The unsung heroes of 2017

Dylan Stableford
Senior Editor

The deadly storms, shootings and divisive political rhetoric that seemed to define 2017 may have dominated the headlines. But there was plenty of good news too, with stories of inspiration and hope often emerging in the wake of tragic events. Here are 12 people who helped inspire us in 2017.

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The ‘Cajun Navy’ and coast guard, which helped save lives in Houston

Rescue workers and volunteers help residents make their way out of a flooded Houston neighborhood following Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 29. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The catastrophic flooding in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was the backdrop for plenty of dramatic boat rescues in August. And many were carried out by a group of volunteers from Louisiana known as the “Cajun Navy.” The group arrived in Texas within hours of the storm making landfall to aid in search and rescue operations. The similarly named Cajun Coast Search and Rescue Team also assisted in relief efforts.

Both groups used Facebook to organize and coordinate their street-by-street searches.

“This is familiar ground for us,” Cajun Navy volunteer Benji Terro told the Washington Post. “We are from Louisiana, and we know floods.”

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The chainsaw nun who helped clear debris after Hurricane Irma

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear habits and carry chainsaws.

After Hurricane Irma tore across Florida in September, Sister Margaret Ann was helping clear downed trees from a roadway near Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School in Miami. And her efforts did not go unnoticed. Video of the chainsaw-wielding nun — taken by a Miami-Dade off-duty police officer and posted to Facebook — was viewed nearly 10 million times.

In November, she was honored by the Miami Heat during a pep rally at her Roman Catholic high school, where she was presented with a $5,000 check for her selfless cleanup efforts.

“We teach our students: Do what you can to help other people. Don’t think of yourselves,” she told CNN. “And so that’s what I wanted to do.”

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The celebrity chef who served hot meals after hurricanes and wildfires

Less than a month after arriving in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, celebrity chef José Andrés hit a milestone: 1 million hot meals served. Using 15 kitchens and more than 500 volunteers, Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, along with San Juan restaurateur José Enrique, were able to cook up to 25,000 meals per day (including beef stew, sandwiches and paella) through their #ChefsForPuertoRico campaign — exceeding what the American Red Cross was able to deliver to the island’s 3.4 million weary residents in the weeks following the storm. (The number of meals served is now 3.1 million, according to Andrés and co.)

“We only came here to try to help a few thousand because nobody had a plan to feed Puerto Rico,” Andrés told the New York Times. “And we opened the biggest restaurant in the world in a week. That’s how crazy this is.”

The James Beard Award-winning chef, who led similar efforts in Houston and Haiti, also organized an effort to feed firefighters battling the wildfires in Southern California earlier this month.

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The homeless veteran who helped a stranded woman, who then helped him

Kate McClure was driving on I-95 outside of Philadelphia late at night when she ran out of gas. Johnny Bobbitt Jr., a homeless man who was sitting by the highway, saw her pull over and told her to wait in her car with the door locked. Bobbitt, a 34-year-old former Marine, returned with a red gas can, having spent his last $20 on it to help the stranded driver. McClure, 29, couldn’t repay him at the time because she didn’t have any cash. But she did later, returning to the same spot to give him cash, clothes and food.

In early November, McClure and her boyfriend launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Bobbitt with the goal of raising $10,000 — just enough for a car and a few months of living expenses. They raised more than $400,000 — enough for Bobbitt to buy a home.

He told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he plans to donate some of the money to people who are struggling like he was. “Everybody out there is facing some kind of struggle,” Bobbitt said. “So if I can touch their life, the way mine was touched, [it’d be] an amazing feeling.”

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The barber who cut hair for the homeless, and the salon owner who gave him a barbershop of his own

Brennon Jones, right, trims Larry Hemphill’s beard for free as part of his makeover Mondays in Philadelphia Nov. 20. Jones, who originally provided free haircuts to homeless people on the street, now continues to donate his services to anyone who is in need at a shop that was given to him by Sean Johnson. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Brennon Jones, a 29-year-old barber, launched “Haircuts 4 Homeless” in January, cutting the hair of Philadelphia’s homeless men for free in the hopes it might help them get off the street. Jones, who estimates he’s provided more than 1,000 free haircuts, said he was encouraged by his very first client.

