Finding uplifting news stories in a year marked by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the perilous evacuations of U.S. citizens and troops from Afghanistan, devastating mass shootings and an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol may prove difficult.
But alongside the challenges the country faced in 2021 were tales of perseverance, bravery and the will to survive. Scientific breakthroughs were made, endangered species endured and everyday people became superheroes.
The multitude of stories that inspired us to keep going through trying times are too many to count. Here are 12 of the best to end the year on a high note.
Woman celebrates 100th birthday with her two older sisters
Frances Kompus had a few reasons to celebrate on Nov. 11. Not only had the Atwood, Kansas resident reached a milestone 100th birthday, but her older sisters were there to help her celebrate.
The youngest of three daughters, Kompus lives next door to sisters Julia Kopriva, 104, and Lucy Pochop, 102. The siblings were constant companions growing up on their family farm in Beardsley, about 9 miles from Atwood.
The sisters partied at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Atwood with 50 others to commemorate the occasion.
Kompus credits “good home food” on the farm to her longevity and says being social and walking a lot has also helped.
“Keep going,” she advised, according to local news outlets.
Arizona man and grandmother continue Thanksgiving tradition that started with text to wrong number
Wanda Dench of Mesa, Arizona meant to send a text to her grandson inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. But Jamal Hinton, a teenager at the time and a stranger to Dench, got the message.
The mix-up soon became apparent, but Hinton still asked to “get a plate,” to which Dench obliged.
Thus began a six-year friendship between teen and grandmother. Hinton has been invited to join the Dench’s each year since for Thanksgiving dinner, and every holiday is commemorated with a family photo. The heartwarming story soon went viral on social media and media streaming company Netflix recently announced it will adapt it to the big screen, according to The Arizona Republic.
The families have changed over the years. Hinton now has a girlfriend and Wanda’s husband, Lonnie, died of COVID-19 in 2020. But the Thanksgiving tradition has continued.
“We’re more of extended family and, best of all, friends,” Dench told the Arizona Republic in 2017.
13-year-old starts first day of classes at Georgia university
Georgia Institute of Technology welcomed its students back to class in August along with a special addition: Caleb Anderson, a 13-year-old aerospace engineering hopeful and the youngest student on campus.
Anderson was accepted to Georgia Tech at the age of 12 and started the semester as a sophomore after taking courses at Chattahoochee Technical College for advanced credits. The teen described his first day as “pretty interesting,” according to a statement from the university.
Anderson’s talent was bolstered by tuition assistance from the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation, founded by TV personality Steve Harvey and his wife, Good Morning America reported. He was too young to qualify for merit-based scholarships in the state.
After graduating, Anderson says he wants to pursue a career at SpaceX, start his own company and become a role model for other Black teens, according to Georgia Tech’s statement.
“I want to help others that may just need nurturing and resources,” Anderson said.
105-year-old woman sets world record in 100-meter dash
A senior sprinter from Louisiana set a second record in November.
Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins, 105, finished the 100-meter dash in just over one minute at the 2021 Louisiana Senior Games competition held near her childhood home in Ponchatoula. The time earned her a world record in the 105+ age division.
It was the second time for the retired educator, who also broke the record in 2017 in the 100-104 age level for running 100 meters in just over 39 seconds.
Hawkins began sprinting at age 100. A once-avid biker, her children registered her for running when she quit biking after eight to 10 years.
“The older you get, the more passions you ought to have… Keeping active is one of my most important passions,” Hawkins told USA TODAY.
Women’s immune system possibly cured her of HIV
A 30-year-old woman in Argentina was deemed the “hope patient” after becoming the second documented person whose own immune system fought HIV.
Scientists analyzed the woman’s blood samples and placenta cell tissues from 2017 to 2020 to reach this conclusion. The patient gave birth to an HIV-negative baby in March 2020.
Authors of the peer-reviewed study of the case published in November hope the findings will lead to a long-term cure for the virus, which has infected 38 million people globally.
State of California returns land to heirs of Black resort owners
The heirs of a California couple who built a resort for Black vacationers on California’s coast in the 1920s now call it their own, thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September.
Bruce’s Beach, once owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, was wrongfully seized by Manhattan Beach city officials in 1924, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to transfer ownership of the land back to the family.
“There’s many families waiting for help right now, because the same thing happened to them. And so this, you might want to say, opened up a can of worms,” relative Patricia Bruce said.
Western monarch butterflies make sudden comeback after numbers dwindle
The Western monarch butterfly is back, to the relief of scientists.
