to work in the courtroom to lead a case to clean up the oil fields and Lake Agrio.
Now, the suit's defendant, Chevron Texaco, says that it has fulfilled its cleanup begins. The government of Ecuador has cleared them and based on an agreement, the responsibility for any additional cleanup remains with Ecuador's state-run oil company, which assumed Chevron's interests in the early 1990s.
What does Pablo believe?
He believes it is his responsibility to get up every day, ride his bike to court and fight for his dream -- a world where every family can enjoy access to pure water and air. He believes he has a responsibility to speak for people who have no other voice. And that's why he makes that bike ride every day -- no matter how endless his work seems, no matter how little thanks he gets. Tonight, we recognize him. This honor isn't about who should win this case. This is about commitment, about sacrifice and the determination to fight for justice. This is about a hero.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
PABLO FAJARDO: My name is Pablo Fajardo Mendoza. I live here in
I live here in Sucumbios in Shushufindi Lago Agrio. I've been living here for 20 years. I am the fifth of 10 children. I am a lawyer. I am on trial against Chevron corporation. I'm the lead attorney on this trial and I am demanding justice -- asking them to repair the environmental damage here in Ecuador.
We've declared we don't want any money, we just want them to let people live with dignity. That's all we want.
In those years that I first lived in this area, I was able to observe what was happening to the small towns in the Amazon and the farmers and the indigenous people, which was all basically a result of toxic waste. The damages ranged from environmental to cultural to the water, the health and practically all of the lives of the whole population that are living in this area. These indigenous tribes that were living here, their land was never respected. They were never consulted. And they are seriously affected and threatened, in danger of being wiped out. That is what motivated me to study, to prepare myself, together with these people, to find out how to defend their rights.
I think a hero is a person who never gives up, no matter how big the obstacles may be -- one who is willing to fight all of their life for what they believe must be done.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SMITS: It is, indeed, an honor to present the CNN Hero for Fighting For Justice to Pablo Fajardo.
(PABLO FAJARDO SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
SMITS (TRANSLATING): Good evening.
Behind this award are thousands of people. And this honor is for them -- my colleagues and friends of the Amazon rainforest and my beloved country, Ecuador.
(PABLO FAJARDO SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
SMITS (TRANSLATING): I have the honor of representing as a lawyer five indigenous nationalities and almost 100 communities for the rainforest farmers, with the goal of repairing the terrible oil contamination.
(PABLO FAJARDO SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
SMITS (TRANSLATING): Many of those that I represent have lived for thousands of years in peace with nature. And yet in only three decades, their traditional lifestyles have been almost destroyed by pollution.
(PABLO FAJARDO SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
SMITS (TRANSLATING): Our work in Ecuador is an example of the good things that can happen when thousands of people -- most without money or power -- can some together in a common effort to better themselves and the planet.
Thank you very much for this award.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, Tyra Banks honors a champion of children.
Masi Oka tells the story of a life-saving everyday superhero.
And a performance by Sheryl Crow.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) AMANPOUR: This is CNN HEROES and I'm Christiane Amanpour, standing outside the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.
Tonight's event is truly a global affair. Not only are we broadcasting live all over the planet, but we received nominations for heroes in 93 different countries. The humanitarian work you hear about tonight is part of a much larger effort to make our Earth a better home.
So how can you get involved?
Go to CNN.com/heroes, where you can learn more about all the finalists you meet tonight, and you can discover how you can help their causes. Crises of poverty, the environment and health demand our action. And as the individuals we honor tonight prove, even the greatest problems can be solved.
Now, let's go back inside, into the warm, into the museum's theater with Anderson Cooper.
COOPER: Thanks very much, Christiane.
COOPER: We are back to celebrate more heroes.
Let's turn our attention to those who need heroes, really, more than anyone else -- children. You know, in a lot of countries around the world, they suffer injustices. They struggle to survive. Unlike adults, however, they don't often have the say in how they're treated or how their world could be made better. They need champions to take up their cause.
Championing Children pays tribute to those who stand up and fight for a living.
Presenting this category is Tyra Banks.
TYRA BANKS: What the world needs is more champions for children. They need to be told that even though they are different, they are not alone. As finalist Scott Loeff does for children living with Tourette's Syndrome in the United States.
They need to know that if they are very sick, someone is there working to cure them, as finalist Hodes does for the sick children in Ethiopia.
BANKS: I hear you have some fans over there.
These champions give every child a chance to live without despair and with their dreams.
And tonight, we honor Steve Peifer. He is a man who took his own despair -- the loss of a child -- and transformed it to bring healing and hope to the children of Kenya. He gave up a lucrative career in the United States to work in Africa. He saw thousands of children walk miles to school on empty stomachs. He saw them actually lying on the schoolroom floor too weak to sit up. And so he fed them.
He fed them one good meal a day and now 11,000 can sit up and learn. But he did not stop there. He fed their minds, too. He took old metal shipping crates and built computer labs to give them a chance to rise out of poverty. And those children who used to struggle to walk to school now line up at dawn to spend time on the computer.
He went to Kenya with grief. He listened to the children and they gave him the strength to change their world and ours.
STEVE PEIFER: Africa will change you. Africa gets under your skin and won't let go.
We're a typical American family and very happy. And my wife got pregnant again and the baby had Trisomy 13. It's fatal.
After that, I felt like I was a car in neutral. And I put my foot on the gas, but I couldn't get in gear anymore.
My wife had always wanted to be in Africa. I had never wanted to be in Africa. There was a famine going on. I really had no intention of being here more than a year. The last week I was here, I saw the kids that couldn't stand up.
When I came back from Africa to the U.S., I called my wife and said I know we've got to go back.
We just thought the only way out of poverty is education. If we brought food to a school, maybe we could keep kids in school. We started the feeding program with one school. And we just wanted to see if it would reduce the dropout rate. It reduced it from almost 50 percent to almost nothing because so many more kids have come into school because of the food.
And when the food came, they were little kids again. I think a lot of kids in Africa might feel like because they had been in poverty, they're always going to be in poverty.
And how do you progress in a world that's left you behind?
It was almost like a smack in the head -- what about a computer center?
Learning computers is going to give them a step up and a chance.
I want you to learn, excel and be experts.
I had a kid tell me once, when I told him that we were going to put a computer center here, and she said, "I never had a dream so big." I just feed the kids that aren't getting food yet. And, honestly, it -- honestly, I feel like a failure, because I wanted it to expand because I see the need.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BANKS: It's my honor to present the CNN Hero for Championing Children to Steve Peifer.
PEIFER: I just got kissed by Tyra Banks.
PEIFER: And I figured out the odds of somebody like me being kissed by her are the same as a meteorite striking this building in 50 minutes.
PEIFER: So I would start ducking if I were you.
PEIFER: We're so grateful to CNN for this wonderful honor. But we are given perspective on it by our 6-year-old son, who said he didn't want to come to New York because he didn't want to miss a field trip to the bakery.
PEIFER: My wife is the one who always wanted to go to Africa. We're in Kenya because of her. And all the good things that have happened are because of her. My children are the most wonderful gift I've ever received -- so blessed for their love, their support and their fun. There's so many people that have supported us, it would be another show to mention all of them. Anything that's been accomplished is because of them. Asante sana to you.
We accept this on behalf of all the missionary community, who are all better people than me and deserve the attention much more than I do. My full-time job is being the college counselor -- the guidance counselor -- at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya. The students there are huge inspirations to me 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent we don't need go into right now.
It's a privilege to be in Kenya. We came to Kenya after one of our children died. Scripture says, "He who seeks to lose his own life will find it." When my son died, I felt like I lost my own life. Kenya gave it back to me and I'll always be blessed that I ended up in Kenya.
There's such a need in Kenya. There's such an opportunity right now. The problems in a country are best solved by the people in the country. In my heart of hearts, I believe if we get a generation through high school, have proper nutrition and learn technology, we can break the back of poverty. My hope for all of us is that in our own ways we stop making peace with the idea of hungry children and seize the opportunity before us.
