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.
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.
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.”