PEOPLE's COVID Heroes: Honoring Those Who've Turned Tragedy Into Triumph During the Pandemic
Thursday marks one year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. To recognize the anniversary, PEOPLE is honoring some of the countless people who have worked to make the world a better place in spite of the virus' devastating impact.
Shirley Raines is the founder of Beauty 2 The Streetz, a nonprofit that has supported the homeless community in Los Angeles for the last four years and has taken on the challenge of helping them through the coronavirus pandemic.
Every weekend, Raines passes out food and safety supplies to nearly 800 people with volunteers' help. "I took a marriage vow to my community a long time ago, and I wasn't going to break them now," Raines told PEOPLE of her efforts at the start of the pandemic.
Raines said she was driven to help the homeless community after the accidental death of her 2-year-old son. "Losing my son was the worst experience that could ever happen, but it is the reason behind my nonprofit and is the sole core of why I do what I do," Raines, who has five living children, explained.
Raines shares her nonprofit's efforts on her Instagram account, where she also speaks out about mental health. "[This]," she told PEOPLE, "has been one of the greatest gifts life has ever given me outside of my children — a purpose for my pain." —Jason Duaine Hahn
Dr. Ee Tay
It was just weeks after New York City was declared a COVID-19 epicenter that Dr. Ee Tay was to celebrate her birthday. As chief of the pediatric ER at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, Tay had been moved as she watched COVID patients dying alone in their hospital beds, unable to say goodbye to family and friends due to restrictions meant to curb the virus’ spread.
So when it finally came time to turn another year older in April, Tay made it her mission to collect tablets that patients could use to keep in touch with loved ones near and far. "It’s really important for the families," she told PEOPLE at the time. "They need some sort of closure."
After putting out a call on social media, she secured about 50 new and used iPads and Amazon Kindles, and later added 600 tablets to her total thanks to a donation from the Bank of New York Mellon. “To have that support, and know that your family is near and thinking of you, I think that’s really important for recovery,” Tay said. "And [to know] that you’re not alone or you’re not dying alone." —Rachel DeSantis
When Valerie Xu noticed there was a shortage of masks and PPE across the U.S., she knew she had to take action. "Especially in a first world country like the U.S., these things should not be happening," the 15-year-old told PEOPLE at the time. "We have a civic duty to try and help these [first responders] in any way possible."
It was that attitude that drove the Addison, Texas teen to develop a "Masks Matter" campaign on GoFundMe. Xu’s fundraiser ultimately helped raise a total of $23,425, which she used to donate 52,600 masks to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, as well as local homeless shelters, the Austin Street Center and The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center.
Along with supporting frontline workers, Xu said she hoped her efforts would dispel bias against Asian Americans, especially as the number of racist attacks during the pandemic continues to rise. "I just want to make a difference," Xu said. "And I want to show that Asian Americans are with health workers and we want to unite." —Joelle Goldstein
Capt. Sir Thomas Moore
Back in April, Capt. Thomas Moore decided he wanted to do something special to not only celebrate his 100th birthday, but give back to healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. The British World War II veteran vowed to raise money for the U.K.’s National Health Service by walking 100 laps in his backyard garden.
Moore's selfless pursuit captured hearts around the world, including that of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who called him "a beacon of light through the fog of coronavirus." With assistance from his walker, Moore completed his goal two weeks early, and eventually raised an estimated £33 million ($45 million) for the cause. Moore even received special recognition from Queen Elizabeth II, who knighted him in July, officially giving him the title of "Sir."
In January, Moore contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized with pneumonia a week later. He died soon after. "I am so glad we got the opportunity to share his message of hope with the world," Moore’s daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, wrote on Twitter. Moore’s family continues to honor his life and giving spirit through The Captain Tom Foundation. —Morgan Smith
Last April, just weeks into the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri resident Shana Jones experienced an unimaginable loss — eight of her friends and family members died within a matter of weeks of complications from the virus. "I cried, and I felt weak," she told CNN at the time. "It just became so overwhelming that I became numb."
But soon after, Jones wanted to use her grief to do something good for her community, and she began putting a collection of tables on her front lawn, each one full of food and supplies for anyone to take — free of charge. The tables were stocked with paper products, snacks, canned goods and cleaning supplies — things that a struggling family may have a hard time affording if they have fallen on hard times.