And I'm most grateful for Jesus, who loves the children of Kenya more than I ever could.
God bless you.
COOPER: A really remarkable man.
We want to turn our attention now to a special breed of hero -- people we call everyday superheroes. They are individuals who were going about their day to day routine when fate suddenly intervened. Suddenly, these ordinary citizens were faced with danger and faced with a choice -- they could look the other way or risk their own lives to save others.
Our first tale of courage will be told by a man who truly believes in superheroes -- Masi Oka.
MASI OKA: All right.
There's one way to fight terrorists and then there's John Smeaton's way.
On a July afternoon, terrorists driving a Jeep packed with explosives pulled up to the curb at Glasgow Airport in Scotland. The car burst into flames not far from where John was taking a break. Now, here's how John -- a baggage handler -- fights terrorists.
If they show up and try to explode a car, kill people at his airport, then he's going to chase them down, kick them until they drop and go back and pull a man away from the burning car.
I like the John Smeaton way. In that moment, John realized a power we all have within us, no matter how deeply it may be hidden -- the power to help another person in need.
And in the days following his actions, a Web site, johnsmeaton.com, was formed to buy John a pint. The Web site said: "Here's to his heroism, his straightforward belief in right and wrong, his support for law and order and his willingness to give a good kicking to someone richly deserving it."
(LAUGHTER) OKA: So many people agreed that 1,400 pints are waiting for John behind the bar at the Holiday Inn at the Glasgow Airport.
OKA: In Scotland, they call John a "have a go hero." We call him an everyday superhero.
JOHN SMEATON: My name is John Smeaton. On June the 30th, 2007, my life changed.
It's shocking when you think about it -- what could have happened. I don't think anybody, anybody in Scotland ever believed that they'd attack Scotland.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): John Smeaton has widely recognized for his bravery in rushing to help police after a burning Jeep crashed into a terminal building.
J. SMEATON: As soon as I seen them -- the police officers, you know -- I just snapped. And I just thought, no, cool. And I just ran at the guy and I just ran up and tried to cap the guy as hard as I could. That was the only thing I could think of doing.
All I did was react. There is no thought process. There was no assessment of the situation -- just pure instantaneous reaction. I don't think -- I did not think, I just reacted.
It's been massively life changing for me. I've gone from being anonymous until I'm known absolutely everywhere I go. People ask me for autographs.
I mean, autographs?
Come on, I'm not a football player. I'm not a movie star, I'm just a guy who went and helped out. You know, that's all I am.
The Glasgow Angels invited me onto the football patch. I had 30,000 people standing, shouting at me and clapping me. And it was the greatest, greatest and most privileged part of my life. And to be there was just unbelievable.
My mom and dad gave me a great home, gave me a great upbringing, you know, always just -- they always instilled do the right thing.
IAIN SMEATON, JOHN'S FATHER: my feeling and Cate's feeling is just absolutely pride.
CATE SMEATON, JOHN'S MOTHER: He's grown in stature before our eyes.
I. SMEATON: Oh, yes. Yes.
J. SMEATON: And I don't see myself being special in any way. So now, I just go on with my life, you know?
It's job, work, do what you always do.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
OKA: It's my honor to present the CNN Hero to an everyday super hero. A toast to John Smeaton.
J. SMEATON: Ladies and gentlemen, it is an absolute privilege and honor to be here tonight, to be within all your company. I would just like to say, I was not the only person involved that day at Glasgow Airport. There was another four gentlemen that helped out and police officers and the fact we got the airport back up and running within 24 hours, I think the main thing is we have to realize people are out to destroy our way of life and we have to stand up and fight against them. And I --
And I think also, you must remember that emergency services are there for us. If you ever see anybody like that under attack or anything, you must stand up and do the right thing and go and help them because you must remember the police and everybody like that would do it for you and I think we must do it for them. Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Still to come, live performances by Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige and Wyclef Jean with Norah Jones. Plus Kyra Sedgwick praises crusaders working to save their communities. When "CNN Heroes" continues.
AMANPOUR: I'm speaking to you from the museum's Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. With all its inspirational words around. Tonight's honorees were chosen by a panel of respected luminaries. One of those individuals is a doctor and the author of more than 40 books. He is Deepak Chopra. Thank you for joining us.
DEEPAK CHOPRA, MEMBER, BLUE RIBBON PANEL: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: I know it might sound obvious, but there were so many. What made you choose who you did and what were you looking for?
CHOPRA: Well, it was difficult because they were all extraordinary people. Because I was thinking if our children were watching these people and reading about them, would it transform their lives? Would it make them want to make a difference in the world? Would it arouse their passion and their compassion and their courage to really make a difference, because if our children are inspired, which they will be, after watching this, we could have a different world.
AMANPOUR: And so what is it about these so-called ordinary people that's important to recognize? Why these people? CHOPRA: Well, these people have a sense of self, which is far larger than the little skin encapsulated ego. They see the connectivity with all that exists and with other people. And they're willing to suffer when other people are suffering and in that suffering compassion is born and when there's compassion, there's love and when there's love, there's healing.
AMANPOUR: And it does show that anybody can do it with will.
CHOPRA: I think anybody can do it because we all have the same nervous system and same heart.
AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, Dr. Chopra. And we will be back later. Let's go back now to Anderson Cooper and we have lots more people to talk to as we continue.
COOPER: Christiane, Deepak, thanks.
A great musical performer is here tonight, because she believes passionately in the principles for which our heroes battle. She does not shy from controversy. She sings of social issues and matters of the heart with equal intensity.
And the new song you'll hear tonight addresses both. Please welcome Sheryl Crow.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, Kyra Sedgwick. Glenn Close. Harry Connick Jr. And a live performance by Wyclef Jean with Norah Jones. When "CNN Heroes" returns.
COOPER: I'm Anderson Cooper, and this is "CNN Heroes." Now we're going to take a look at heroes who create solutions to local problems, and by doing so, they really pave the way for massive change. We call these brave men and women "Community Crusaders."
Here to tell their stories tonight is Kyra Sedgwick.
KYRA SEDGWICK, ACTRESS: Not far from this place stands Lady Liberty. Her torch is bright and beckons like the words on her base, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
This is what strong crusaders do -- they light the way. Our finalist, U.S. Sergeant Major James McDowell did just that when he provided farmers in Afghanistan millions of saffron seeds that allowed them to pull up the poppy fields that fed the Taliban's drug trade.
Our finalist Julie Rems-Smario (ph) did just that when she transformed her experience as a deaf person by building a shelter in the United States for other deaf victims of domestic abuse.
And tonight, we honor Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe another lady liberty, this time from Uganda. Uganda has been torn apart by civil wars for years. It's turned boys into killers. It turned girls into sex slaves. And while thousands of those girls have come out of bondage, too many have been shunned by their families.
But this remarkable woman would not forget them. She reaches out to them with her voice. Her radio announcements serves as her torch. She calls out to them and offers her school as a place to rebuild. What her voice says is this, "To those who had been beaten, I will heal you. To those who had been raped, I will help you. To those who are forced to beg, I will rebuild your dignity through work."
Across that battle-torn land is a voice that beckons. No one is too sick. No one is too tired. No one is unworthy. And so many will breathe free because Sister Rosemary lights their way.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): The LRA continues its rapes, terrorizing villages and civilians and capturing and enslaving children. In the past two years, the rebels have kidnapped some 12,000 children and forced them to work as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
SISTER ROSEMARY NYIRUMBE: A human person has been fractured in many ways, who has been psychologically broken in many ways, who is deprived of a family. So we need to create a family atmosphere.
When she was abducted, she had her relatives, own killed in front of her. Her lid was shut and she could not escape. She got caught in the crossfire. So the whole yoke was broken.
The mother was dead and the father was dead and she had no relatives and up until now, she had nobody to take care of her.
