Into the limelight: CNN honors Hero of the Year

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Every year we tune in for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, and numerous other popular and highly publicized award shows that recognize our favorite movies, music and celebrities. We watch in awe of their glamour, power, and acting or musical talents as many of them have changed popular culture and contributed to charitable causes. We idolize and look up to them.

Photo from samantha celera via Flickr

Photo from samantha celera via Flickr

But what about the people like us? Not the super rich, the super famous, or super skilled, but the normal everyday person that makes a difference in the lives of those that truly need it?

As CNN Hero Efren Peñaflorida said, “our planet is filled with heroes, young and old, rich and poor, men, women, of different colors, shapes and sizes.”

And it’s a shame that not all of these generous, caring and strong willed people can be recognized honorably for everyone to see.

“The CNN Heroes remind us that everyday people can change the world,” stated CNN anchor Anderson Cooper before presenting the CNN Hero of the Year award.

CNN showed the world’s gratitude and appreciation for these heroes by honoring them on Heroes Night at the Kodak Theater. George Lopez, Nicole Kidman, Pierce Brosnan, Carrie Underwood and many other Hollywood stars attended and applauded as the everyday heroes were recognized on stage.

People from all over the world nominated their heroes and then voted on for the hero (among the 10 finalists) that inspired them the most. CNN received over 2.5 million votes. To see all 10 of the inspiring CNN Heroes and their stories, click here.

The 2009 CNN Hero of the Year is Efren Peñaflorida, a 28-year-old man who gives Filipino youth an alternative to gang membership through education. His Dynamic Teen Company’s 12,000 members have taught reading and writing to 1,700 kids living in the slums.

And how does he teach kids living on the streets? With a pushcart classroom.

His Dynamic Teen Company created a “classroom on wheels,” providing a school setting in the most unusual places such as the trash dump and the cemetery. The cart carries books, pens, tables and chairs for the kids. Every Saturday children ranging from 2 to 14 come to the pushcart to learn reading, writing, English and arithmetic from Peñaflorida and his trained teen volunteers. They also run a hygiene clinic, giving children an opportunity to bathe and learn how to brush their teeth.

In the Philippines, teenage membership in urban gangs has increased to 130,000 over the past 10 years, some joining as young as 9 years old. Many become stuck in this dangerous lifestyle oftentimes ending up in jail or addicted to drugs.

Peñaflorida, who was born into a poor family, knows the hardship and danger that these children face. According to, after violent gangs terrorized his school, he and his friends “got the idea to divert teenagers like [themselves] to be productive.” Subsequently, the Dynamic Teen Company was created to offer his classmates an outlet to help the community. They then returned to the slums of his childhood to give the kids the education he felt they deserved.

His pushcart classroom helps not only the kids, but also the teen volunteers by giving them a healthy and rewarding alternative to drugs and gang activity. In addition, the “volunteers serve as an inspiration to other children.”

Peñaflorida has also mentored former gang members, addicts and dropouts. He sees “potential where others see problems”.

CNN granted Efren Peñaflorida, the 2009 Hero of the Year, with a $100,000 grant to continue his extraordinary work.

Do you have heroes in your life? Tell us about them. We love to hear how local heroes are making a difference.

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