PEOPLE Proudly Honors Heroes Among Us
"Every week at PEOPLE we spotlight the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and for many of our readers, these are the stories they look forward to the most," the magazine's managing editor, Martha Nelson, told the crowd inside the Celeste Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library.
The honorees have appeared in the pages of PEOPLE over the past year, but this was a chance for them to share their stories with community leaders, news people and celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, fashion and design.
CNN anchor Paula Zahn introduced Kathy Harrison, who -- with her husband Bruce -- over the past 13 years has raised more than 100 foster children (in addition to their own three children). Zahn described Harrison as "a mom who can't say no," and pointed out that some of the youngsters that the Harrisons take into their home in Cummington, Mass., "are violent, some are needy." Some are so used to going hungry, said Zahn, that they hoarded their Cheerios under their beds when they got to the Harrisons' home.
Michael J. Fox followed Zahn (and lowered the microphone, quipping that "Paula's very tall" ) to introduce Carole and Francis Carrington, whose daughter, granddaughter and family friend were murdered while visiting Yosemite Park in 1999. The couple were determined to turn their grief into something constructive, helping other families deal with moving on after suffering similar tragedies.
"We feel very honored to be given this (recognition) today," Carole Carrington told the lunch crowd, "but we really didn't do anything that any of you wouldn't have done if something happened to a member of your family, too." She also stressed her and her husband's belief that "the vast majority of people are wonderful."
Francis Carrington, with both his wife and Fox standing at his side, said: "I'd like to thank Michael -- we know he's a fighter. And we'd like to encourage people to fight back."
John Stamos, the former star of "Full House" who is now on Broaway in the musical "Nine," threw the spotlight on Jim Thornberry, a railroad freight conductor from Davisberg, Mich., who shut off CNN rather than hear the story of Hannan Shihab, a 15-year-old Iraqi girl who was burned on more than 20 percent of her body during the war.
But Thornberry (the father of two teenage girls) could not get the thought of Shihab out of his head -- and managed to have her tracked down so she could be brought to the United States, where he provided for her medical care.
"The loud, noisy voices going on in my head," Thornberry said, referring to the inner turmoil and the external hurdles of seeking help for Shihab, "that's the lawyers' arguing. But the quiet voice -- that's guidance."
Alice Coles similarly spoke of guidance after she was introduced by Broadway and TV star Bebe Neuwirth, who said Coles and others had nearly given up hope while living in the depressed, rural hamlet of Bayview, Va., where indoor plumbing didn't even exist.
But Neuwirth commended Coles for "efforts (that) extended beyond carpentry and construction." In rebuilding Bayview through a fund-raising campaign she spearheaded, Coles helped "to repair the broken spirit on the community."
Coles even managed to elevate the spirit of the lunch crowd, enthusing about her visit to New York (her very first) and pointing out that she learned an important lesson when she went to see the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie." She said she was "touched by the spirit" of a character in it who said she wasn't poor, just broke.
"Remember: If you're broke, you can fix it," said Coles, quoting the show -- and underscoring for the attendees the importance of giving money to good causes, which she trusted that everyone in the room would do.
"Another thing I learned from faith," said Coles. "I'm thanking you in advance."
Gossip queen Liz Smith introduced fellow Texan Frank Guajardo, who took charge of his students' defeatist way of thinking and turned them around, raising the money to drive nine of the teens to look at Ivy League campuses and encouraging them to apply. Five got in.
One of his former students, Cecilia (now a junior at Columbia University), spoke warmly of being under Guajardo's influence -- just as he later spoke of the first time he laid eyes upon Cecilia when he came to Edcouch-Elsa High School, in 199l. She was being taken away in handcuffs.
Guajardo, it must be said, also took issue with the event taking place, saying that PEOPLE magazine should expand its recognition of everyday citizens doing good things. "That's what corporations are for," he insisted. He also said, "We are not ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I'm doing ordinary work, and every one of you should be doing (this kind of) ordinary work."
In wrapping up the ceremony, Martha Nelson said, "When they make the movie of Elsa, Texas, Frank will play himself." That is, she said, if he hasn't taken over her job as editor of PEOPLE.
Nelson also introduced a late addition to this year's heroes list: Kevin Dubler, fire chief of Julian, Calif., where a third of the firefighters in his brigade lost their homes in the recent rash of wildfires that swept through Southern California. Their choice on the line was to run home or continue fighting the blaze. They chose to stand and fight.
"The real heroes are the volunteers," Dubler told the audience. "I'm just their chief."
To read more about the honorees and other standout citizens, check out PEOPLE.com's Heroes Among Us 2003 special.
To contact the charities for some of PEOPLE's honored heroes:
Carole and Francis Carrington
The Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation
1508 Coffee Road, Suite H
Modesto, CA 95355
Phone: (209) 567-1059 or 1-888-813-8389
Bayview Citizens for Social Justice
P.O. Box 527
21186 N. Bayview Road
Cheriton, VA 23316
Phone: (757) 331-1840
Llano Grande Center
P.O. Box 340
Edcouch, TX 78538
Phone: (956) 262-4474