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JANUARY: A HAPPY HOMECOMING
Los Angeles lawyer Tony Tolbert made a big decision last year: he wanted to give his house, fully furnished and rent-free, to a family in need. So he moved back in with his parents while Felicia Dukes and her four children, formerly of the Alexandria House shelter, settled into his home in January. "You don't have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah," Tolbert told CBS. "Kindness creates kindness; generosity creates generosity; love creates love."
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FEBRUARY: KIDNEY CONNECTIONS
When Leah Hostalet saw that her friend and former Indiana University East professor Jerry Wilde was in desperate need of a kidney transplant she sprang into action, creating a Facebook page, Find a Kidney for Jerry. A stranger named Becky Melton saw the page, discovered she was a match and ultimately saved Wilde's life with a transplant. The experience inspired Hostalet to help more people in need, which led to her creating Find a Kidney Central, a place that matches donors and patients (and after one year, had already linked 38 pairs).
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MARCH: A SWEET SWAN SONG
Weeks after PEOPLE ran a story about teenage cancer patient Zach Sobiech's touching farewell song, , the Minnesota native passed away at age 18. Millions will remember the song – written when Sobiech was told he had less than one year to live – for its tearjerker of a celebrity cover, and more notably, for its beautiful lyrics. "I needed to get that emotion out and [my family] wanted something they could remember me by," Sobiech said of the tune.
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APRIL: ADVOCATING FOR ABUSE VICTIMS
After suffering years of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of both a neighbor and a relative – and being too afraid to tell anyone – Erin Merryn is working hard to make sure future victims do not suffer in silence. The activist, author and speaker is championing Erin's Law, which requires all public schools teach child sexual abuse awareness and prevention starting in kindergarten. So far, it's been passed in eight states, including her native Illinois. "Society is so afraid of this issue," she said. "They want to look the other way. That's why I'm not going to shut up."
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MAY: KNOCKING OUT BLOOD CANCER
Evander Holyfield Jr. was just trying to impress a girl with his charitable side when he attended a bone marrow drive in New York City. Less than one year later, the son of the heavyweight boxing champion with the same name got the call that he was a match for Darian Craig, who suffers from Behcet's syndrome, and had the opportunity to save her life. "I thank God I made the right decision," Holyfield Jr. said about donating his bone marrow.
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JUNE: MAKING HOSPITALS HOMIER
When a Houston friend was worried about an upcoming surgery that would keep him in the hospital for at least three weeks, teen Kendall Plank suggested decorating the University of Texas fan's room with lots of Longhorn gear. While her pal stepped out, Plank and her mom Susan decked out his suite – and the Dec My Room program was born. Now, volunteers and donors around the country do the same for other children facing long hospital stays to equally exciting results. "It's just taken off," Susan said.
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JULY: LIVING A NEW LIFE
It was just 10 years ago that Darla and Jeff Garrison opened up their hearts and their home by moving from California to Indianola, Iowa, where they expanded their family of three boys by adopting three infant girls: two formerly conjoined twins, Macey and Mackenzie, and their triplet sister Madeline. Macey and Mackenzie each only have one leg – they were born sharing a third, as well as a pelvis and entwined intestines – but see themselves as able as any other 10-year-olds. "When they encounter something they can't do," said Darla, "they don't dwell on it too long."
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AUGUST: IT'S DOGGONE GREAT
When Jonathan Kitto and Alonso Saldivar rescued one greyhound dog in 1999, they had no idea that their act would lead to the rescue of more than 1,000 other pups. But by adopting second greyhound Mr. Buck to help socialize Gigi, their first, they realized how many former racing dogs – some abused and neglected – needed help. So the partners launched Gbark, a non-profit dedicated to finding these dogs homes, funded in part by Kitto's homemade dog food brand, Mr. Buck's. Over time they've also opened their Bloomfield, Ind., home to more than 60 dogs that would've otherwise been euthanized.
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SEPTEMBER: FIGHTING FOR FIREFIGHTERS
Detroit firefighter Brendan "Doogie" Milewski became paralyzed while fighting a two-story blaze when a 300-lb. block of limestone crushed him. Though he's now wheelchair-bound, his spirit is far from crushed. "Even though my legs don't work, I still have a voice," Milewski, who speaks out about the sacrifices firefighters make in the award-winning documentary Burn, told PEOPLE. "You never hear about firemen who are permanently injured or disabled, partly because of the integrity we have. It's humiliating showing the world that you're not the big, tough fireman you used to be."
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OCTOBER: STOPPING SUICIDES
California Highway Patrol Sgt. Kevin Briggs – known as the "Guardian of the Golden Gate" – helps stop those who have given up on life and come to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge to end their pain. "People who come to jump don't necessarily want to die," explained Briggs, who has convinced more than 200 people over the past 20 years not to commit suicide. "If someone says they have no plan for tomorrow, I say, 'OK, let's make one.'"
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NOVEMBER: INSPIRING INVENTIONS
Michelle Sebastian's deaf and autistic son Landon is a space-obsessed 12-year-old who refused to sleep in his bed, insisting on sleeping in a rocket-shaped cardboard box. That's where Dick Gautraud, a volunteer from the charity May We Help, which engineers tailor-made designs to help people with disabilities, stepped in and designed a NASA-inspired rocket-shaped bed for the ecstatic boy. From accessible bikes to instruments built for people without arms, the volunteer-based nonprofit has engineered nearly 200 designs to help others. "It warms my heart to know there are people out there like that," Sebastian told PEOPLE.
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DECEMBER: JOY IN A JAR
When outpatient Jessie Rees saw that other children at the Children's Hospital of Orange County (Calif.) weren't able to go home after receiving their daily chemotherapy treatments, she set out to bring a little joy into their lives. She created JoyJars (coined after her middle name), which she filled with toys, crayons, books and other gifts and distributed to kids who were battling cancer, just like her. She posted videos and inspired others with her catch phrase "never, ever give up" (NEGU for short), gaining volunteers and supporters all over the country. Rees sadly lost her cancer battle in 2012 at the age of 12, but not before she personally stuffed about 3,000 JoyJars. "This wasn't anything that my wife and I asked her to do," her father Erik said. "We just wanted her to enjoy life and she chose to enjoy life by helping others."
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