I believe in practical skills. I'm telling you, it will change your life. Are you happy?
NYIRUMBE: What we do is try to help them to get the kind of income-making activity so they can be self-reliant. The first time, instead of giving them money for work, one girl said, I can't believe this is the money I earned myself. I have never gotten a amount of money in my life. She knows she can make it and you can see she's happy about it.
I find a lot of girls, when they come here are depressed. After three months of their being here, you see them slowly changing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I now I have a new life. For me I am a child but in this place I am now growing up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel good because she make me to see life. Because I learned so many things because of Santa Monica.
NYIRUMBE: I feel that in a small way, I am contributing to the reconstruction of the lives of these girls and so in a small way, I'm making contributions to their future and bringing them hope and life.
SEDGWICK: It's my honor to present the CNN Hero for "Community Crusader" to Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe.
NYIRUMBE: The CNN executives, all protocol observed (ph), distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank the Sacred Heart of Jesus for this memorable occasion, which has extremely humbled me.
Since 2003, I've been leading a center which turned out to help young girls and women who have been victims of war.
We decided to make the center a home to restore the lost dignity of the poor real (ph) girls, by helping them to love the children they got through violent experience from rebel commanders.
In humility, and great gratitude, I accept the CNN Heroes award, on behalf of these physically and psychologically traumatized young women and girls, and the children. And on behalf of the many people contributing, like me, to doing small things that is transforming people's lives.
I honor the people working for justice and foundation for peace. And for reconciliation and for the social construction of people's lives.
I want to say I honor the young women, the young mothers who have been forced to become mothers before they were prepared. I received this award on their behalf, and I salute them all. I want to say all this in the motto of our country, for God and my country, thank you very much.
AMANPOUR: Our next guest knows all about being a victim of war. At the age of 13, this man was ripped from his family, he was brainwashed and forced to become a child soldier in the brutal civil war of Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Today, he is the author of a memoir, "A Long Way Gone." And he's a newly named UNICEF ambassador. This is Ishmael Bael. And he joins us now. We just saw Sister Rosemary being honored for what she did for the girls, the victims in Uganda. You yourself have gone through this terrible physical and psychological torture. You have been made a killer. How did you get out of that physically and psychologically?
ISHMAEL BAEL, AUTHOR, "A LONG WAY HOME": First, I want to congratulate sister rosemary. How this comes about, there's UNICEF presence, which caused people go into the bush and remove the children from the fighting forces. And there you have people on the ground, local Sierra Leoneans whose willingness to see how humanity even at the darkest hour of our lives was something able to give us the strength to be able to face those memories, so it is the people come into your life and rekindle your humanity, what you had lost, allows you to get that strength to know there is another day that's possible.
AMANPOUR: And what have you been able to do? Have you got past all that? I know you've written your book, I know you're a roving ambassador now. Have you overcome that?
BAEL: Yes. I think you learn to live with it. I think some people think healing is forgetting, it's learning to live with it and transforming the experience into something positive so that it's beneficial to others, explaining what the nature of war is regardless of time, place and nationality. That's what I've been able to do with my experience.
AMANPOUR: Well done Ishmael, and thank you very much for joining us. And stay with us for more of CNN Heroes.
ANNOUNCER: Still to come, Mira Sorvino and NFL great, Michael Strahan honor "Everyday Superheroes" and Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes us inside the world of true "Medical Marvels."
"CNN Heroes, an All-Star Tribute" is sponsored by the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing's Future. You make a difference every day. And by the inventive minds of Honda. Honda -- the power of dreams.
COOPER: Many of tonight's honorees have saved lives. But the idealists in our "Medical Marvel" category are saving lives every single day. In addition, they're making phenomenal advancements that elevate science to an art form. They bring health to the sick, strength to the weak. And as a result, we all live better and live longer.
And who better to show appreciation to these champions than CNN's own, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Sanjay?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Thank you and good evening. Many of you may not know this but Anderson Cooper is actually a medical marvel. He's 411 years old.
Tonight we honor those men and women who have made it their life's work to care for the sick.
While too many turn away from the sick and dying, these heroes go to them, with the love and the strength of an outstretched hand. In India, for example, a man, paralyzed from the neck down, designed a center for the disabled so they can live a full life. Our finalist, S. Ramakrishnan is a marvel.
In the United States, one woman organized pilots and planes to provide 50,000 miracle flights for families in need with sick children. Finalist Ann McGee is a marvel, as well.
And how can we do anything but marvel at tonight's honoree, Peter Kithene, he's an orphan who went back to his village to give back where he lost so much. An amazing story. At age 12, both of his parents died of an unknown disease because people in his village never saw a doctor, they never took any tests. Later, he lost six of his siblings to undiagnosed illnesses. And then he said simply, "Enough." He vowed to pursue his education, so that no one else in this rural Kenya village would face disease without knowledge. He got scholarship after scholarship, until he attended the University of Washington in Seattle.
He told his story and he raised money for a medical facility, with the hope that orphans would no longer outnumber parents. In two years, that clinic has provided care to some 18,000 patients.
Let us marvel at Peter Kithene, a man who gave his village not just an outstretched hand, but his entire heart.
PETER KITHENE, FOUNDER, MAMA MARIA CLINIC: It just became part of my responsibility that I wanted to go back and touch people's lives in the way mine had been touched.
My name is Peter Kithene. I started Mama Maria Clinic.
The way the poorest of the poor are being treated, that kind of affected me. The locals know that, if you go to the Mama Maria Clinic, you will get the medication.
When I was 12, my parents died. Then the family scattered. Before that, I had lost many of my siblings.
When the parents pass on, it's scary. We didn't have anything. My dad was saying, he just wants to go to a hospital. And he couldn't. The expectation of the people and what they encouraged me to do was to drop out of school and do fishing on the lake, and then support my siblings. I somehow thought that wasn't a solution.
So, this is where I used to sleep. And this is a mat, instead of a mattress, I used. And on this kind of mat would be like eight kids sleeping on this.
It was difficult to study here. So, what I did, I carried my mat and went and I just sleep at school. After getting admission later to go to high school, that's when I started thinking about U.S. colleges.
Coming home was a huge journey. My path that led me to where I am right now, it's unbelievable. In the community, you kind of have hope on one person, and just it's overwhelming.
I wanted to create a very efficient system. Kids that would have passed on malaria or diarrhea, that's not the case now.
To me, a hero is somebody who will put the lives of other people first and gives selflessly for others and then come out triumphant. That's a hero.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GUPTA: It's truly, truly my honor to present the CNN Hero for Medical Marvel.
Please welcome Peter Kithene.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KITHENE: Wow. This is mind-blowing.
KITHENE: I want to thank so very much the people I grew up with in Kenya, both living and gone. They taught me so much and have shaped my life.
I also want to thank my parents, who, regardless of not having any formal education, encouraged me to pursue education. And to all those living in suffering in Africa, I say (INAUDIBLE)
I want to thank Stacy and Larry Crites, who have helped me ever since I was in grade eight. Thank you so much.
I want to thank the University of Washington. And I want to give special thanks to the late Dr. Jeffrey Griffin (ph). I truly promise to fulfill Dr. Griffin's mission to uplift the weak and help the afflicted.
Finally, I want to thank my late mother-in-law, Elaine Haynes (ph), who just passed this last Saturday. She lived to be very proud of me, despite unstable health. Elaine (ph) was with me in Africa when I opened this clinic. She continued to support me until the last minute of her life.
She would have loved to be here today, but I'm sure she's watching over, just as she used to say of my family members who didn't make it.
Thank you so very much, my wife, Katrina, who nominated me for this award. I wouldn't have done it without you.
Thank you, Simba (ph), my son, for being such an easy baby, and letting me do this extra work.
And thank you to my board of directors, donors and volunteers.