Jones' generous actions meant so much to her neighborhood that many left notes expressing their appreciation. "Every time I get a note," Jones told CNN, "I feel that the angel of one of my family members or friends is saying, 'Well done.'" —Jason Duaine Hahn
Samantha Hickey and Devan Berg
Devan Berg still remembers one of the last things his mother, Samantha Hickey, said to him before she died of COVID in July at age 45. "I am proud to represent the nursing and healthcare community, especially during these strange times when everyone feels like they are on the front line," Berg recalled on his website.
After the Idaho-based nurse practitioner’s death, Berg took her mantra (that she was "born for this" line of work), transformed it into a slogan and used it to launch a line of face masks and stickers. All proceeds from the items, which feature the phrase inside a heart-shaped stethoscope, go to the St. Luke’s Nursing Education Fund in honor of Hickey, a beloved mom of four.
"My goal is to write a fat check for the funding program," Berg said on his website. "I know she would be beyond proud and probably emotional watching me donate to her memory." —Rachel DeSantis
Atlanta-based nurse practitioner Dakoyoia Billie first received an "emergency request" calling for healthcare workers in New York City at the end of March. The request came just weeks after she and her husband Marcus had finally brought home their twin babies — a boy, Karrington, and a girl, Kinsley — from the hospital NICU.
The twins were born at 29 weeks in December, and though Billie was so excited to bring them home to join sons Jaylen and Elijah, she knew she had to step up. “Yes, I have four kids and a busy life as a nurse-practitioner, but when I saw a chance to care for those who needed it most, I couldn’t say no," she told Parents magazine.
Billie worked in New York City until June before returning home to her family. But in July, she was asked to help COVID-19 patients in San Antonio, Texas. Again, the mom of four agreed with no hesitations, despite the stressful work conditions and missing out on her twins’ early milestones.
"It may be Atlanta that needs help next time, or maybe some other city," she told Parents. "Whatever happens, I’ll be ready and willing to do the same thing." —Joelle Goldstein
When her father Bruce died of COVID in September at age 54, Jordan Sims thought about the thousands of families who had also lost loved ones to the deadly virus. "It was terrifying," Sims, 31, recalls. "Then I remembered, 'So many people are dealing with the same pain.'"
Friends and family quickly rallied to support Sims, her brother Cavin and their mother, Cheryl, through their grief with groceries, flowers and monetary donations. "Their love and support were incredible," she says.
Sims wanted to help other families reeling from unexpected pandemic losses — so, in January, she started a T-shirt fundraiser to help pay the medical bills, funeral costs and any other necessities for struggling families in Texas, where she lives.
"Money should be the last thing you need to worry about when you have a loved one in the hospital and you’re trying to keep them alive," Sims says. She has already sold over 200 shirts and raised close to $3,000. The shirts say "Continue," with a semicolon replacing the "i." Says Sims: "It means, no matter how bad or hard it gets, you keep going, you continue living." —Morgan Smith
Many Americans lost their jobs or saw their wages fall when businesses were hit at the coronavirus pandemic's start in March 2020. This placed tremendous financial hardship on people around the country, especially those who had to pay rent every month.
Property owner Nathan Nichols, who owns a duplex in Portland, Maine, knew his young renters were likely struggling — so he found a solution to help. "My thinking was, they might not be able to pay rent," he told PEOPLE at the time. "If they're not making any money, they can't pay me. It's not like they're going to somehow magically get money if they're not working."
Nichols allowed his renters to skip their April payments, giving them a much-needed breather. In a Facebook post that went viral, he urged other landlords to do the same if they could. "I really think that the more you communicate with people, the more you are able to humanize other people, the more they will humanize you," he said. "Once you bring it out of the financial and into the human, then problems are easier to solve." —Jason Duaine Hahn
When Saturday Night Live star Michael Che lost his beloved grandmother Martha to COVID in April, he channeled his grief into giving. Che, 37, announced on Instagram that he would pay one month’s rent for all 160 apartments in the NYC Housing Authority building she’d lived in, in her "spirit and memory."
"I know that’s just a drop in the bucket," the comedian said at the time. "So I really hope the city has a better plan for debt forgiveness for all the people in public housing, AT THE VERY LEAST… It’s crazy to me that residents of public housing are still expected to pay their rent when so many New Yorkers can’t even work."
