November 07, 2011 12:00 PM

We keep hearing America is more divided than ever. So for our 2011 Heroes of the Year awards, we chose men and women who reached across boundaries to help strangers or worked within their communities to deepen bonds. From the dozen bystanders who became instant superheroes in Logan, Utah, on Sept. 12, when they lifted a burning car off motorcyclist Brandon Wright, saving the 21-year-old’s life, to Judge Jimmie Edwards of St. Louis, who started a school for wayward teens, the 2011 winners never let daunting odds stand in their way.

Lisa Nigro grew up with a drug-and-alcohol-addicted mother; she turned her hard-luck start into a passion for helping the downtrodden with her Inspiration Cafe in Chicago, where homeless men and women get help with housing and job-skills training. Out of the devastation in Joplin, Mo., where a tornado killed 160 last May, schools superintendent C.J. Huff vowed to get kids back in the classroom-even if that meant a converted warehouse or a vacant department store. After only 87 days, Joplin was back to educating its children, restoring a sense of normalcy to a traumatized community. Our heroes didn’t help only people: In Melbourne, Fla., Dennis Tyler has rescued more than 7,000 former racing greyhounds.

For the second year now, our Heroes awards have asked you, our readers, to weigh in. While PEOPLE selected five winners, the sixth, University of North Carolina senior Gabriel Whaley, 21-whose free soccer camps for needy kids provide a novel way to feed the hungry (parents are asked to help stock local food banks)-won 31 percent of more than 129,000 votes online to become our Readers’ Choice hero. With the support of our sponsor, Jeep, PEOPLE is honored to present this award to Whaley and the other five winners, with $10,000 to each for their causes. We hope they and the heroes we feature regularly will continue to touch our readers’ hearts-and inspire a renewed commitment to make a difference.