To those living in dire need in Africa and other parts of the wild, I say, the world is watching over. Hang in there. Do not give up. Love and support one another.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
COOPER: Let's now meet another one of our everyday superheroes, a typical person going through a typical day, when, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
To present this honor, please welcome Mira Sorvino.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MIRA SORVINO, ACTRESS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
Our next honoree's heroism stands out with even greater poignancy in the wake of yesterday's tragedy in Omaha. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
On a cold day in Blacksburg, Virginia, a gunman loaded up and took 32 lives. They were students and teachers. They were best friends and fathers. They were in the prime of their lives one moment, and then they were gone. We miss them. We mourn them. We would do anything to go back to that day and tell our friends to skip class, to tell our husband to call in sick, to tell our daughter to come home now, so I can keep you safe.
But we can't. It is hard to be hopeful about what happened at Virginia Tech. It is hard because it is simply heartbreaking to remember what happens when tragedy comes barreling down the hall with a loaded gun. But, even on the darkest of days, a little light shines through.
That's what happened when Ryan Clark didn't run for cover, but ran to help one of the first victims shot in West Ambler Johnston Hall. That's what happened when professor Liviu Librescu held the door shut, so that most of his students could climb to safety.
And that's what happened nearby in Norris Hall, room 205, when Zach Petkewicz became a hero. Zach and his classmates heard the chaos outside their room. Two people opened the door, and they saw the gunman. They slammed the door shut, knowing what was heading toward their room.
Then Zach and another took a table and barricaded the door. He held one side. As the gunman tried to force his way in, he stayed with the table. He held one side. As the gunman shot twice at the middle of the door, he stayed with the table. He stayed with the table, so his classmates could stay alive.
This honor is for Zach, his classmates, his family and friends and for every person who is gone, who lives on, and who saved lives that dark April day at Virginia Tech.
ZACH PETKEWICZ, VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTING SURVIVOR: My name is Zach Petkewicz. On April 16, 2007, my life changed.
KIRAN CHETRY, CO-HOST, "AMERICAN MORNING": Thirty-two students and teachers killed in what is really a shaping up to be a ruthless premeditated attack on a scale that we have never seen before. Your quick thinking may have saved so many lives. What do you say when people are calling you a hero today?
PETKEWICZ: My first reaction was, take cover. Get down. And that's basically what everybody else did. That was everybody's reaction, get down.
We all just scattered, didn't really know what the hell to do.
All I heard were the gunshots. The only thing I can remember thinking about was, there is nothing stopping him from coming in here. What is a door going to do? It wasn't locked. What the hell is that going to do? He's just going to open it. We're all away from the door. We're sitting ducks.
I thought to myself, fight or flight. And I guess I was willing to fight.
Since I graduated, I don't go back and be like, that's what Tech was like. That's what defined Tech. That -- that's not my mind-set at all.
THERESA WALSH, VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Haven't seen you since graduation.
PETKEWICZ: I didn't want to like see you guys in it, in a way...
WALSH: Oh, yeah.
PETKEWICZ: ... like, because it just kind of reminded me of what happened.
RUIQI ZHANG, VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTING SURVIVOR: We did everything right that day. Everybody did something.
ZHANG: And it was just, together...
WALSH: Yes, everyone was like -- kept their composure.
PETKEWICZ: Did you see Cho's face initially?
WALSH: Yes. And he raised his gun at my face. And then we slammed the door. And then I go, get down, get down. He's got a gun.
PETKEWICZ: I stood up and said, we need to barricade this door. And we all pushed the table up against the door and the door actually popped open a few inches. And we all just kind of lunged forward and just slammed the door back shut.
And, immediately after, there was two bullet holes in the center of the door.
ZHANG: It could have been us that day. We could have been, like, another statistic. But, no, we got saved.
PETKEWICZ: The only thing I thought about was how lucky we were and, how, by the grace of God, we all, in our class, survived.
It's real hard to hear people are calling you a hero, when you don't think you were. I just did what I did. And I just did what I thought I had to do.
SORVINO: Everyday superhero Zach Petkewicz is not here tonight.
However, his family sent the following letter.
"The Virginia Tech tragedy devastated and irrevocably changed thousands of lives. In a tremendous testament to the human spirit, everyone affected by the massacre has sought to find glimmers of light, sources of hope in a moment a great darkness. Zach's actions, and the actions of his classmates, remind, everyone evil can be challenged. Zach did what he had to do, but he did not act alone. God had his hand on him that day.
"We are thankful for his life and the lives of all those in his class. We are tremendously grateful for the prayers and letters of encouragement from strangers around the world, who have been so helpful in our healing process. The Virginia Tech community is a very close-knit family, and we are still grieving for our lost family members.
"Zach has chosen to not participate in this live program out of respect for those who were unable to walk out of those classrooms. It is their memory he honors. God's blessings on all, the Petkewicz family."
ANNOUNCER: Coming up: a special live performance by Wyclef Jean and Norah Jones. Harry Connick Jr. salutes our young wonders. And Rosario Dawson honors defenders of the planet -- when CNN HEROES continues.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Christiane Amanpour for CNN HEROES.
The honoree in our Championing Children category has joined me here in the museum's Akeley Hall of African Mammals. He's working to feed Kenya's approximately 1.5 million orphans, as you heard earlier. And his name is, of course, Steven Peifer.
Welcome, Steven. Thank you very much, and congratulations.
What is it about -- we have heard about what you have done with the food and getting them to the needy children. Explain how it affects their basic ability to learn, why it matters.
STEVE PEIFER, CHAMPIONING CHILDREN HONOREE: What we heard is that students wouldn't go to school all day without food. Around 11:00, they would leave and look for food. And a lot of schools don't have afternoon classes, because the kids are so lethargic, because they only eat one meal a day. So, having food keeps kids in schools.
In fact, we reduced the dropout rate to nothing. But we have added hundreds of kids at every school we have done this in. Kids are coming for the meals.
AMANPOUR: And that's obviously important for Kenya, not just for their own individual futures, but for Kenya, to have an educated generation coming up.
Where has the Kenyan government fallen short that you, as a guest citizen there, have had to step into the breach?
PEIFER: Well, I -- I don't want to judge the government.
I'm a guest there, but we -- we all have different priorities. And the -- I just think the kids are the future of the country. And I think the answers to the problems within the country have to come from within that country. And, so, I just want to invest into that generation. And I think you have got to have a long vision to do that. And maybe that doesn't happen when you have always been in poverty. You -- you -- you have other priorities.
AMANPOUR: Steven, thank you very much, indeed.
And we will return now to Anderson Cooper on the museum stage.
COOPER: Christiane, thanks.
As we all know, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina brought to light enormous divides within our society. But it also revealed the courageous actions of people in Mississippi and the great city of New Orleans, people who gave their all to save lives, even when they had lost everything.
Our next performers first banded together to support Katrina survivors with a tribute song. And, tonight, they perform that song live on stage for the first time, as a testimonial to everyone with the heart and the will to answer the call for help.
Performing "Any Other Day," this is Wyclef Jean and Norah Jones.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ANNOUNCER: Still to come, Rosario Dawson presents Heroes struggling to save our Earth, music from Mary J. Blige. And we announce your hero for viewers' choice. This is CNN HEROES.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
COOPER: This is CNN HEROES, and I'm Anderson Cooper.
In the past few years, environmental issues have finally begun to receive the attention that they deserve. However, there are ecological advocates whose efforts to protect our Earth are so innovative, so bold, that they enter the realm of the heroic, those who find new ways to preserve our world's natural beauty and power and recognize -- we recognize them with this category, Defending the Planet.
To introduce us to these pioneers, please welcome Rosario Dawson.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ROSARIO DAWSON, ACTRESS: What every person has in common is this one blue planet. It demands our respect and people who will defend it.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, a boat called the Mia rides the waterways collecting trash, 62 tons of it in one year. Our finalist, Mark Maksimowicz. He is a defender of the planet.
