Best of America

Extraordinary America: 13 Unsung Heroes Who Will Restore Your Faith in Our Country

From an Arkansas woman who feeds the town on her pension to the Ferguson, Missouri librarian who rallied a torn community, these heroes prove America's heart is beating strong.

best of america girl forwardGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest1. A Girl’s Best Friend: Blair Brettschneider, Chicago, Illinois

A real-life Lady Liberty lights the way for refugee teens

Being the new girl in town is tough. Blair Brettschneider (above, far right) learned this when she moved to Chicago to work at a refugee resettlement agency. But it’s not as hard as being the new girl in America. Five years ago, she was tutoring Domi, 18, who had lived in a Tanzanian refugee camp before coming to the United States. Domi wanted to be a nurse, but she was struggling in school and with family demands. Brettschneider went to her home to meet with her. And she realized that there must be many other displaced, disoriented teen girls among the thousands of refugees relocated in Illinois every year. “I just hadn’t seen them,” Brettschneider says.

She hosted weekly meet-ups for Domi and nine other refugee girls; they’d practice English, play games, and talk. For Domi, the group was life-changing: She graduated from high school and enrolled in nursing school.

The meet-ups blossomed into GirlForward, which pairs refugees ranging in age from 12 to 21 with American mentors and hosts a summer camp to prepare teens for their first year of high school in the United States. Brettschneider, 26, takes girls on regular field trips, and “every year, we go ice-skating,” she says. “They’re afraid of falling, and they have to learn to be brave and trust that nobody will let them get hurt.” Taking that first step can be tricky—but the girls know that Brettschneider always has their back.

 

best of america larsen jayGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest

2. The Flower Bearer: Larsen Jay, Knoxville, Tennessee

Yes, laughter is the best medicine—but a beautiful bouquet comes close

Seven years ago, Larsen Jay nearly died when his ladder collapsed during a do-it-yourself project. He broke his left arm, right elbow, wrists, nose, and femur and fractured his skull. His first days in the trauma center were bleak. But after loved ones filled Jay’s room with bouquets, his mood lifted. “I’d never been given flowers before, and it was a big emotional shift for me,” he says. His wife wheeled him through the halls, and he was dismayed to see other patients’ “lifeless, flowerless” rooms. Jay took the cards off his blooms and went door-to-door, delivering the flowers. “I wanted to give people the same boost I had,” he says.

A year later, Jay and his wife founded Random Acts of Flowers. Reception halls, funeral homes, and other venues donate bouquets to a central spot in cities with RAF chapters (Knoxville, Tampa, and Chicago). Volunteers use them to craft fresh arrangements, which go to hospitals, nursing homes, and rehab facilities. The group has distributed more than 65,000 vasefuls of joy, and Jay still makes deliveries. “I’ve never had it not result in a smile,” he says.

 

best of america bridge meadows

3. A Family of Neighbors: Bridge Meadows, Portland, Oregon

An innovative community brings out the best in every member

In 2010, when Jackie Lynn, then 55, decided to be a foster parent for two great-nieces and one great-nephew, she was overwhelmed by the love. But she was also blindsided by the stressful work of raising three kids. “It was a nightmare,” she says. A year later, she found the help she needed when she moved to Bridge Meadows, a nonprofit development. “I’ve made some of the best friends, and my children have kids to play with and ‘grandparents’ who care for them,” she says. “It’s like having a huge family.”

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Bridge Meadows houses only low-income seniors and families with multiple foster kids. The scheme benefits three generations: parents, who receive support; children, who gain loving, stable adults; and seniors, who feel a renewed sense of purpose. Nine families, including 27 foster children and 30 senior citizens, live in the cluster of townhomes and apartments.

Senior residents—or elders, as they’re called—must spend at least 400 hours every year helping the families. “I have a great amount of delight in my life from the kids that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” elder Joy Corcoran says. When Corcoran was sick, a young friend made her muffins. Twice a week, she and a 12-year-old neighbor go to water aerobics. “When I want to back out, she won’t let me,” Corcoran laughs.

 

best of america jen learyGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest4. The Fire Fighter: Jen Leary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

After the flames of disaster die down, she ensures no pet is left behind

The first call came at 5 a.m. “Good morning, Jen,” the Red Cross operator said. “We have a fire for you.” Six dogs were homeless after they and their owners were displaced by a blaze in North Philly. The situation was exactly why Jen Leary had founded Red Paw Emergency 
Relief Team, a nonprofit that rescues and fosters pets and reunites them with families after fires, gas leaks, and other catastrophes. Red Paw launched at midnight on July 25, 2011; it took barely five hours for Leary to receive her first call.

