While 2021 was filled with unexpected challenges and hardships, there were also waves of hope and resilience that helped us navigate our new realities. In the midst of it all, during such a formative time in our history, we saw moments of triumph, inspiration, and joy that showcased the very best of life and human nature. Here are just 21 of the highlights of the year that put a smile on our faces.
A Duck Ran the New York City Marathon
The 50th anniversary of the New York City Marathon was pushed back a year due to the pandemic, and the delayed race through the five boroughs brought out a quack — literally. A duck named Wrinkle ran alongside the 25,010 other racers, complete with savvy custom red sneakers. “Wrinkle the duck is more than just a beautiful pekin duck, she is a full grown adult human child,” the emotional support duck’s owner wrote on YouTube. “She is fast. She is speed. She is zoom.” The creature shared her adventures in an Instagram video on her account @seducktive to show that she’s not stopping at one race: “I ran the NY marathon!! I’ll get even better next year! Thanks to all the humans that were cheering for me!!”
An Autistic Teen Wished for Friends for His Birthday — And Got 55,000 Global Messages
Kevin Harrison of Nottingham, England, has never been shy sharing stories of raising his autistic son, Daniel, on social media. For Daniel’s 15th birthday in September, the teen had a simple wish: to make friends. It was surprising to the family since they “didn't understand that he understood the theory of friendship.” So the dad got real in a tweet and posted, “Daniel’s my son. Profoundly Autistic. Hasn’t one friend. It’s his birthday today,” and explained that Daniel was hoping for birthday wishes. The result was astounding: More than 55,000 messages poured in from around the globe, including from famous names like Mark Hamill, Russell Crowe, and Sharon Stone.
Amanda Gorman Overcame a Speech Impediment to Wow at the Inauguration
When 22-year-old youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021, she impressed the country with her powerful words and flawless delivery. So it was a surprise to learn that she had overcome a speech impediment as recent as two years before she stepped onto the national stage. “I used writing one as a form of self-expression to get my word on the page, but then it also metamorphosed into its own speech pathology,” she said. “So the more that I recited out loud, the more in which I practiced spoken word and that tradition, the more I was able to teach myself how to pronounce these letters which for so long had been my greatest impediment.”
The Nation’s Oldest Park Ranger Celebrated Her 100th Birthday
When Betty Reid Soskin joined some planning meetings for the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, California in the early 2000s, all she was focused on was bringing to light the untold stories of Black Americans on the home front during World War II. After all, she had worked in a segregated union hall during the war as a clerk. At the age of 84, she became a temporary National Park Service employee and by 2011, she was a full-fledged member and shared her stories at the historic site. In September 2021, she celebrated her 100th birthday as the oldest active park ranger in the country and the park service honored her with a special passport stamp, and a middle school in El Sobrante was named after her. During the pandemic, she continued working with weekly hour-long virtual visits to educate others on her experiences as a Cajun-Creole immigrant.
Luke Bryan Helped a Stranded Driver Change Her Tire
A young mom of two, Courtney Potts was driving in Columbia, Tennessee on the way to her mom’s house when her tire blew out and left her stranded on the roadside. Before she had time to panic, a kind stranger pulled up to help. Immediately, his voice was familiar — turns out, it was country singer and American Idol judge Luke Bryan. “I was just trying to be cool, and I didn’t want to make him feel awkward,” Potts said. “He didn’t act like a celebrity, not even a little bit. He just looked like anybody else that would have pulled over.” Half an hour later, Bryan finished the job — and the TikTok Potts posted of the kind-hearted celebrity gesture went on to earn 6.4 million views.
Spanx CEO Gave Every Employee Two First-Class Plane Tickets and $10,000
This year, one woman in the c-suite led by example. Spanx CEO Sara Blakely — who also happens to be the youngest self-made female billionaire — surprised her employees with two first-class plane tickets to anywhere in the world, plus $10,000. The announcement came as the investment firm Blackstone bought a majority stake in Spanx, which is now valued at $1.2 billion. “It was an emotional announcement filled with happy tears acknowledging how far we’ve come,” Blakely said in an Instagram post.
The Great Barrier Reef Regenerated on Its Own
The health of the largest coral reef on the globe has long been in danger, becoming bleached to the point of susceptibility to disease and destruction. Earlier this year, UNESCO said the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on a list of “in danger” World Heritage Sites because of its current state. But in November, the living landmark gave birth in a glorious spawning event that brought color back to the natural wonder. While it doesn’t mean the region is out of the woods, the occurrence is a positive sign for the reef’s health.
Josephine Baker Became the First Black Woman Inducted Into France’s Panthéon
As France’s tomb of heroes, the Panthéon honors 75 men and only five women. But this year, 46 years after her death, American-born dancer and singer Josephine Baker, who was one of France’s most beloved music hall performers, was inducted. She was also an activist who is still seen as a symbol of unity, or as President Emmanuel Macron said during the ceremony, “The beauty of collective destiny,” adding that “France is Josephine.”
“Sesame Street” Debuted Its First Asian American Muppet
At a time when the Asian American community has been faced with an increased rise in hate incidents, Sesame Street stepped up to the plate to showcase inclusiveness by introducing its first Asian American muppet in November: 7-year-old Ji-Young. The Korean character is an electric guitar-playing skateboarder, who is proud to share her heritage. Her name follows the traditional Korean pattern of two syllables with different meanings: Ji means “smart” and Young means “brave and strong.”
A 10-Year-Old Painting Prodigy Sold Out His Art Miami Show
When Andres Valencia saw a movie about American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, he had an unusually confident reaction for a 10-year-old and told his parents, “I can do that.” And he was right. Honing his skills during the pandemic, Valencia made his debut at Art Miami, among artists with far more years on him from around the globe. But his art spoke — and not only did his show sell out, but Channing Tatum stopped by to check out his work and Sofía Vergara bought one of his pieces.