An abundance of the fluttering insects is often a good indicator of ecosystem health, but the number wintering along California’s central coast hit an all-time low last year.
Experts say climate change, habitat destruction and lack of food due to drought are to blame, but an annual winter count by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found an estimated 50,000 monarchs at overwintering sites in November compared to fewer than 2,000 last year.
“This is certainly not a recovery, but we’re really optimistic and just really glad that there are monarchs here, and that gives us a bit of time to work toward recovery of the Western monarch migration,” Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerces Society, said.
High school student nearly misses graduating – until a teacher lent his shoes
Daverius Peters, a senior at Hahnville High School in Boutte, Louisiana, arrived to his graduation ceremony on May 19 ready to walk across the stage in shoes that were against school policy, according to a school representative.
“She just stopped me saying I couldn’t wear my shoes,” Peters said. “Another kid had the exact same shoes, so I was confused.”
That’s when John Butler, a teacher at Hahnville, stepped in. Though he had come to see his daughter graduate, Butler offered his own shoes to the graduating senior.
“So then it becomes a no brainer to me, a no more questions asked scenario. I gave him the shoes on my feet,” Butler later posted to Facebook.
Peters’ grateful family did not learn of the whole story until the post went viral.
“I was literally in tears because I did not know all of this took place and that my son had to experience it,” Jima Smith, Peters’ mother, said.
Great Barrier Reef spawns color, shows recovery from damage
In November, scientists recorded the corals of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef fertilize billions of offspring by casting sperm and eggs into the Pacific ocean, a sign of recovery from years of coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean temperatures.
Two-thirds of the 134,000 square miles of 2,500 reefs was damaged by bleaching.
Gareth Phillips, a marine scientist with Reef Teach, a tourism and educational business, said it was gratifying to see the reef give birth.
“It’s a strong demonstration that its ecological functions are intact and working after being in a recovery phase for more than 18 months,” he said.
The reef is listed by UNESCO World Heritage Center as a natural wonder.
New hope for Type 1 diabetes patients
A stem cell-derived treatment offers another option for those with Type 1 diabetes, a condition in which the pancreas produces little to no insulin.
Earlier this year, a patient was given an infusion of VX-880 by drug manufacturer Vertex Pharmaceuticals as part of a clinical trial. Prior to the trial, the patient relied on 34 units of insulin per day to maintain his glucose levels.
After 90 days, the patient experienced a 91% decrease in his daily insulin requirement and a restoration in insulin production, according to a report released by Vertex in October.
The drug could be life-changing, experts say, and allow Type 1 diabetes patients to eventually make their own insulin.
“This potentially obviates the lifelong need for patients with diabetes to self-inject insulin as the replacement cells ‘provide the patient with the natural factory to make their own insulin,’” Harvard professor Doug Melton, co-director of Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said in a statement following the trial.
Husband with Alzheimer’s proposes to wife a second time
A couple married for 12 years had a second wedding to remember.
Peter Marshall, 56, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a brain disorder that causes problems with memory and behavior, three years ago. But his love for wife, Lisa, hasn’t wavered.
Lisa said Peter proposed to her again while the couple was watching a wedding scene on TV, but she told USA TODAY she was hesitant about another wedding.
“I just wanted to set my expectations low in case he wasn’t fully there the day of the wedding,” Lisa, who documents her journey as Peter’s caregiver on the blog Oh Hello Alzheimer’s, said. “The disease is so unpredictable.”
But with the help of a community of supporters, the couple wed again on April 26.
“He’s here to hold my hand and be here, but this disease is taking him away so quickly,” Lisa says. “But no matter what happens in these next few years, we’ll always be together and I’ll always love him.”
Missing dog saves family from house fire
A neighborhood stray saved a Virginia family from a house fire in early December. Afterward, he was reunited with his family.
Charity Golloway was at home with her two children when a fire erupted from the outside front wall of her home. Golloway was unaware until Butter, the stray dog in the community, barked incessantly at her bedroom window.
Golloway immediately called the Valley Volunteer Fire Department, which safely evacuated the family.
Firefighter Justin Stidham posted a picture of Butter on social media, hailing the dog as a hero. The post attracted the attention of the dog’s original owners, who reached out to Golloway.
“If it wasn’t for him, who knows what could’ve happened. It could’ve been way worse,” Golloway told WJHL. “I’m really grateful for that stray dog that wandered up into my yard.”
Here are other stories that had us smiling this year
Contributing: The Associated Press
Reach out to Chelsey Cox on Twitter at @therealco.