CNN honors 10 men and women for making the world a better place

Posted at 10:18 PM, Dec 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-08 00:18:02-05

(CNN) — CNN has revealed the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2019: 10 men and women who are making the world a better place by helping families affected by tragedy, cleaning up the environment, protecting neglected animals, and so much more.

Most of their efforts began small — a few started by collecting donations in their basements. Others have a personal connection to the people they help.

They were all nominated by you — our audience — and selected by CNN to each receive a $10,000 cash prize. And nowyou can vote on who you think should be the CNN Hero of the Yearand the winner receives an additional $100,000 for his or her cause.

To find out who is named, you’ll have to watch “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” hosted by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa live on Sunday, December 8 starting at 8 p.m. ET.

CNN Heroes has been spotlighting the impactful work of people across the world since 2007. Here’s a look at this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes:

Staci Alonso: A women’s shelter that allows pets

Her cause: In 2007, Staci Alonso opened Noah’s Animal House, a full-service pet shelter located right on the grounds of a domestic violence shelter in Las Vegas. Fewer than 10% of domestic violence shelters offer services for pets. At Noah’s, women can visit and take care of their pets as often as they’d like. The shelter also has “cuddle rooms,” set up like living rooms, where women can spend time with their pets.

What inspired her: Alonso was serving on the board of a women’s shelter in 2004 when she discovered that women fleeing domestic abuse often had nowhere to go because shelters wouldn’t accept their pets. “My two dogs … were my rock and my reinforcement,” Alonso said. “I couldn’t imagine being in that type of situation, finding the courage to leave and having to leave them behind.” Alonso was also shocked to learn that in many cases, women would go back to their abusive situation to remain with their beloved pet.

Read more about Staci Alonso and her work

Najah Bazzy: Helping Detroit’s impoverished women and children

Her cause: Najah Bazzy founded Zaman International, a nonprofit that has provided basic necessities, education and job training to more than 250,000 women and children of all backgrounds in the Detroit area. The group’s 40,000-square-foot warehouse in the Detroit suburb of Inkster offers aisles of food, rows of clothes and vast arrays of furniture free to those in need. The group’s case managers help clients access housing and other services.

What inspired her: Bazzy was working as a nurse in 1996 when she visited an Iraqi refugee family to help care for their dying infant. She knew the situation would be difficult, but she wasn’t prepared for what she encountered.

“There, at the house, I got my first glimpse of poverty. … They absolutely had nothing,” she said. “I was so devastated by that. … I decided that this wasn’t going to happen on my watch.”

That day, Bazzy and her family gathered all the furniture and household items that they could — including a crib — and delivered everything to the family. She hasn’t stopped since.

Read more about Najah Bazzy and her work

Woody Faircloth: Fixing up donated RVs for wildfire victims

His cause: Woody Faircloth created the nonprofit RV4CampfireFamily which delivers refurbished recreation vehicles — or RVs — to displaced survivors of California’s 2018 Camp Fire. Faircloth connects with RV owners interested in donating or selling their used RVs at a low cost. He refits the RVs himself and negotiates costs when he needs to enlist professional mechanics for heavy-duty repairs. Once the RV is ready to go, Faircloth organizes a way to transport it to the recipient. So far, his nonprofit has provided 70 RVs to Camp Fire survivors.

What inspired him: As the Camp Fire destroyed homes in the town of Paradise, California, Faircloth watched the news coverage from his home in Denver, Colorado. “I just couldn’t imagine being in that position,” said Faircloth, a father of four. “I had a hard time letting it go … I knew I wanted to do something to help.” He started by setting up a GoFundMe to raise money to purchase and restore used RVs for Camp Fire evacuees — and his nonprofit grew from that.

Read more about Woody Faircloth and his work

Freweini Mebrahtu: Removing the cultural stigma around women’s periods

Her cause: Menstruation is considered taboo in Ethiopia, and girls often miss school or drop out because of their periods. So, in 2005, Freweini Mebrahtu designed and patented a reusable menstrual pad. Today, she and her team produce 750,000 pads a year at her Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory, named for her daughter. Mebrahtu works in partnership with the nonprofit Dignity Period, which has conducted educational workshops for more than 300,000 students, teaching girls and boys that menstruation is natural, not shameful. Mebrahtu speaks at these events occasionally and enjoys seeing thousands of students receiving this message.