“I cut his hair on 15th and Walnut,” he told CBS Philadelphia. “A few days later, I went to check up on him and he wasn’t there. I was hoping nothing bad happened to him. When we did catch up weeks later, he got offered a full-time job.”

Jones’s selfless work for the community paid off for him too. In October, Sean Johnson, a local barbershop owner who had purchased a future second location for his business, decided to give Jones the space for him to open a barbershop of his own.

“For somebody to give you a building, for him to say, ‘This is yours, no strings attached,’ it kind of blew my mind,” Jones told Philly.com.

Jones continues to give back to the homeless, providing free haircuts, lunch and health screenings at his shop every Monday.

“It’s bigger than a haircut for me,” Jones said. “They look at me as the blessing, but I look at them as the blessing.”

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The football player who donated his entire annual salary to charity

The Philadelphia Eagles’ Chris Long during the national anthem before a game in October. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long donated his entire $1 million regular season base salary in 2017 to charitable causes. Long pledged his first six game checks to fund two scholarships in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va., following the deadly white supremacist rally there.

Then in October, Long announced he would give his final 10 game checks to charitable organizations supporting underserved youth in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis. He also raised more than $800,000 through his charitable foundation.

“In my 10th year, I want to celebrate the awesome opportunity I’ve had to play football by giving back to the communities that have given me that gift,” Long said in a statement. “Educational opportunity and equity are the best gateway to a better tomorrow for everyone in America.”

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The coffee shop owner who employs the disabled

Amy Wright, a mother of two children with Down syndrome, has spent her life as a parent advocating for her kids. In early 2016, she opened a coffee shop named after them, Bitty & Beau’s, with the goal of giving jobs to people with special needs. The Wilmington, N.C., café now employs 40 people — each with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“My employees are not broken,” Wright said this month at a CNN awards ceremony in New York City, where she collected $100,000 check for her cause. “What is broken is the lens through which we view people with disabilities.”

She also had a message for her children back home in North Carolina.

“I want you to know, because I know you are watching, that I would not change you for the world,” Wright said. “But I will change the world for you.”

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The teacher who made up unique handshakes for each of his students

Barry White Jr., a fifth grade English teacher at Ashley Park PreK-8 School in Charlotte, N.C., came up with a cool way of connecting with his students — creating a personalized handshake for every single one. Since last year, White has greeted each of his 60 fifth graders with a unique handshake at the door before they enter the classroom.

Video of the daily ritual, posted to Facebook in February, went viral, generating more than 60 million views.

“The most critical component is the relationship, the rapport you build with your students because sometimes it can go underrated or overlooked,” White told NBC Charlotte. “Before I’m able to deliver a substantial amount of content to them, they have to invest in the teacher.”

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The 10-year-old inventor whose invention may save lives

Bishop Curry V from his GoFundMe page.

Dozens of children are killed in hot cars in the United States every year. In 2016, 39 died as a result of car-related heat stroke, including seven in Texas. The death of a 6-month-old child in his hometown inspired Bishop Curry V, a 10-year-old from McKinney, to create “Oasis,” a small device that would detect if a child is left inside a hot car and blow cool air until parents and authorities can arrive.

Curry’s father, a Toyota engineer in Plano, Texas, encouraged his son to work on the design and secured a provisional patent for the idea. The pair introduced the concept and prototype at an auto safety conference in Michigan, and raised more than $50,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to develop it.

Meanwhile, the fifth grader told NBC Dallas that he already has aspirations beyond just one lifesaving invention.

“It would be a dream to have lots of inventions that would save many lives,” he said.

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Best of 2017 Yahoo News Features