“I’ve always been the person who sees a problem and needs to fix it,” Leary explains. A firefighter for seven years and a volunteer Red Cross 
responder for nine years, she was 
disturbed by how animals were lost, forgotten, or neglected in the wake of disaster. “People had to leave them in a burned house, take them to a shelter, or let them go on the street,” she says.

Leary retired from the fire department in 2014 to devote herself to Red Paw, which has helped save more than 2,000 pets. She initially fosters many of them at home with her five cats, two dogs, and turtle named Rabbit. Her 500 volunteers include veterinarians, transporters, and foster care 
providers. “I remember vividly how happy the family and the dogs were to 
be back together,” Leary says, thinking back to Red Paw’s first rescue. “It’s what makes this job meaningful.”

 

best of america john helleGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest5. The Good Shepherd: John Helle, Dillon, Montana

A rancher’s work reflects a life fueled by pride in America

As you read this, John Helle is prepping for 
a 50-mile ride into the Gravelly Mountains with his parents, his oldest son, and 5,000 sheep and lambs. Every July, Helle, a third-generation rancher, herds his flock to their summer pastures in an annual rite he has observed since childhood. The sole wool provider for Duckworth—a wool manufacturer he co-owns and the only one that keeps its entire supply chain within U.S. 
borders—Helle is trying to revive our country’s garment-making heritage.

According to Duckworth president Robert Bernthal, the number of sheep in Montana plunged from more than four million in 1970 to fewer than 300,000 today, due largely to manufacturing moving abroad. “Our way 
of life has been lost over the generations,” Helle says. From his Montana ranch, the wool is transported to the Carolinas, where it is spun into yarn and knit or sewn into garments that end up on the backs of outdoorsmen like Helle and his neighbors.

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The ranch’s 20 employees—who 
include his parents, brother, uncles, and four children—shear about 10,000 sheep a year. Like their ancestors, they herd their flocks on horseback and sleep in classic sheep wagons in the summer months. “Two hundred years ago, people would think nothing of getting in covered wagons and heading west to find opportunities,” Helle says. “They all survived; of course, they probably wore a lot of wool.”

 

best of america john and tom d'eri6. Bold Businessmen: John and Tom D’Eri, Parkland, Florida

Mixing compassion and savvy, they’ve created dozens of jobs and a new kind of workplace

When Andrew D’Eri turned 
18 in June 2012, he looked for a job, but nobody would hire him—he has autism (more than 
80 percent of people with autism worldwide are unemployed). His brother, Tom, and father, John, sprang into action, and they didn’t just get him a job; they created a workplace that lets him and his peers shine.

The D’Eris wanted to find a business that would draw on the capabilities of people with autism, who often excel at detail-oriented, process-driven tasks. 
A car wash seemed a good fit. In 2012, the D’Eris bought an existing establishment, shuttered it, trained new employees in a 46-step routine, and reopened in April 2013. “Business has tripled,” says Tom, 26. Of the 43 employees at Rising Tide Car Wash, 35 have autism. “The work gives them a tremendous boost in self-esteem,” says John, 56. “They see they can do a good job and provide for themselves.”

The D’Eris credit their success to the meticulous work of their employees. 
In the beginning, says Tom, customers came to the car wash to support its mission. “Now they tell us the job is 
so thorough, they won’t go anywhere else, and it’s awesome what we do.”

 

best of america charlotte tidwellGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest7. Town Provider: Charlotte Tidwell, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Decades ago, some nuns changed 
a little girl’s life—now it’s payback time

When Charlotte Tidwell was in first grade, the nuns at school made 
a bargain: If she helped her mother clean the building after class, she could attend for free. The sisters’ 
kindness would ripple through Tidwell’s life—from being accepted 
as one of three African Americans in her nursing program and becoming Sparks Hospital’s director of medical nursing to founding a charity with which she feeds more than 7,000 
people a month in her hometown.

Fort Smith was once a thriving manufacturing town, but it never recovered after its factories started to close in 2000. When Tidwell heard some 
elderly were eating cat food out of desperation, she started handing out groceries from a truck. A former boss connected Tidwell with an investor, who gave her the building where her group, the Antioch Consolidated Association for Youth and Family, is based.

Tidwell, 69, and her volunteers work ten-to-12-hour shifts at the warehouse Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, they bring food and other sustenance to 
senior housing complexes. Once, while escorting kids to sing at a home, she saw a man crying. He was reminded that his radio was broken, so Tidwell 
returned later with a new radio. “The greatest satisfaction is to watch others grow with compassion,” she says. 
“I see volunteers transformed, and it makes me know we can get back to a community of caring I grew up with.”

