2020 heroes: Americans who kept hope alive during pandemic, civil unrest and uncertainty

2020 heroes: Americans who kept hope alive during pandemic, civil unrest and uncertainty

December 25, 2020

Americans remain hopeful for coronavirus vaccine following the Thanksgiving holiday

Internal medicine physician Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider calls recent vaccine developments ‘truly incredible.’

With many Americans separated from loved ones because of the coronavirus pandemic, burdened by financial woes or grappling with racial injustice, it's been a tough year.  But with vaccines on the way, there is hope for a brighter 2021. 

It's time to recognize some of the people across the country who fought to make a difference. They became heroes because they did more than hunker down in troubled times.

Here are a few inspiring stories.


Seattle mom becomes first person in U.S. injected with trial coronavirus vaccine 

Jennifer Haller, a 43-year-old mother of two, became the first person in the U.S. to be injected with a trial coronavirus on March 16.

She was one of 45 volunteers to be given the Moderna vaccine in phase one of a federally sponsored clinical trial, conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

In this March 16, 2020, file photo, a pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller, left, the first shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. 
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

"We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something," Haller told The Associated Press before getting vaccinated. She said her two teenagers "think it’s cool" that she's volunteered to be on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic — putting herself at risk.

At a March press conference, President Trump marveled at how quickly research on potential vaccines was progressing. The nation's leading expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, noted that just 65 days had passed since Chinese scientists shared the virus’ genetic sequence. He said he believed that was a record for developing a vaccine to test.

Florida woman takes second job as dishwasher to visit husband with Alzheimer's at care center 

Mary Shannon Daniel's love wouldn't be denied.

Daniel, 57, whose husband has early-onset Alzheimer’s and is in an assisted living facility in Jacksonville, Fla., took a second job as a dishwasher at the facility to get around coronavirus restrictions barring visitors.

The chief executive at a small company that helps patients manage health care bills, Daniel worked twice a week as part of the cleaning crew at RoseCastle at Deerwood, where she had visited her husband, 66-year-old Steve Daniel, every day before the pandemic struck.

Mary Daniel and her husband, Steve, reunited after 114 days apart after she took a job at the memory care facility that he lived in.
(Mary Daniel via Facebook)

She made national headlines posting to Facebook on July 3 that she had finally been reunited with her husband after an unbearable 114 days apart. She has since been honored by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In August, she joined a special committee with Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, and Richard Prudom, secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, to help DeSantis safely reopen long-term care facilities to visitors, Bay News 9 in Tampa reported.


California dad builds dozens of free desks for children subjected to extended at-home learning 

The pandemic has upended traditional schooling for millions of American students, inspiring one crafty dad in California to make virtual learning a bit easier.

To help start the school year off strong, Mitchell Couch of Lemoore has built dozens of free desks for children in his community. 

Couch, a carpenter for over 20 years, joked that his two kids took over the kitchen table when they began distance learning this year. He decided to build each of them a desk and, while building the second he shot a YouTube video to help other parents follow suit.

The owners of the local Grocery Outlet saw the tutorial and offered to supply materials if Couch was willing to make more. The dad accepted the challenge, building an initial 37 desks. 

They've since been distributed free of charge to students living in rural areas through nearby school districts.

Georgia pastor surprises pregnant Waffle House waitress with $12,000 tip 

A Georgia pastor surprised a pregnant Waffle House waitress with a $12,000 tip after learning that the server planned to give her baby the same name as his late son.  

Bishop Eusebio Phelps, the leader of New Faith Christian Church, visited the Stockbridge location of the restaurant chain and was struck by server Hannah Hill’s kindness. He felt compelled to give her all he had in his wallet – about $40 – to buy whatever she needed for the baby.

They chatted and Hill mentioned that her due date was weeks away. She planned to name her son Samuel.

A Georgia pastor recently gave a Waffle House waitress the surprise of a lifetime after raising a $12,000 tip for the pregnant server. (New Faith Christian Church)

Phelps felt that it was a divine sign — his son Samuel died in Atlanta seven years ago, and the anniversary was coming up soon. He told his wife what had happened and shared Hill’s story on Facebook. Within a day, supporters raised $12,000 for Hill, soon to be a mother of two. 

"You gotta show the love of God to people you come into contact with, and it was her kindness — she was so kind and so pleasant. She's just a real sweetheart," the pastor said of their fast friendship. "And that touched my heart. And I feel like the Lord has really allowed our paths to cross."

NYPD, Black activists team up to distribute Thanksgiving turkeys after months of tension 

Despite months of civil unrest and racial justice protests, New York City leaders and Black activists came together to help needy families celebrate Thanskgiving.

They handed out turkeys in Brooklyn in an inspiring effort to improve relations between communities of color and police.

Gwen Carr was there after making peace with cops after following the death of her son, Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. A state grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but the department fired him in 2019.

Terrence Floyd, whose brother George’s death in Minneapolis in May prompted protests, riots and calls to defund the police among other racial justice reforms, also participated in the event. He was photographed bumping elbows with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. 


New York critical care nurse becomes first person in U.S. to receive approved coronavirus vaccine 

New York critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person in the U.S. to receive the FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 14.  On that day, she also became a powerful advocate for trusting science.

An ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, Lindsay was given the first dose during an event that was live-streamed. Dr. Michelle Chester, director of employee health services at Northwell Health, personally gave her the shot.

In an interview with "America's Newsroom," Lindsay said the nation needs to "band together to put an end to this pandemic once and for all." 

"People have a lot of apprehension and fear about taking the vaccine, and my message to them is not to be afraid because the alternative is far worse," Lindsay said. "I've seen too much pain, too much suffering, too many people that passed as a result of COVID-19 and so I stand by the science. I believe in science. I trust science, and I don't trust COVID-19."

Lindsay was featured on the cover of the New York Post and told New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the shot "didn't feel any different" from any other vaccine she had received.  But her words may resonate in Black and brown communities across the country.


"It was important for me," she said of the shot, "and especially to send a message to the minority community﹘Hispanics, Latinos, Blacks﹘who are usually grossly affected but still have mistrust based on history."

Fox News’ Frank Miles, Caleb Parke, Yael Halon, Janine Puhak and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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