In Mexico, millions get sick from contaminated water. Another finalist invented a $30 bucket with UV lights to clean their water. Florence Cassassuce is a defender of the planet.
And tonight we honor Irania Martinez Garcia, a dreamer from Guantanamo, Cuba, who defended her planet by transforming her town dump. She believed that the dump was making people sick and caused her own daughter's leukemia. So she looked out at the toxic smoke and the swarming flies and said, "Nature demands respect!"
She started alone. She started dividing up the trash so the toxic debris wouldn't burn and pollute the neighborhood. She created a compost pile to help bring back the plants and the animals. And now, when she goes to work, 40 people volunteer with her.
Her daughter's memory is with her at every turn, as she walks through the neighborhood where the air is cleaner because her trash dump is now a place for the living. Irania Martinez Garcia, she is a defender of the planet, and this is her garden.
IRANIA MARTINEZ GARCIA, RAN PROJECT TO RECLAIM GARBAGE DUMP (through translator): My name is Irania Martinez Garcia. I live in the province of Guantanamo, Cuba. I'm running a project to develop, promote and expand simple (ph) technology throughout all the Dumpsters in my country. Supru (ph) is a technological innovation for handling and treating garbage manually. It's about great love for nature. It's about respect and integration. We're going to recover our planet, save our planet.
While I was doing all of this work for the environment, I suffered a tremendously painful and unfortunate experience for any mother. I saw my daughter getting sick. There was no hope for her. A 10-year-old girl with leukemia. Leukemia can be the result of environmental issues. Many kids get leukemia or cancer without genetic predisposition.
I owe a lot to this work because it's given me the chance to overcome such sadness, to alleviate this terrible longing.
Today, I fight for the health I couldn't give my daughter. I fight for so many children so they can enjoy a healthy environment.
All this was garbage, all of it. Now, we have this reward. This has become a Garden of Eden. Every fruit tree and forest tree that we have around us inside Supru (ph) is a result of recycling the urban waste, including all the ornamental plants we have.
I'd say that everything we dump has a recycling value, and that's something we haven't paid attention to or don't want to do. I think that anyone who is able to take action, do something, despite its difficulty, is a hero.
DAWSON: Due to U.S. travel restrictions for Cuban citizens, Irania Martinez Garcia is prohibited from attending tonight's ceremony. To accept the CNN Hero for defending the planet on her behalf is her dear friend from Guantanamo who provides aid to Irania's mission, Alberto Jones.
ALBERTO JONES, FRIEND OF IRANIA MARTINEZ GARCIA: It is with profound humility that I stand here to accept this award on behalf of Irania Martinez, a unique woman who single-handedly mobilized her community in Guantanamo, Cuba.
I first met Irania five or six years ago at a meeting with members of the Physically Challenged Association in Guantanamo. Before the end of that meeting, I was able to fully appreciate the type of fiber Irania was made of.
With her was her young daughter, who was frail, pale and sits silently, except for her frequent visit to the restroom as a result of the nausea from her chemotherapy. I promised that the St. Augustine - Baracoa Friendship Association would send her some badly needed catheters. When the catheters got there, it was too late.
When we met again, Irania was grieving badly over her loss but was even more committed to rid the environment of hazards, preserving others from her anguish.
Her mother's death this year from breast cancer have served only to strengthen her zeal.
Irania reminds us all that a better world do exist, it is real, and it depends only on us.
Thank you very much. And we want to express our gratitude to everyone who have made this possible. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: I'm here now at the museum's hall of ocean life with Sheryl Crow, whose musical performance we just saw and who is also an environmentalist.
We've just seen the "Defending the Planet" tribute honorees. Do you think that people, citizens, our planet can get over the crisis we are in, the environmental crisis we're in?
SHERYL CROW, MUSICIAN: I have to believe that, as long as people embrace a consciousness that we all co-exist on this planet and the planet is a living organism. And when the planet becomes sick, then obviously, we're going to suffer the repercussions.
And after seeing the IPCC reports, which we all have read, and knowing what the predictions are, I think there is a sense of urgency. And we saw with Irania how amazingly people are stepping up with ingenuity. People all the way from the college level all the way up to older people who are set in their ways are really embracing the idea that we have to move, we have to move fast, and there is hope that we can't be defeated by the scientists out there.
AMANPOUR: Rather notoriously you confronted Karl Rove at a dinner in Washington not so long ago about this administration's environmental policies. What was that about and what do you think needs to be done on a government level?
CROW: Well, many people know that Laurie David and I went out on a stop global warming tour on the college level and -- which was where many of our movements have been so fruitful in this country. And it was our first opportunity to actually speak to anyone in the administration.
And Mr. Rove was very hostile, and it ended in a very confrontational, unpleasant manner. And all I can say is that I think everyone's reticence, at least in the administration to acknowledge that the science is there, that the debate is over, is very quickly coming to an end. It has to come to an end, because the American people are speaking up about it.
The American people are already moving in the direction of embracing a consciousness that we have to urgently see this problem for what it is. And I think the administration will look silly if they do not at least listen to what the American people are demanding.
AMANPOUR: So the American people are moving towards a tipping point?
CROW: I believe so. I think when you walk in this museum and you see these amazing species and that you know, after reading the IPCC report that in a matter of decades we're going to see one-third of our species gone, it's very impactful and very disturbing.
AMANPOUR: Sheryl, thank you very much, indeed, for your time.
And now back to you, Anderson.
COOPER: Christiane, thank you very much.
Our panel is a very accomplished group. And we're grateful that they selected the heroes whose accomplishments moved them the most. Of course, their choices came from you, nominations that you, the audience, submitted from around the world.
Now, we want to recognize and honoree chosen by you from stories we at CNN told all this year. To present our Viewers Choice Award, please welcome a very special guest.
SARAH FERGUSON, DUCHESS OF YORK: Good evening. I'm Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
Tonight, we're inspired by the people who were nominated to be the viewer's choice hero. What moved us about each person is that they made the choice to make a difference all over the world.
Aaron Jackson grew up in Florida and gave up a comfortable life to work in Haiti, bringing new life to children who suffer from malnutrition.
Mathias Craig decided in an MIT classroom that his calling as an engineer wasn't for a big company but to bring electricity to 300 people to Nicaragua.
Somaly Mam, who spent years as a sex slave in Cambodia, fought back to save other young women like her. She ran back to the brothels and rescued thousands.
In an African park, Eugene Rutagarama, who lost most of his family in the Rwanda genocide, is trying to save one of his war-torn country's shared resources, the mountain gorilla.
Pat Pedraja, a boy diagnosed with leukemia, set out on a cross- country trip in the United States to increase the bone marrow donor base by thousands. He raised money for the trip by auctioning ad space on his head on eBay.
And Major Scott Southworth, fighting in Iraq, became a new father when a young boy with cerebral palsy crawled across the floor to play with his watch. He made the choice to accept a child's love in the middle of a war.
These are the heroes who inspired you to make a choice.
PAT PEDRAJA, CAMPAIGNED TO INCREASE BONE MARROW DONOR BASE: The doctor came in, and she said, "You have leukemia." I was scared. I didn't know what to do. My name is Pat Pedraja, and I'm signing people up for the National Marrow Registry.
People don't know that it's such a big issue and that people are dying. I want to change that.
EUGENE RUTAGARAMA, WORKING TO SAVE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS: My name is Eugene Rutagarama. My work is to protect mountain gorillas in their habitat. If these parks were not protected, it means that we have lost the mountain gorillas.
AARON JACKSON, WORKING WITH POOR CHILDREN IN HAITI: Not having proper sanitation and being the most water-poor credit in the world. A lot of people are infected with intestinal parasites.
My name is Alan Jackson, and I've devoted my life to improving conditions of the poor. When we first got to an orphanage, the children looked very zombie-like. And then, after we de-wormed, you can see that they're playing again and smiling and running around.