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best of america emily jones8. The Principal and 
the Prankster: Sherman Padgett and Emily Jones, 
Wichita, Kansas

A high school senior turns a snarky event into a gesture of appreciation

At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, February 27, North High School principal Sherman Padgett stood in 
the hall. The band and cheerleaders marched through, and as the enthusiastic educator does for pep rallies, Padgett wore a cape and tights à la movie wrestler Nacho Libre. Senior Emily Jones, 17, asked him to hold a bucket. Aware it was senior-prank season, he grumpily declined. In his office, he saw the receptacle on his desk. “What’s with the bucket?” he asked his secretary. “Oh, just hold it,” she said.

Padgett took the container back 
to his spot in the hall, and students started dropping in pieces of paper. Later, he read the 100 messages, which included: “Thank you for the shirt you gave me. When I didn’t have clothes, you provided,” “The thing I like about you is that you’re always so happy and positive,” and simply, “I love you.”

Jones and two friends had asked 
all the seniors to write notes to tell Padgett what he’d meant to them. The principal confessed he got a bit teary. “I thought, Man, this is better than a paycheck,” he said in a CNN interview. “This is why I do the things that I do.”

 

best of america mason wartmanGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest9. The Pizza Man: Mason Wartman, 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A simple idea—and sticky notes—turns people into superheroes

It’s easy to be hypnotized by the hundreds of bright sticky notes on the walls of Rosa’s Fresh Pizza—
especially when you start reading them.

“You’re worthy of more than a slice,” an orange one says. “Make pizza, not war,” adds a yellow. A sheet of white paper stands out: “I just want to thank everyone that donated to Rosa’s. It gave me a place to eat every day and the opportunity to get back on my feet. I start a new job tomorrow!”

The message wall at Rosa’s started 
a few months after Mason Wartman opened the pizzeria, in 
December 2013. “A customer read that we serve a lot of homeless people, 
and he asked if he could buy a slice for the next one who came in,” he says. “I took his dollar, wrote a note to remind myself there was a slice outstanding, and stuck it on the wall.” Other diners followed suit, and within a week, two dozen sticky notes were hanging up. When the number hit 500, Wartman started keeping track of the slices at the register, but the wall had already taken on a life of its own. Today, it’s a communal board where people post notes of thanks given and received.

Wartman estimates that Rosa’s has doled out more than 18,000 free slices in just over a year. “Homeless customers offer to sweep up and take out the trash to thank me,” he says. “I’ve hired three employees through shelters. They’re hard workers looking for a chance, and that’s who I want here.”

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best of america scott bonner

10. The Librarian: Scott Bonner, Woodson Terrace, Missouri

In a town engulfed by turmoil, 
a quiet hero emerges

Scott Bonner was new in Ferguson last summer and wanted to know everyone in town. Soon he would.

In August 2014, Bonner was settling into his job as library director at Ferguson Municipal Public Library when the community ruptured after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by 
a police officer. Protesters and looters massed in the streets, schools and businesses closed, but the library 
remained open. “Libraries are all 
about helping people and communities better themselves,” Bonner says. 
“I wanted to regret saying yes too much instead of saying no too much.”

For one week in August, the building became the unofficial town center. Teachers and volunteers set up an 
improvised school for hundreds of displaced students, and local leaders held emergency meetings there. Bonner placed a sign outside, urging, “Stay Strong, Ferguson. We Are Family.”

In November, riots erupted again, and the library continued to be a safe haven. On the night Brown’s killer was exonerated, Bonner barricaded himself in the library until 10:30pm with a fire extinguisher in one hand and a caffeinated soda in the other, twice begging mobs of protesters kicking at the doors to leave in peace. When a visitor walked up to the librarian the following day, gripped his hands, and cried, Bonner—who was a former mental health professional—knew he’d found another way to put out fires.

Following press coverage, the library received more than $400,000 in donations, doubling its annual budget. They recently hired a dedicated childrens’ librarian—the library’s second full-time employee.

 

best of america judy gasconGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest11. The Patriotic Pianist: Judy Gascon, Boring, Oregon

Her days at the VA lift vets’ spirits—and pay loving tribute to her father

It’s Tuesday at 9 a.m. Dressed in 
an authentic World War II Army 
uniform and with her hair coiled in 
a 1940s-era liberty roll, Judy Gascon sits at a baby grand piano 
in the lobby of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Portland, Oregon. She begins with the songs from the five military branches and then turns to smile at the patients waiting for their appointments. “Any requests?”

For 12 years, she has played patriotic tunes and American classics—“Take 
Me Out to the Ballgame” is a favorite—while wearing her late father’s ribbons and patches on her jacket. He was in the Army Air Corps in World War II, 
and though “he didn’t talk a lot about himself,” she says, she knew he was proud of his service. He moved in with her in 2001 after being diagnosed with 
Alzheimer’s and died shortly after she began volunteering at the VA.

