You don’t need a cape to be a hero or to put a smile on someone else’s face.
After a year exploring Heroes Among Us: Everyday Helpers Who Make a Difference, we salute four reader-nominated heroes—ages 12 to 81—who exemplify what it means to lift others and brighten day.
Our heroes are a former Marine who is still on mission, a middle schooler spinning her bicycle wheels to help others, a family who developed special gatherings to create a community within a community, and a young girl who realized her biggest hero lived under her own roof. The common thread is a selfless spirit and willingness to meet a need.
Here are their stories. At the end, find out who we selected as our adult and youth heroes of the year. The student received a $1,000 scholarship. The adult received a $500 gift card and $500 to the charity of their choice.
The Heroism of a Hug
After serving his country for 24 years, Ronald Jacobson stays true to the values he learned from the Marine Corps. One he applies to life every day is taking care of his troops.
“I’m still taking care of my troops, except they’re 70 years younger than I am,” Ronald says.
The 81-year-old retired sergeant and Vietnam War veteran from Ronald, Washington—yes, his hometown shares his name—volunteers at Cle Elum-Roslyn Elementary. Known affectionately as Grandpa Ron, his warmth and presence play an important role in shaping the lives of students in his community.
This starts with greeting them as they get off the school bus and head into school.
“Every morning I get 30 hugs by 9 a.m., and these are sincere hugs,” Ronald says. “Kids will run the length of the school to get a hug from Grandpa Ron.”
For the past five years, Ron has volunteered for the school district’s WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program. This national program gets fathers and father-figures involved at local schools.
“For some students who may not have male role models at home or grandparents nearby, Grandpa Ron provides that presence and relationship for all our kids,” says Sarah Day, community relations and career and technical director at Cle Elum-Roslyn School District.
Ron’s help at the school does not stop at hugs. He is also on the playground during recess, in the library for reading groups, in the lunchroom eating with students and helping teachers in the classroom.
Ron wears his commitment to his community as a badge of honor. In 2019 alone, he served 1,100 volunteer hours.
“He timed his pacemaker surgery for spring break so he wouldn’t miss school,” says Katia Merkel, whose three kids grew up with Grandpa Ron as one of their cross-country coaches. “He’s an inspiration for me because when I retire, I want to be like that.”
This year, Ron’s volunteering did not go quite as planned, but he refused to give up his connection to the students.
When he was restricted to his home due to the pandemic, the school made sure students could stay in touch with Grandpa Ron. In early April, staff and parents coordinated a 100-vehicle parade past his house. The school added his contact information to the online directory, and emails and letters from students poured in.
“My mailbox was absolutely full,” Ron says. “I had a dozen letters a day all summer long from these elementary school children.”
Letters included handwritten notes, pictures and posters from students to keep Ron company during the stay-at-home order.
“It meant that somebody cares,” Ron says. “I have every letter they have written me.”
Ron’s involvement in his community reaches beyond elementary school. He is a volunteer assistant for the high school cross-country team and raises money for annual scholarships for local students. He also gives back to his Veterans of Foreign Wars post, helping veterans in the county access medical care, rent assistance and other services.
Ron is known for being there for others. When it comes to the students he supports, even the smallest acts of kindness can make a difference.
“I am the one who gives them a hug and pats them on the back to reassure them,” Ron says. “I’m there and they know I’m there.”
School staff members, such as Superintendent Michelle Kuss-Cybula recognize the role Grandpa Ron fills in the lives of their students as an act of heroism.
“When I think about the qualities that define a hero, I think of Grandpa Ron,” Michelle says. “He doesn’t need a cape to fly over mountains or a shield to weather a storm. Grandpa Ron’s hero costume consists of a warm heart, gentle manner and unwavering commitment to our children. His endless service to our school community and our country is truly heroic.”
Superhero at Home
Paige Burgener is a 12-year-old from Hermiston, Oregon, who loves watermelon, dragons and, above all things, her dad, Benjamin.
Her appreciation for her father is told best in her own words.
“Most people say that their dad is their hero, but apparently they don’t know my dad. I just turned 12 a couple of weeks ago and I have broken my femur several times in my life and my tibia and fibula one time each and that is because I have something in my bones called fibers dysplasia, which are tumors in my bone. Most of my friends are supportive of it, but others just turn away. But I know my dad is always supportive of it, and me. Even though my surgeries are expensive and we are not the richest people on earth, he is kind. Even though I’ll limp the rest of my life, he loves me. He is gentle but protective, and I love him, too (Dad, I think you are the best dad in the whole wide world. I love you to the moon and back). I don’t even care if this doesn’t get to the paper or if he gets the money. I just care that somebody besides me cares for him.”
Going the Distance
Cycling brings people of all ages together. For one 12-year-old girl, an unexpected friendship and family support helped turn her love of cycling into a fundraiser for kids in need.
Every year, Brooklyn Hohman looks forward to a camping trip with fellow church members to the mouth of the Deschutes River near Biggs Junction, Oregon. During one of those camping trips, she found unexpected camaraderie with a group of adults headed out for a long bike ride. As the group was getting ready to leave, 8-year-old Brooklyn approached Dan McCullough to ask if she could come along for the ride.
“Most people would be like, ‘We’re going on a grown-up ride,’ but he actually let me come,” Brooklyn says.