SOMALY MAM, RESCUES WOMEN FROM CAMBODIAN BROTHELS: My name is Somaly Mam. And my goal is to help the victims in the brothel. The reason why I rescue the girls from the brothel is because it's my life's route (ph).
MATHIAS CRAIG, BRINGS RENEWABLE ENERGY SERVICES TO ISOLATED COMMUNITIES: My name is Mathias Craig. And I work to bring renewable energy services to isolated communities. My personal satisfaction is really getting a chance to be in a community and see how the energy is being used and see the benefit that it provides. That's what keeps us going.
MAJ. SCOTT SOUTHWORTH, ADOPTED IRAQI BOY: On June 4, 2007, I legally adopted my son, an Iraqi orphan who I met in Baghdad. My name is Major Scott Harrell (ph) Southworth, and I'm the father of an Iraqi orphan.
Alla'a was a disabled orphan in a war zone, and yet he maintained absolute faith that there was this chance of having a better life somewhere. So in that respect, Alla'a is my hero.
JACKSON: A hero is someone who really goes out and does what they believe is right.
RUTAGARAMA: What makes a hero is to be committed to what you feel is important.
PEDRAJA: I think I'm changing the world by help saving a few lives.
MAM: My mission is to help the victims.
CRAIG: There are people that dedicate themselves to a life of service.
SOUTHWORTH: I saw an opportunity to take some action to save a little boy's life.
FERGUSON: I'm so proud of your choice, and the CNN hero for viewer's choice is someone who is a very, very close personal friend of mine. In fact, I've adopt him -- adopted him as my godson. And the winner is -- I wonder -- what? What?
And the winner is -- I wonder if you can guess -- Patrick Pedraja.
PEDRAJA: Thank you. I'm so excited.
Well, first of all, I'd like to thank all the other heroes that were featured online with me. They're all such amazing people doing amazing things. And it was really an honor to be among them.
I'd also like to thank my parents, my mom and my family, because I couldn't have done it without their support and help from my friends. And there are so many people and organizations from around the world voting for me. It really shows how cancer has touched so many of our lives.
And I told everybody I wanted to win so I could come up here and tell everybody about the critical need for bone marrow donors. You can be on the national bone marrow registry in over 50 countries. And just doing something so simple, you can be the one to save the life of a kid like me.
And all of us have the power to make a difference. You just have to never give up and always believe. And I just want everybody to remember that you're never too young to change the world. Thank you.
COOPER: You can find out more about the work of all our heroes tonight. And if you want to help some of them in what they're doing, you can go to our Web site, CNN.com/Heroes, to find out about all of their organizations.
Let's now meet another of our everyday superheroes, a typical person who was going through a typical day, when in the blink of an eye, everything changed. This is a true New York story. And to tell it, please welcome a New York Giant, record-breaking defensive end, Michael Strahan.
MICHAEL STRAHAN, NEW YORK GIANTS PLAYER: Thank you.
Imagine this. It's a cold January day, and you're waiting with your two daughters for the subway. You see a young man, and he's in trouble. You see the man, he has a seizure and falls down on the tracks.
You let go of your daughters' hands, and you tell them to stay put. You jump down onto the New York subway tracks. Let me say that again. You jump down onto the New York subway tracks to help a stranger. You put a pen in his mouth so he doesn't bite his tongue while his seizure kicks in. You hold onto this stranger until the seizure stops. You lift him up. You give him your hand, your arm, you give him your shoulder. You give him the whole side of your body to pick him up.
You try and try again to get him to safety, but you can't. And then, you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and not in that cliched kind of good way. So what do you do? You find that gutter in the center of the track. You hold onto this stranger, and you say a little prayer as five cars roll by, millimeters from your head, before the train stops.
You yell, "We're OK! But I've got two daughters up there. Let them know their father's OK."
That's what you did on a January morning. Some people call you the hero from Harlem, the subway superman, or the subway hero. I call you, Wesley Autrey, our everyday superhero.
WESLEY AUTREY, SAVED MAN ON SUBWAY: My name is Wesley Autrey. And on January 2, 2007, my life changed.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fifty-year-old Wesley Autrey saved a man's life today.
W. AUTREY: I don't consider myself a hero. I just helped someone in need, somebody who was in need of help.
LARRY HOLLOPETER, CAMERON'S FATHER: Mr. Autrey's instinctive and unselfish act saved our son's life.
W. AUTREY: I noticed this young man just fall flat on his back, and his legs began shaking and kicking. It was seconds I had time to make up my mind if I was going to help him.
My thing was to go down there, do what I had to do, save that life but also get back to the two lives that I was responsible for. I've got two young daughters looking for their father to come up out of this alive.
So I screamed from underneath the train, "Everybody be quiet. There's two young girls up there. Let them know." Because I wanted to reassure my daughters that I was OK.
When the train came to a stop, he asked, "Where are we?"
I said, "We're underneath a train."
And he asked, "Are we dead?"
I said, "No." So I gave him a slight pinch on his arm and when he said, "ouch," I said, "We are very much alive."
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey. W. AUTREY: My life has changed tremendously. People know me by a first-name basis. And some of them are complete strangers to me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me tell you something. God bless you.
DAVE LETTERMAN, HOST, CBS'S "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Thank you for the tremendous example.
W. AUTREY: You're welcome.
LETTERMAN: Thank you so much. It means a great deal to the city of New York to know that people do things like this.
MARY AUTREY, MOTHER: My mother and father taught us to be very good and nice to people and to love each other.
W. AUTREY: What I done that day, I did from the kindness of my heart. I still don't consider myself a hero. I don't look at myself like that, because I don't want to think I'm all that.
That was some day.
STRAHAN: It's my honor to present the CNN Hero to an everyday superhero, Wesley Autrey.
W. AUTREY: Thank you. Thanks.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Wesley Autrey. Some people call me the subway hero, and some people call me Subway Superman. What I did on January 2 of this year, I want you all to know that I would do it all over again. I truly believe each and every person in this room and around the world would have done the same thing.
I spoke with Cameron and his mother on Thanksgiving Day, and Cameron is doing fine. We, the Autreys, received a bouquet of flowers from Cameron and his family, and we are planning to get our family together and go out to dinner sometime after new year.
You know, when I was down on the -- excuse me. You know, when I was down on the tracks, I remember the sound of the horns. I remember the sparks around my head. I remember holding onto that man, saying, "Please don't push me, because if you do, I'm going to be the one that going to get it," because I'm on top.
And I told him something really simple with the train rolling over our heads, "Don't move."
You know, the truth is what helped me to be able to focus on helping this man. There was two women; there was two remarkable ladies who held onto my daughters. And I would like to thank them tonight for doing that, and for taking such good care of my daughters during that time. And that's a blessing for any father.
I also would like to thank everyone for the cards, the letters, the scholarship, donations. It means so much to me and my daughters.
I'm a little nervous, you know. I had to get up today at 2:30 in the morning. You know. Hmm. OK.
I'm a construction worker, you know. Duty, duty, duty calls.
OK. A couple months ago, I was at work, and a single father came up to me on the street, and he had his daughter with him. And he said, "Oh, you're the subway guy. I heard about you. You have two daughters. I got mine. You're struggling, too. And you're a hope for me."
And you know, that really, really touched me, because, you know, every day I walked the streets. And I see strangers and, you know, people just show me so much, so much love. And I see a change in New York. I see a change in New Yorkers' attitude, because I'm from the south, you know, we open our doors to you, you know what I mean. And I see people changing, and I see people helping each other.
And you know, let us -- let us do that. Let us -- let the soldiers who are fighting today, let them not die in vain with us not caring for each other here at home. It doesn't make sense.
And that's that. Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, Harry Connick Jr. honors the fearless on Young Wonder. And the music of Mary J. Blige, when CNN HEROES continues.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
COOPER: You have joined us at the Museum of Natural History for CNN HEROES.
