A Girl’s Best Friend: Blair Brettschneider, Chicago, IllinoisGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.
The Flower Bearer: Larsen Jay, Knoxville, TennesseeGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.
The Firefighter: Jen Leary, Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.”
Content continues below ad
The Good Shepherd: John Helle, Dillon, MontanaGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.”
Town Provider: Charlotte Tidwell, Fort Smith, ArkansasGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.”
The Pizza Man: Mason Wartman, Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest 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.”
Content continues below ad