She kept pace with the group on a 14-mile ride.
“The next day, I thought she’d be done with that, but she asked to go again,” says Brooklyn’s mom, Tina. “She came home so excited and could not wait to go back.”
Dan and Brooklyn have been biking buddies ever since. They bike together once or twice a month on trails around Bend, Oregon, where both live.
They even started swapping bikes as Brooklyn got older. Dan gave Brooklyn a bike for distance riding, and Brooklyn and her sister, Carmen, gave their old bikes to Dan’s grandkids.
After all of her long-distance cycling with Dan, Brooklyn had her heart set on participating in Cycle Oregon’s multiday bicycle rides throughout the state.
But 2020 events were canceled due to the pandemic.
When it seemed like Brooklyn’s dream of hitting the open road was over, her mom found an alternative.
Tina came across the Great Cycle Challenge USA. The nonprofit challenges people of all ages to use their love of cycling to help fight kids’ cancer. Participants set personal riding goals, and ask friends and family to sponsor them by matching miles with donations.
Brooklyn was up for the new challenge.
“I was glad that I could do something that I enjoyed doing and, at the same time, I was helping kids,” Brooklyn says.
The Great Cycle Challenge was in September. Brooklyn pledged to ride 150 miles and raise $1,000.
She had the support of her family and Dan to help reach her personal riding goal. From 6-mile trips with Tina and Carmen around their neighborhood to long rides of 14 to 21 miles with Dan, Brooklyn was on her way to the finish line.
She logged her miles on the Great Cycle Challenge app.
Brooklyn was on track to meet her goal when the Oregon wildfires started.
Due to hazardous air quality, Brooklyn was stuck inside for more than a week. She still had a lot of ground to cover by the end of September.
Through this setback, the Great Cycle Challenge sent participants encouraging emails about kids who had been helped by cyclists just like Brooklyn.
One child in particular stood out to her.
“There was a little girl who liked to dress up and stuff, and she seemed really sweet,” Brooklyn says. “It really motivated me to keep going.”
When the smoke cleared, Brooklyn put her sneakers on the pedals to get in her remaining miles.
“She is a go-getter,” Tina says. “She’s one of those kids that if you tell her she can’t do it, she’s going to prove you wrong.”
In the end, Brooklyn completed 21 rides totaling 151 miles and raised $1,478.
“It’s really nice that I got to help these kids get better, because I don’t need this money and they do,” Brooklyn says.
Special Gatherings for Special People
When Pat and Jim Stone’s son, Matthew, finished school, his world stopped. Born with Down syndrome, Matthew was dependent on the social interaction he received at school. Pat and Jim knew Matthew needed new opportunities to socialize and have fun.
They worked hard to help Matthew build friendships outside of school, but believed there had to be something more for families like theirs.
The family traveled from La Pine, Oregon, to nearby Bend for social gatherings for families with special needs adults, but felt like wallflowers in a group where everybody knew everybody, except for them.
“All his friends were special people he met at school,” Pat says. “Jim and I talked about the idea of starting social gatherings for families in La Pine.”
They gathered four other people and developed a community group called Special Gatherings for Special People.
In 2017, the group organized three social gatherings a month for people of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Activities included dinner and bowling, barbecues and paint nights in the La Pine community.
“It is just phenomenal to see the special folks being together and having such a social time,” Pat says.
Every person who comes to participate in the fun has a chaperone—a family member, friend or personal support worker—to accompany them at the event.
During the gatherings, caregivers come together to share advice, resources and offer support to one another.
Pat also shares resources on the Special Gatherings for Special People Facebook community.
Monthly events draw 20 to 25 people. When the group hosts dances, as many as 80 people have attended.
“These gatherings are like putting a deposit in their social bank,” Pat says. “It fills them up till they can get to the next one.”
What Pat did not expect when starting this group was just how much the La Pine community would embrace it. When she coordinated an activity at the La Pine Parks and Recreation Center, the staff came together to plan activities for the group every month. When it came to hosting dances, a beauty salon volunteered to give makeovers and style hair.
“Wherever we went, the La Pine community supported us,” Pat says.
She tears up as she tells a story from the first fall festival dance the group hosted. A woman brought her daughter to the event, expecting she would sit by herself. Soon after arriving, others participating at the dance got her to dance and join the fun.
At the end of the night, the mom came up to Pat and said this was the best night of her daughter’s life.
“There are no expectations other than, ‘You want to be my friend? I’ll be your friend,’” Pat says. “I cannot put to words what it means to have these opportunities.”
During the past few years, Pat has seen a whole new community come to life in La Pine.
“We had great community support and we, ourselves, became a community,” Pat says. “You sit in your home and you do all you can for your special child, but you’re alone. In a rural town like this, a lot of times your neighbors are a mile away.
By coming together, we became a community within the community.”
After a few unsuccessful attempts at virtual gatherings and activities, the group looks forward to coming together again. In the meantime, Pat continues to share resources on the Special Gatherings for Special People Facebook Community.
And The Winners Are…
Grandpa Ron Jacobson, the tireless friend of students, and Brooklyn Hohman, the young cyclist who raised money to help other kids, earned Adult and Youth Heroes of the Year honors. Thank you, readers, for sharing the many heroes in your life.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us each month, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series, which seeks to inspire community involvement, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest. This is the final story in the series.