It turns out there's no shortage of people performing exceptional, inspiring, big-hearted acts in the world today. If this next category is any indication, it looks like our future is in good hands as well.
These are the Young Wonders. What they lack in years, they make up for in determination, vision, and heart. And they share one more crucial quality. They all make me feel very, very old.
COOPER: To introduce these marvels, let's welcome Harry Connick Jr.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
HARRY CONNICK JR., MUSICIAN: Thank you very much.
When you have got heart, race doesn't matter, gender doesn't matter, and, for some heroes, age doesn't matter either. Just look at what finalist Josh Miller did in Santa Monica, California. His best friend, Eddie Lopez, came from a very different neighborhood. When Eddie was killed in a drive-by shooting, Josh took action.
He started a mentoring program and a scholarship program in Eddie's name. Josh did this before he was 18. He's my hero.
How about what Dallas Jessup did? She saw news footage of a little girl getting abducted, one of 60,000 kids abducted every year in the United States. She put together a video called "Just Yell Fire." That video has been downloaded 300,000 times.
Dallas did this at 14. And she's my hero, too.
And wait until you hear what our honoree, Kayla Cornale, did in Canada. She did what doctors have struggled to do. She reached her cousin, who has autism, through music. It started when Kayla realized that had Lorena was most alive when her favorite songs were playing.
I'm sure they were mine.
CONNICK: So, Kayla had an idea. She took the 26 letters of the alphabet, and she lined them up on the keys of the piano. And the notes became letters, and the letters became words. And those words helped Kayla communicate with her cousin.
This is one of the great struggles for doctors, finding ways to reach autistic kids. The failures are many. The frustrations, they are decades old. And, yet, Kayla's found a way. This Young Wonder took down the barrier of autism with the universal language of music.
Kayla Cornale, you're my hero, too.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KAYLA CORNALE, CREATOR, SOUNDS INTO SYLLABLES: My cousin, Lorena, she is 11 years old, and she's diagnosed with pervasive development disorder. It's a form of autism.
RORY CORNALE, FATHER OF KAYLA CORNALE: She would often be isolated or not interrelating the same way. But Kayla noticed. She came back one time and said, have you guys noticed that, when music's on, she really focuses and pays attention?
K. CORNALE: I just really wanted to do something for her that she would be interested in that would maybe allow her to interact with us better.
My first idea was to take the 26 letters of the alphabet and place them on the central 26 keys of the piano keyboard to identify each letter now with a sound. So, that's what ape would sound like.
And, when I initially first started with my cousin, she knew the letter L., which is the first letter of her name. By the end of working with this book, she had full grasp of the entire alphabet.
GREG PICONE, FATHER OF LORENA: That's like watching your child walk for the first time. That's significant. That's a milestone.
KATHY PERRINO, SCIENCE TEACHER: From that moment, when she realized that something that simple could get a little bit more communication with Lorena, she kept expanding on the experiment, moving on. Each year, it got more and more progressive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From Burlington, Ontario, Canada, Kayla Cornale.
K. CORNALE: When I started getting positive feedback, it encouraged me to bring this beyond just a case study of working exclusively with Lorena, and test this out with children of different ages, of different diagnoses, and see how far-reaching this system really would be along the spectrum that's so diverse.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. And what's that word?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: P-I-E.
DR. PETER SZATMARI, DIRECTOR, OFFORD CENTER FOR CHILD STUDIES: Kayla's taken something that kids with autism are good at, which is musical ability, and she's trying to harness that talent to help them compensate for some of the difficulties.
K. CORNALE: The next phase is a computer phase that incorporates not only nouns now, but different word types, such as verbs and adjectives, and, more importantly, teaching emotional recognition.
What does that look like?
LORENA, 11 YEARS OLD: Happy.
K. CORNALE: You show me happy. Show me a happy face. There you go. That's happy. Perfect, Lorena.
MARY CORNALE, MOTHER OF KAYLA CORNALE: I honestly don't know how she did it all. There were times she didn't sleep. I know she didn't sleep.
R. CORNALE: When she has got her mind set, you don't tell her no.
M. CORNALE: You can't.
K. CORNALE: I just wanted her to be able to experience some sort of success in her life and feel gratified about what she was doing.
PERRINO: I can say right now and I will say later on, I -- I taught Kayla Cornale. I taught Kayla Cornale.
I do believe she is going to give voice to people who don't have it.
LORENA: I love you, Kayla.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
CONNICK: That is unbelievable. I didn't even know there were 26 letters in the alphabet.
CONNICK: It's my honor to present the CNN Hero for Young Wonder, Kayla Cornale.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
K. CORNALE: Over the past several days, I have read the stories of 17 finalists for CNN Heroes award.
You are an extraordinary group of people, and I am truly honored to be included among you. I would like to thank everyone at CNN for this amazing award.
CNN has long been a leader in raising global awareness and understanding of autism. Your deep commitment to educating the world about autism makes this award all that more meaningful for me.
In addition, this very generous award will greatly assist in the future advancement of my teaching system, Sounds Into Syllables.
When I first began work with my cousin Lorena, I saw myself as the teacher of a little girl largely defined by her autism. I subsequently discovered a child with a strong desire to succeed, a great sense of humor, and a genuine empathy for those around her.
In working with Lorena, I learned to not let her autism obscure her individuality. That lesson has opened the doors for me to get to know other unique and interesting children who happen to have autism.
Thank you again for this tremendous honor.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ANNOUNCER: Still to come: a powerful musical performance by Mary J. Blige.
And Glenn Close presents our Heroes' Hero award -- when CNN HEROES returns.
AMANPOUR: I'm Christiane Amanpour again for CNN HEROES back in the African mammal room.
This young man has traveled all over the United States to help give children with leukemia a fighting chance. As a result, you just saw him honored in our viewers' choice category. He is, of course, Patrick Pedraja.
Thank you very much for joining us.
I want to ask you, you know, you -- you are suffering. You do have leukemia. And you're going through chemotherapy. You have just had another round a few days ago.
How do you feel right now?
PAT PEDRAJA, VIEWERS' CHOICE HONOREE: I feel actually great. It's -- it's such a cool experience to be here. And it's just awesome.
AMANPOUR: Did you ever feel scared of taking on this massive task of going to try to find donors from the minority community?
PEDRAJA: Yes. I wasn't afraid at first. And then it got closer to the time we were going, because we went around the -- the country this summer -- it got closer to the time, and I just said, can I do this? And I just knew it was -- it was all for the good and it was going to help people. And, so, I knew I should do it.
AMANPOUR: Help us understand why you chose this particular mission. Why try to seek bone marrow in donors from the minority community?
PEDRAJA: Because minorities don't have that many people in the registry, and it's -- they're under-representative on the -- under- represented on the registry.
And, so, I'm half Cuban, and I wanted to help give the people that need transplants a better chance of finding their transplant.
AMANPOUR: You're doing an incredible thing, a heroic thing. Thank you very much, Patrick. And good luck.
Stay with us for Heroes.
Coming up next, a live performance by Mary J. Blige, and Glenn Close presents the Heroes' Hero.
AMANPOUR: Earlier tonight, we saw this lady honored for her work as a community crusader, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe.
In the past two decades, an estimated 20,000 Ugandan children have been abducted, tortured and raped by a cult called the Lord's Resistance Army. And I know how helpless these atrocities make our viewers feel.
Sister, why did you or how did you settle on teaching girls as a way to get them over their -- their psychological traumas?
SISTER ROSEMARY NYIRUMBE, COMMUNITY CRUSADER HONOREE: I found out that most of these young girls were girls who were taken as sex slaves when they were very, very young. They lost their chances of education.
They came back, those who managed to escape, to come with the children. And there was no way -- they didn't know what to do. They didn't even know how to be a mother. And we decided that it would be better for us to train these girls, to give them some skills of self- reliance, try to restore their dignity through work.