What inspired her: When Freweini Mebrahtu got her period at age 13, she panicked. “I remembered (hearing) that it’s actually a curse to have a period,” she said. “Or that it meant I am ready to be married, or (that) I’m being bad.”

Like most girls in northern Ethiopia, she suffered in silence, never mentioning it to her mother or sisters. With no access to sanitary products, she coped by using rags. “One time I had an accident in class and I was so scared and ashamed,” she said. “Even today I remember how I felt.”

Mebrahtu went on to study in the United States, and remembers her first trip to an American drugstore.

“I saw overwhelming choices of sanitary pads,” she said. “I started thinking … ‘What about the girls that I left behind?'”

Read more about Freweini Mebrahtu and her work

Mark Meyers: A sanctuary for abused and neglected donkeys

His cause: Donkeys helped build America, but today, many suffer mistreatment and abuse. Mark Meyers and his wife operate the largest donkey sanctuary in the US, known as Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. The nonprofit has rescued 13,000 donkeys and burros to date and has expanded to two additional ranches in Virginia and Arizona. Together, the three ranches can handle 3,000 of these animals at a time. The organization also has smaller satellite adoption centers across the country. The group trains the donkeys with the goal to place them in good homes. Each year, the organization adopts out roughly 400 donkeys.

What inspired him: Meyers didn’t always feel so strongly about donkeys. In 1999, he was living outside Los Angeles and working as an electrical contractor when his wife bought a donkey as a companion for their dog. They named the donkey Izzy.

“We fell in love with her,” Meyers said. “She opened our eyes to the donkey problem. We started noticing donkeys in need everywhere.” By 2005, Meyers and his wife had 250 donkeys on their land.

“We decided that either we have a problem or we’re going to have to find a way to find homes for these donkeys,” he said. So they gave up their careers and moved to a ranch outside San Angelo, Texas, where they started the nonprofit.

Read more about Mark Meyers and his work

Richard Miles: Helping former prisoners get jobs, new lives

His cause: Richard Miles’ nonprofit Miles of Freedom helps formerly incarcerated individuals restart their lives. Operating in South Dallas, the nonprofit assists individuals returning home from prison by helping them obtain identification, enroll in college and secure housing. The group also provides computer and career training, financial literacy programs and job placement.

The Miles of Freedom Lawn Care Service provides temporary employment for men and women in the program. Miles also offers a shuttle service that takes family members to see their loved ones who are incarcerated.

What inspired him: Miles was a teenager when he was arrested and accused of murder. At 20, he was sentenced to 60 years behind bars. He was an innocent man.

Wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit, Miles spent 15 years in a Texas prison. He was 34 when he was released in 2009.

“I was overwhelmed. I was 34 years old in age, but I was 19 from society standpoints. I had not dealt with the world, and I was literally scared,” he said. “I didn’t know about taxes and employment. The world was totally different.”

For two years, Miles struggled to get back on his feet. Ultimately, he found a job, a home, and today is married with a child. His own struggles and seeing other formerly incarcerated individuals in the same situation were the impetus to help other former prisoners transition and stay out of prison.

Read more about Richard Miles and his work

Roger Montoya: Arts center for kids living in region devastated by opioids

His cause: In an area of New Mexico hard-hit by the opioid crisis, Roger Montoya is making sure young people can find a different path and positive ways to express themselves through his nonprofit Moving Arts Española. Since 2008, his community arts center has provided arts classes, free meals, tutoring and support to more than 5,000 children and youth. Several hundred students each year take part in classes ranging from gymnastics and circus arts to fashion design and musical arts like singing, violin, ballet and hip hop. The group also celebrates local culture by teaching traditional Mexican dancing, known as folklorico, as well as Spanish flamenco dancing and guitar.

What inspired him: Montoya was a professional dancer in New York, but by the late 1980s, he was HIV-positive and had lost his partner and many friends to AIDS. Returning to New Mexico, he felt like he was coming home to die.

