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PEOPLE Proudly Honors Heroes Among Us

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The first clue that PEOPLE’s fourth annual Heroes Among Us salute on Monday would be, as managing editor Martha Nelson called it, “our five handkerchief lunch,” was the giveaway gift: complimentary tissues provided on the banquet tables.

Traditionally, tears of emotion flow at the celebration of PEOPLE magazine’s “heart,” and this year’s event was no exception. Five presentations, 10 standing ovations – before and after speeches – and plenty of tears being wiped away inside the New York Public Library.

“This event has emerged as a truly special day (in which we) honor some truly special people who have appeared in the magazine throughout the year,” said Nelson, explaining that those singled out were being cited for either “a lifetime of dedication or a single moment” of doing the extraordinary.

• MTV and NBC’s Carson Daly introduced the first heroes of the afternoon: Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva and Naval Medical Corpsman Brian Alaniz, who were only four hours into the Iraqi war when Alva stepped on a landmine. He was rescued by Alaniz, who also stepped on a mine. As a result, each lost a leg – yet, as Daly noted, they “have healed each other’s spirits” as they faced rehabilitation together.

In accepting their awards, Alva, who spoke for both of them as Alaniz was at his side, said: “The true word that come to mind is, we’re blessed to have each other to lean on.” He called it “an honor to be in a city that knows the meaning of the word strength,” and pointed out that “Brian and I just want to say, the true heroes in our book are the men and women who didn’t come home.”

Ray actress Kerry Washington told the story of 15-year-old Sasha Bowers, who lived in homeless shelters in Columbus, Ohio, since the age of 5. “The hardest part of being a homeless child,” said Washington, wasn’t “changing schools eight times or living in city shelters. It’s simply not being able to be a kid.”

Bowers, who’s found a home, is now a driving force behind a summer day-camp program in her hometown, making sure other kids enjoy such activities as fishing and gardening. At lunch, she asked everyone to remember the 1.5 million homeless children in America, and asked everyone not to stereotype the homeless. She also said that she plans to become a lawyer, and continue to be an advocate for kids.

• New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recapped the story of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, who in the summer of 2002 was kidnapped and killed while playing in front of her Orange County, Calif., home. As part of her grieving, Samantha’s mother, Erin Runnion, created Samantha’s Pride, a localized Neighborhood Watch program.

“We all have heroes among and within us,” Runnion told the audience. “What strikes me today is, all the honorees are here because we follow the sprit within us. I hope our stories will inspire others to be brave.”

Sharon Roberts and The Dancers of Inertia
• Speaking of Anne Belles and Jim Silcock, the adoptive parents of 25 boys (all with learning, medical or physical disabilities, as well as from abusive homes), TV host Lisa Ling said: “They have never viewed the job of parenting so many children a burden – and they are thinking of adopting more.”

As was revealed, the boys eat in shifts, and the older ones helps the younger, while Dad (who is in a wheelchair himself, after a diving accident) keeps track. There are 33 loads of laundry per day in the Huntington Beach, Calif., household, which may explain why a usually busy Belles kept her thank-you speech to a bare minimum. “Thank you,” she said about coming to New York. “It’s been a great time.”

• Tony Danza introduced the final honoree for this year, Houston’s Westside High teacher Sharon Roberts, who noticed a disturbing trend at her urban school: kids hating studying. But she also discovered a common ground, when she saw some of these “at-risk” kids break-dancing in the streets. She then brought these dances into the classroom for five dance classes. Now, after school, she oversees the Inertia Dance Company, for which the students try out for coveted positions.

As one boy said of Roberts: “She’s like a mother and a friend. I can talk to her about anything.” At the lunch, Roberts introduced eight of her male students, who then took to the stage and started moving to the music. And the crowd was moved, as well – none more so than Danza, who invited the troupe onto his TV show Tuesday morning.

To contact the charities for some of PEOPLE’s honored heroes:

To honor Eric Alva:
Platinum Pro Foundation
2619 Canton Court
Fort Collins, CO 80525

To honor Brian Alaniz:
Disabled Sports USA
451 Hungerford Drive, Suite 100
Rockville, MD 20850

To assist Ann Belles and James Silcock:
Friends of First Step, Inc.
9121 Atlantic Ave.
P.O. Box 633
Huntington Beach, CA 92646

To assist Sasha Bowers:
COHHIO Youth Empowerment Program
35 E. Gay Street, Suite 210
Columbus, OH 43215

The Joyful Child Foundation –
In Memory of Samantha Runnion
P.O. Box 12680
Westminster, CA 92685

Westside High School
Inertia Dance Company
Dance Department 0422
14201 Briar Forest
Houston, TX 77077