And, apart from that, we thought, this would be the best way of letting these girls begin to feel that they can love their children, when they can be self-reliant, when they can support themselves. And, above all, we saw it is the best way of restoring their dignity.
AMANPOUR: Dignity so important for people so traumatized.
Sister Rosemary, thank you so much.
And let's return now to Anderson.
COOPER: Christiane, thanks again.
You can find out more about all our Heroes tonight at CNN.com/heroes.
We're back on CNN HEROES.
And, as we have seen tonight, there are many ways to lift the spirit. And there's no limit to the ways we can give each other strength.
This next woman does it with her music. She is here to pay tribute to our Heroes in song. She sings of hope. And, tonight, she sings of peace.
Please welcome the incomparable Mary J. Blige.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MARY J. BLIGE, MUSICIAN: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, the evening's final honor, the award for Heroes' Hero will be presented by Glenn Close. Hear the story of one more extraordinary human being -- when CNN HEROES returns.
COOPER: Welcome back to CNN HEROES.
We have come to our final category, the Heroes' Hero. This is our chance to acknowledge a -- a lifetime of heroism.
The Heroes' Hero embodies compassion, fearlessness, and a profound sense of humanity.
This award of great achievement is presented tonight by Glenn Close.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GLENN CLOSE, ACTRESS: There are heroes, and then there's Christopher Reeve.
Christopher was a father to three children, a loving husband, an actor, and an activist. In the United States, he was a respected voice for social change. Internationally, he was honored for his life-saving efforts in Chile.
For most people, those accomplishments were enough to call Chris a hero. Then, in May 1995, he had a freak accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. When he realized the catastrophic extent of his injuries, this vital, independent, supremely accomplished athlete contemplated letting go.
But the fierce love of his family and the words that his wife, Dana, whispered in his ear, "You are still you, and I love you," brought him back. From then on, he focused his prodigious mental powers on not just the grueling task of everyday life, but on persevering and triumphing against cruel odds, on working to improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries, on searching the world for new ways to bring more independence and greater dignity to people's lives.
Chris was a realist whose hope was anchored in science. He challenged Congress and two presidents to fund critical research, so that, one day, the wheelchair would be obsolete.
Last month, many of the breakthroughs in stem cell research that Chris fought for became a reality. To date, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has awarded more than $75 million in research grants.
He said, "I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure, in spite of overwhelming obstacles."
I knew Chris. I never thought he was ordinary, no way. But he was and will be forever a heroes' hero.
DR. JOHN JANE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Christopher Reeve remains in serious, but stable condition. He has sustained complex fractures of the first and second cervical vertebrae that have resulted in injury to the spinal cord. The extent of the damage is not known.
DANA REEVE, WIFE OF CHRISTOPHER REEVE: We had no idea what was in store or how to do this thing, that we would do it.
CHRISTOPHER REEVE, ACTOR: I was able to move my index finger. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's already made more progress than even I would have ever predicted, based on the therapies that we have been providing. Pretty much no one else would probably even believe that he's had this recovery.
C. REEVE: Really, in this condition, you just can't be bothered by limitations. The fact that I actually took steps forward, even though I needed a lot of assistance, reaffirmed my belief that I am going to walk again.
D. REEVE: We are going to the launch of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Research Center.
C. REEVE: I negotiated for top billing.
D. REEVE: He gets top billing.
C. REEVE: And we argue about it. We fight about it.
I guess I perceive myself as person who has been given a position of responsibility that is important. I realize that I'm in a position to make a contribution.
D. REEVE: It was absolutely essential to both Chris and to me that we not only raise money for research, but that we help people with disabilities in the here and now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation came on and said, we support you, too, it -- it really started things for us, big time.
D. REEVE: He breathes life into people who felt that life was over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I used the Paralysis Resource Guide like a Bible. I keep it with me at all times.
D. REEVE: To know that we can actually help someone else, and to know specifically that we're helping them have a happier life or a more fulfilled life or an easier life, is tremendously gratifying.
C. REEVE: Anybody's life can change in an instant. None of us are exempt. It's a question was what we do afterwards, how we find the meaning. And, and once you can see that as an opportunity, rather than a complete disaster, then you can really get things done.
CLOSE: To accept the CNN Heroes' Hero award for Christopher Reeve, please welcome his children, Matthew and Alexandra, and the chairman of the board of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Peter Kiernan.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
PETER D. KIERNAN, CHAIRMAN, CHRISTOPHER AND DANA REEVE FOUNDATION: Thank you, Glenn. You have been a loyal and staunch friend all the way through.
Five years after Christopher Reeve was told he would never move again, suddenly, his fingers started moving. We were ecstatic. But do you know what we missed? When Chris began to move his finger, essentially, he was pointing the way for all of us.
On behalf of everybody at the foundation, I want to say thank you to CNN for this most gracious honor. I must say, Chris really was a heroes' hero. And, if I had one wish tonight, it would be to bring Christopher and Dana back, in part to get a sense of this loving tribute, but also to share some of the excitement, because we have had extraordinary victories and achievements even in the short time since they passed away.
You see, thanks to Chris, we are getting people out of wheelchairs today.
KIERNAN: Thanks to Chris, we are in human clinical trials for paralysis today. And we haven't turned the wheelchair into the buggy whip yet. But, in their honor, that is exactly what we intend to do.
KIERNAN: Now, every tragedy has a silver lining.
And, in the month after Dana passed away, two of Chris' eldest children joined the Christopher Reeve Foundation board, Matthew and Alexandra. And they are the trifecta. They have youth. They have Chris' passion. And, because curing spinal cord injury was the family business, they have experience. They, in fact, all of Chris' children, they are his finest legacy.
Please meet them. Thank you.
MATTHEW REEVE, SON OF CHRISTOPHER REEVE: My father's generosity and spirit was infinite. He conveyed that spirit to all of us through his passion for his work and how he chose to live his life.
He never expected himself to become the poster child for spinal cord injury, but, when the challenge was placed before him, he embraced it. He did so because he knew that he could make a tremendous difference.
He and Dana came to represent the millions of people living with paralysis. And they led a civil rights movement, advocating for their rights, the civil rights of the disabled. They changed the face of paralysis forever and inspired us to believe that anything is possible. Earlier this year, the foundation added Dana's name to its title to reflect and affirm the foundation's dual objectives of cure and care. They shared an incredible partnership and a passion for the work of this foundation. And I and we commit to carry their partnership forward.
ALEXANDRA REEVE, DAUGHTER OF CHRISTOPHER REEVE: We are seeing amazing progress with injury -- with spinal cord injury research.
Although dad and Dana aren't here to see it with us, it means so much to witness their vision coming ever closer to a reality. Under their banner, in laboratories across the world, we are finding solutions, ways to get people out of chairs today.
While we're succeeding with some, we will not stop until we have succeeded with everybody facing paralysis. And momentum is on our side. In their honor, we carry forward their torch to help the millions of people worldwide who are living with paralysis.
To CNN, we thank you for this tremendous honor. And I would like to also thank the staff of the foundation, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. And to our supporters, and to our board of directors, and, most importantly, to the disabled community, you're our heroes, too.
Now, I wouldn't be doing my job as a member of the board of directors of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation if I didn't urge you to visit ChristopherReeve.org to support the work that we're doing and to continue my father's legacy.
As my father used to say, so many of our dreams at first seem impossible, and then they seem improbable. And then, when we summon the will, they seem to become inevitable.
Thank you again.
COOPER: We used the word honor quite a bit tonight to talk about our heroes. And the truth is that they honor us with their presence and their humility and their inspiration.
AMANPOUR: And we opened tonight with the words of Teddy Roosevelt.
Now let me close with the challenge he issued more than 100 years ago, when he said: "A man's usefulness depends on his living up to his ideals insofar as he can. It is hard to fail," he said, "but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."
COOPER: We want to bring back all the Heroes tonight who received the awards back on the stage for one final time.
Thanks very much, everyone. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
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