Wales Vowed To Give Every Household a Free Tree to Plant
Wales is getting its citizens involved with fighting climate change. The United Kingdom country announced in December that the government would be giving every household a free tree. The recipients have their choice of planting it in their gardens or allowing their allotted tree to be planted in the woods. A total of 1.3 million trees will be added, thanks to the program, which will start distributing the trees in March 2022.
A College Basketball Player Helped Clean the Stadium After His Team’s Victory
For all intents and purposes, Dexter Dennis’ job was done at the Koch Arena on November 16. He had already helped lead Wichita State University men’s basketball team to a victory over Tarleton State, but a viral video showed him doing an unusual post-game victory celebration: helping the arena’s clean-up crew pick up trash in the stands. A local reporter tweeted a video and rightfully wrote, “Dexter is a different kind of dude.”
Dick Van Dyke Handed Out Cash to Job Seekers
Legendary actor Dick Van Dyke won over fans as the lovable chimney sweep in Mary Poppins back in 1964, and now at age 95, he’s still doling out a bit of magic. This spring, he was reportedly seen driving over to the Malibu Community Labor Exchange and rolling down his car window to hand wads of cash to those standing in line for unemployment benefits.
A Mystery Knitter Left Messages of Love Around a British Town
In the English town of Alcester in Warwickshire, residents have been finding crocheted hearts and flowers along with tags that read “Please take me!” and notes like “Be kind to yourself” or “You are loved.” The identity of the artsy good samaritan dubbed “Queen of Hearts” is still a mystery, but community members have been sharing the goodies on their Facebook group to continue spreading the love.
Sikh Hikers Used Their Turbans To Save Two People Who Fell
Five Sikh friends were hiking in British Columbia in October when they heard that two fellow hikers had slipped on a rock and fell into a pool that was part of a waterfall. Cell service in the area was iffy and no one was able to call for help, so they decided to take off their turbans, and tied them, along with other materials, together into a rope about 33 feet long. Thanks to the quick-thinking move, the two men were pulled to safety. ”In Sikhi, we are taught to help someone in any way we can with anything we have, even our turban,” one of the rescuers said.
Teen Made More Than 1,000 Bow Ties for Dogs To Help Them Get Adopted
About four years ago, 14-year-old Darius Brown from Lawrenceville, New Jersey heard that after the devastation left behind by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, rescue dogs from both Puerto Rico and Texas were being transferred to the New York City area. So he got the idea to make bow ties for them, thinking that the well-dressed pups would have a better shot at getting adopted. And it’s been working. This year, he says that he hit the 1,000 mark through Beaux & Paws, where he donates one bow tie for every one purchased.
A 94-Year-Old Finally Fulfills Dream Of Wearing a Wedding Dress
When Martha Mae Ophelia Moon Tucker got married in 1952, she wore a navy blue dress that the family she worked for offered her. But it wasn’t her first choice. At the time, Black women weren’t able to go into bridal shops, so she never had the chance to pick out her own wedding gown. Tucker went on to work alongside civil rights leaders and eventually as a poll worker for 57 years. While watching a movie with her granddaughter this summer, she said under her breath, “I’ve always wanted to try on a wedding dress.” Even though her husband died in 1975, Tucker never gave up that secret dream. Days later, her family made it come true as the 94-year-old went to David’s Bridal and tried on two gowns to finally see herself as a bride in a white dress nearly 70 years after she wed.
Preschool Cancer Survivors Reunited With Dancing
Payson Altice met Mack Porter met in a way no 3-year-olds should meet — at the Phoenix’s Children Hospital while they were both battling cancer. Weeks later, when they were both in remission, they reunited. Porter gave Altice flowers, and the children danced. “During these scary and hard times, no matter what, just look to the children because they’ll lead the way,” Altice’s mom, Tracey, said,
A Pair of Dolphins Went for an Unlikely Swim in Venice
Venice, Italy has long been the epicenter of overtourism, with the idea of seeing marine mammals seeming like a longshot. So it was no surprise that a story that went viral in the early days of a pandemic last year about dolphins swimming the city’s canals turned out to be a hoax. But this year, a pair of striped dolphins were actually spotted in Giudecca Canal. “This is very unusual,” the Natural History Museum’s Luca Mizzan said. “They were clearly encouraged to venture this far into the city by the calm waters in Venice right now.”
A Florida Man Gave Foster Kids Fishing Lessons
There’s a certain sort of joy that can only be captured when a kid catches their first fish — and William Dunn of Clearwater, Florida is making sure that foster kids who don’t have parents aren’t missing out on that experience. He started Take a Kid Fishing to fill that gap. “We take them on a day of fishing, feed them lunch, mentor them, show them life skills to show them that somebody’s there to care for them,” he said. The impact has been tremendous. “This year so many of them graduated with honors from these children's homes,” Dunn said. “(Honored that I) could be a blessing to them.”
A Grandma Caught a Baby Who Fell Out the Window
Svetlana Sanarova was on her way home from the supermarket in Novokuznetsk, Russia, when she saw a toddler dangling out of a second-floor window. Without missing a beat, she ran, held her arms out, and caught young Egor as he fell 15 feet. The boy’s father had thought his wife was watching the child while he went to get a bottle for Egor’s twin sister. The heroic act was no big deal as the grandmother went about her day and wasn’t identified until days later. Still then, Sanarova refused a cash reward. “I didn’t think about any risk. I was only afraid that he would die,” she said. “And then I worried about what happened to him, until I read in the newspaper that he got away with only minor bruises.”