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These 8 Unsung Heroes 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 Digest

A Girl’s Best Friend: Blair Brettschneider, Chicago, Illinois

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. (Read the moving story of the Navy crew that went off course to save 50 drowning refugees.) 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. Here are more acts of love and courage from America’s heroes.

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The Flower Bearer: Larsen Jay, Knoxville, Tennessee

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. Local heroes aren’t hard to find, like this minister who saved a rabbi’s life.

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The Firefighter: Jen Leary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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. This is what pets in animal shelters wish you knew—and it could save their lives.

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.”

This 1954 essay on humanity is more relevant now than ever before. 

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The Good Shepherd: John Helle, Dillon, Montana

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.

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.” These untold stories of Native American heroes will inspire you. 

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Town Provider: Charlotte Tidwell, Fort Smith, Arkansas

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. Feeling inspired yet? Try any of these random acts of kindness today to keep spreading the love.

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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The Pizza Man: Mason Wartman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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. You can learn from Wartman and hang up these quotes to inspire gratitude in your own life.

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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The Patriotic Pianist: Judy Gascon, Boring, Oregon

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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The Birder: Walter Fuller, Ojai, California

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. (Until you can plan a  visit, start with these stunning bird photos.) But it wasn’t like that when Fuller found it.

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

Originally Published in Reader's Digest