“My soul was really aching with such loss and grief,” said Montoya, 58. “It seemed inevitable that I would be on that same track.”

Immersing himself in painting, a lifelong passion, helped restore his health. Afterwards, Montoya was inspired to bring the healing power of the arts to local children. Seeing young people grow, as artists and as people, gives Montoya great satisfaction.

“You can feel when they have that sense of pride and confidence,” he said. “It’s a little fire in there and we just feed it every day a little more.”

Read more about Roger Montoya and his work

Mary Robinson: Helping kids learn how to mourn

Her cause: Mary Robinson founded the nonprofit Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss in 2011 to help children deal with all the emotions that come from the death of a loved one. At the center, kids learn how to deal with their grief with other children who have lost a parent, brother or sister.

Through games or arts and crafts activities, children and teens are encouraged to open up and share with the volunteer facilitators. A realistic hospital room gives children whose parents suffered long-term illnesses a unique way to work through their feelings, while others let off some steam in the “Volcano Room” with its padded walls, pillows for punching and books for ripping.

What inspired her: Robinson founded the center to create what she didn’t have after her father died from cancer when she was 14. As a result, her grades dropped, she quit her activities and became withdrawn.

“It looked like bad behavior … But it was a textbook example of a grieving child,” Robinson said. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a sad kid.”

Robinson struggled until she got help in her late 20s. Eventually, she began volunteering at a children’s grief support group and nearly two decades ago, she quit her job to devote herself to the work full-time.

“I really do this work to make sure other kids don’t lose years of their life to unresolved grief,” she said. “The death of a parent is really a trauma for a child. But it doesn’t have to leave a child traumatized if they get support.”

Read more about Mary Robinson and her work

Afroz Shah: Keeping plastic out of the ocean

His cause: Afroz Shah started a volunteer movement that has cleared more than 60 million pounds of garbage — mostly plastic waste — from Mumbai’s beaches and waterways. Shah, a Mumbai lawyer, launched the Afroz Shah Foundationto help spread his mission to save the world’s oceans from plastic pollution. More than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of a garbage truck dumped every minute. It’s predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

What inspired him: In 2015, Shah began picking up trash from Mumbai’s Versova Beach every Sunday morning. He had played there as a child and was upset to see that the sand was no longer visible because it was covered by a layer of garbage more than five feet thick. “The whole beach was like a carpet of plastic,” he said. “It repulsed me.”

At first, it was just him and a neighbor, and then he began recruiting others to join in. Word spread and with help from social media, more volunteers got involved.

Shah hasn’t stopped since. He’s now spent more than 200 weekends dedicated to the mission, inspiring more than 200,000 volunteers to join him in what’s been called the world’s biggest beach cleanup. By October 2018, Versova Beach was finally clean and Shah’s cleanups expanded to another beach as well as a stretch of the Mithi River and other regions of India.

Read more about Afroz Shah and his work

Zach Wigal: Bringing video games to hospitalized kids

His cause: Zach Wigal turned his favorite hobby into a nonprofit that brings gaming consoles — and relief — to kids with chronic illnesses. Wigal is the founder of Gamers Outreach which makes sure that children who can’t leave their hospital rooms during long-term medical treatment can play video games while they recuperate. He helped design “GoKarts,” portable carts equipped with a gaming console and an array of video games that are easily rolled into a patient’s room. The carts are now in more than 150 hospitals across the country.

What inspired him: As a junior in high school, Wigal organized a Halo 2 tournament in his high school cafeteria. It was shut down “by a police officer who believed that games like Halo were, in his words, corrupting the minds of America’s youth,” Wigal said.

The cancellation sparked an idea: Wigal wanted to show authorities that gamers weren’t all bad or lazy kids — and they could do something good with their gaming skills.

In 2008, Wigal and his friends held an event called Gamers for Giving and raised money for the Autism Society of America. The event continued year after year, and as it grew in popularity, Wigal’s team branched out and started working with local hospitals.

“We noticed that a lot of the video games (at the hospitals) were getting stuck in playrooms,” said Wigal. “And because of that, there was a whole segment of the hospital population that was, sort of, limited to whatever it was they had access to their bedside environment.”

Read more about Zach Wigal and his work