With a chair on either side, she 
welcomes vocal accompaniment—“You don’t want to hear me sing,” she laughs—and conversation. “The vets feel comfortable telling me stories of the war, ones they wouldn’t tell their own families,” says Gascon, 67. “It’s a bit like being a bartender.” She looks forward to playing at the VA too much to consider stopping. “Other than raising my son, there’s nothing I’ve done that I like more than this,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to see the light in people’s eyes when they hear their song.”

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best of america tommy caldwell12. High Achievers: Tommy Caldwell, Estes Park, Colorado; Kevin Jorgeson, Santa Rosa, California

How do you conquer one of the last frontiers? Seven years of practice, 
a solid partnership, and Krazy Glue.

Sleeping 1,000 feet in the air was not new to Tommy Caldwell—
he was used to the extreme shifts in temperature, the bone-rattling 
70 mph winds, and being strapped into a bed. But one day in 2000, 
during a climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan, Caldwell, then 21, and his friends were awakened by an unfamiliar sound: gunfire.

They were being kidnapped by 
Islamic militants. After days without food or water, Caldwell seized on an opportunity, pushed a captor off a cliff, and fled 18 miles to safety. (Caldwell later learned that the man survived.)

This led to a big realization—“We 
are capable of more than we could imagine,” he says—and to tackling 
a feat that was said to be impossible: 
the first free climb of the 3,000-foot, sheer granite Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. (In a free climb, only one’s hands and feet are used to ascend; harnesses are solely for protection.) Caldwell had free-climbed 12 different routes up El Cap, six of which had never been done 
before, but the Dawn Wall, the peak’s southeastern face, thwarted him.

Out of the blue, climber Kevin 
Jorgeson e-mailed Caldwell; he too was looking for a challenge. For three months a year over seven years, Caldwell and Jorgeson kept returning to Yosemite to puzzle along their 
serpentine route through the wall’s 
32 pitches, or climbing segments. Storms came and went, and so did most of the skin on their fingers (they applied Krazy Glue as a protectant), but the men persevered. “I refused to be the guy who almost climbed the Dawn Wall,” says Jorgeson.

Several times, they attempted a free climb—but each time, they failed. 
Then, on December 28, 2014, the men pushed out yet again, relying on cracks as thin as a razor blade and holds as small as a dime. In the mornings, they dined on bagels; at night, they sipped whiskey. Nineteen days later, on January 14, they completed their epic quest.

“I’ve known the wall longer than I’ve known my wife,” Caldwell says. “The pursuit itself was the prize.”    (photo via Epic TV)

 

best of america walter fullerGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest13. The Birder: Walter Fuller, Ojai, California

One man sees beauty under the blight—and brings a beach back to life

Walter Fuller 
awakens at 4:30 a.m. every day to unlock the parking 
lot at Ormond Beach, where he has served as its unofficial (and unpaid) security guard, park ranger, custodian, and tour guide for 18 years. For Fuller, the work serves as its own reward: Fishers, surfers, and fellow birders greet him as he logs their comings 
and goings for his daily report; 
children marvel when he shows them 
their first up-close view of the Pacific Ocean; and white-crowned sparrows follow him while he refills their feeders. With about 250 avian species flying through every year, the two-mile strip of wetlands is a birder’s dream. But it wasn’t like that when Fuller found it.

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A lifelong bird lover, he first visited Ormond Beach in 1996 on a lunch break from his job at the nearby Navy base. He saw mallard ducks, finches, hawks, and herons—but barely any people around to enjoy them. The beach had become a dumping ground for trash and a hub of drug deals and gang activity, and Fuller realized if he didn’t take care of the spot, nobody would. He began going there after work, clearing the sand of old tires, mattresses, and sludge and patrolling the parking lot.

After he was laid off from the Navy base, he went to the beach every day, often sleeping in his truck in the lot to dissuade troublemakers from coming at night. The beach became a safe place, human visitors gradually began returning, and in 2008, Oxnard city 
officials took notice of the solitary 
widower and provided him with a metal shipping container to sleep in. Last year, they upgraded him to a trailer. His official title is caretaker, but he prefers the language on the metal sign outside his trailer: “Walter Fuller—steward of Ormond Beach.”

“In 1996, nobody felt safe out here,” Fuller says. “Now we get up to a 
hundred visitors a day. They say, 
‘We’re coming back because you’re here.’ That makes my heart grow.”

~

 Behind the scenes with GirlForward at our Washington D.C. cover shoot:

Profiles by Brandon Specktor, Alyssa Jung, and Katie Askew

Photos of GirlForward, Jay, Leary, Helle, Tidwell, Wartman, Gascon, and Fuller by Glenn Glasser

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