Kindness Awards 2021: 5 Good Samaritans Making Their Communities — and the World — a Better Place

From feeding those in need to supporting those who have lost loved ones to suicide, these hometown heroes stepped up for their communities and inspired us in the process

01 of 06
sabrina cohen
Volunteers at one of Sabrina Cohen's monthly beach days. Sabrina Cohen Foundation

PEOPLE and GoFundMe are proud to celebrate these good samaritans and honor them with $6,000 gifts to support their important work. To contribute to our honorees' GoFundMe fundraisers — and read more stories of people spreading kindness in their communities and beyond — click here.

02 of 06

Sabrina Cohen: Providing Beach Access for All

sabrina cohen
Sabrina Cohen. Sabrina Cohen Foundation

Sabrina Cohen was 14 and on her way to a party with friends when the car she was riding in crashed near her home in Miami Beach, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down.

"Nothing was the same after that," says Cohen, who endured multiple surgeries and spent two months in intensive care.

In the years that followed, Cohen, now 44, threw herself into advocacy work, running a nonprofit, the Sabrina Cohen Foundation, and promoting stem cell research for spinal injuries. But one thing she never did — because it was impossible to navigate her heavy wheelchair through the sand — was return to her favorite place.

"I grew up a beach girl," she says, "but it became a no-go zone."

All that changed in 2013, when Cohen realized there were countless people like her who love the ocean but can't access it. By 2016 she'd persuaded the city of Miami Beach to let her host twice-monthly beach days for disabled individuals, children and veterans with special needs, and the elderly. Nearly a hundred volunteers, including physical therapists and lifeguards, show up for the event, where participants can navigate the sand on temporary platforms and with specialized equipment, allowing them to swim, snorkel or lounge on the shore.

"The freedom of being in the ocean is such a beautiful experience," says Cohen, who is currently raising funds to build a state-of-the-art $10.5 million adaptive park for the disabled. "I don't want to say that I was injured for this reason, but this is my purpose now."

03 of 06

Brian Taylor: Pampering Pups in a Pandemic

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Courtesy Brian Taylor

Before COVID-19 hit, Brian Taylor's pet care business was booming. Known in his neighborhood as the Dogfather of Harlem, Taylor had groomed nearly 10,000 pups in the decade since he opened his Harlem Doggie Day Spa. That came to an abrupt halt on March 22, 2020, however, when the city shut down. Taylor, 38, had to furlough his employees and scale back operations. Just one month later, he lost his uncle and a close friend to the virus.

"It was dark times," he says. Then he had an idea.

"Each night, people were cheering for first responders," he recalls. "I was at the window with my pots and pans and thought, 'What can I do to help?' "

After recruiting volunteers, Taylor began offering free dog grooming from his van. At his first New York event in April 2020, he groomed 100 dogs in two days. That summer he took his Pup Relief Tour across the country, teaming up with local businesses to offer free services to the pets of homeless people, senior citizens and others who simply couldn't afford to keep their dogs bathed and trimmed.

Taylor's business reopened this summer, but he has continued his Pup Relief Tours, grooming 1,500 dogs in 11 states with the help of more than 90 volunteers. "I love how we're collaborating," he says. "We're finding ways to come together. And making a dog feel good — putting a wiggle in his tail — that's important too."

04 of 06

Jahan Shahryar: Giving Voice and Hope to Afghan Women

jahan shahryar
Leslie Morales

As Jahan Shahryar watched the news reports of the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15 while U.S. forces left Afghanistan, she was struck with a chilling thought: What about the women?

"You have women in their 20s who grew up with the same dreams I had growing up in the United States. It was all going to be taken away from them overnight," says Shahryar, 30, an L.A.-based lawyer and activist whose father served as Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2003.

Along with a small circle of other Afghan Americans, Shahryar had already been supporting girls' schools in the country, but with the Taliban's advance they realized they needed to do more. The resulting nonprofit, Restore Her Voice, helps high-risk Afghan women emigrate and rebuild their lives.

One of the 13 women who fled the country Aug. 21 with the help of the group is Helal, 26, a human-rights adviser to the Afghan government.

"Because I worked in the government, the Taliban would kill me," says Helal, who left with only her backpack and computer and now lives in a hotel in Fairfax, Va., while awaiting a work visa.

Shahryar's group has helped 65 Afghans since August by providing housing, education and employment opportunities — and giving women like Helal a chance to share their stories and skills.

"None of these women wanted to leave," Shahryar says. "They've been the light of Afghanistan. We want to let them shine again."

05 of 06

Michelle Nelson: Feeding Neighbors in Need

michelle nelson
Wellsway LLC

The bright-yellow refrigerator on the sidewalk in front of Castellino's Italian Market in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood is a popular stop. A mom might grab a loaf of fresh bread or a few apples after picking up her kids at the nearby school, while a senior citizen takes home a bag of kale for dinner — all for free.

"People are so happy to get healthy food," says market owner Cara Jo Castellino Barrow. "It helps a lot of people."

The fridge, one of 18 throughout the city, is the brainchild of entrepreneur Michelle Nelson, whose e-commerce business Mama-Tee supports social justice causes. After seeing the need in Philly, where nearly one in five households is estimated to experience hunger, she partnered with Whole Foods (which donates 500 lbs. of food monthly), local hosts like Castellino Barrow, and a team of volunteers to set up and stock the yellow fridges with fruits, vegetables and other staples.

"Now neighbors pitch in with herbs from their garden, or they'll buy an extra bag of apples to put in the fridge," says Nelson, 45, who estimates that the program, along with a new Mama-Tee free grocery pop-up store, has fed more than 100,000 people since its start in July 2020.

"When you see that neighborhood love in action, it's overwhelming," she says. "It's a beautiful thing."

06 of 06

Marilyn Koenig: Easing Others' Pain

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Marilyn Koenig still remembers the unbearable pain she experienced after her 18-year-old son Steven died by suicide near the family's Sacramento home in 1977.

"I spent a good three years crying," recalls Koenig, 83. "It was such a horrible, deep sadness. If I got in my car by myself, I'd sob the whole time. In my head I knew what happened, but it took years for my heart to accept it."

Koenig, a mother of seven, realized she wanted to help others coping with the same loss — but that she'd have to create her own group to do it.

"There was such a need for people to come together and share support," says Koenig, who launched Friends for Survival in 1983 along with eight others affected by the death of loved ones.

Nearly four decades later, Koenig and her group of volunteers have helped 11,000 people begin to heal after a loved one died by suicide, held nearly 2,200 support meetings (eight times a month), mailed more than 11 million newsletters and launched the nation's first toll-free suicide loss help line.

"When someone first reaches out," adds Koenig, "even if they can't verbalize it, what they're asking is, 'Tell me how I'm going to get through this?' "

The group's work is needed more than ever, amid increased isolation and depression (nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2020).

"I had no idea how large the problem was," says Koenig. "I just knew I lost my son and wanted to help others."

Updated by Eileen Finan
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