Che had previously revealed his devastation at the loss, writing that he was "obviously very hurt and angry that she had to go through all that pain alone," but was also happy she was no longer in pain. "[I’m feeling] the whole gamut of complex feelings everybody else has losing someone very close and special," he wrote. "I’m not unique." —Rachel DeSantis
For New Orleans emergency nurse practitioner Carolyn Storck, putting others' needs ahead of her own has always been second nature — and not even a surgical procedure amid the pandemic could change that. In early March, Storck was forced to undergo surgery for Achilles tendonitis and a Haglund's deformity.
Though she expected to be out of work for at least four weeks per her doctor's recommendation, Storck found herself back in the emergency departments of New Orleans VA Medical Center and Ochsner Medical Center and caring for COVID-19 patients after just 12 days.
In order to keep the weight off her injured leg during her 12-hour shifts, Storck used a hands-free crutch, which allowed her to easily move around the hospital and outdoor COVID-19 tent testing areas. And while she's been referred to as a hero, Storck insisted that she was just "doing her job."
"You step up and you do it," Storck told PEOPLE in June. "I might just be crazy, but it really did not feel that out of the norm. This is what we went into medicine to do." —Joelle Goldstein
Elizabeth Kennedy Midkiff
After trying — and failing — to secure a COVID vaccine appointment dozens of times through Oregon’s online scheduling system, Elizabeth Kennedy-Midkiff imagined how confused and overwhelmed her beloved grandmother, Patricia Grinnell, would have been by the process.
Grinnell died in December at an assisted living facility the same day she was diagnosed with COVID-19. She was 95. The loss inspired Kennedy-Midkiff, a pediatric occupational therapist, to help elderly Oregonians schedule COVID vaccine appointments.
She and her husband David, 30, drew up flyers to pass out to seniors in their neighborhood. On the flyer, volunteers list their name, phone number and how they can help, either by registering seniors for appointments, driving them to their appointments, or both.
The couple has distributed the flyers to hundreds of homes already and hopes their initiative inspires others to help vulnerable groups get vaccinated. "It’s hard to lose someone you love," Kennedy-Midkiff, 30, says. "We want to help prevent that in any way, even if it’s through a little flyer, so other people don’t go through the same thing as us." —Morgan Smith
Dr. Ala Stanford
When the pandemic first began, Ala Stanford was struck by the jarring statistics that indicated Black and brown people were twice as likely to die from COVID as white people — so she took matters into her own hands.
Stanford, a pediatric surgeon and personal doctor based in Philadelphia, had heard from friends and neighbors who were unable to get COVID tests, so she and her husband Byron filled a rental van with PPE and testing kits, and drove door-to-door offering tests to vulnerable people.
By the end of week one, she’d formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, and set up pop-up clinics in the parking lots of Black community churches. “The test was $150 and people were dying because they couldn’t get it,” Stanford, 50, previously told PEOPLE. “They were going to work, taking the bus, taking the subway, spreading it like wildfire. It was unfathomable to me that someone could lose their life for something you’d pay for a nice dinner for two people.”
In January, the consortium began offering vaccines, too, and so far, they’ve tested more than 23,000 people and vaccinated more than 10,000. “There was joy,” she said of the shots. “It was a full-circle moment.” —Eileen Finan
Samantha and Megan Shoflick
In April, while out on one of their many walks together, 17-year-old Samantha Shoflick and her mom Megan talked about the thousands of people who were dying from COVID-19 alone, and the families who didn’t have safe opportunities to grieve together. The pair wanted to help. In January, they launched covituary.org, a free digital memorial website that allows people to honor loved ones who have died of COVID-19. Available in 10 different languages, covituary.org lets people write tributes, share photos and videos, post comments and collect donations.
To date, more than 75 people are featured on the website. “The more families we can reach and offer a bit of comfort and solace to by sharing their loved ones’ stories, the better,” the high school senior from Denver, Colorado, says. Lynda MacFarland posted a tribute to her father, Anthony J. Tummillo, on the website after he died of COVID-19 complications in January. “There have been so many deaths associated to COVID-19, that after hearing about it for so long, we get immune and numb to the numbers,” she says. “So having a place to share who my dad was with the world is just a good feeling.” —Morgan Smith