5 ways to be extraordinary

Story highlights

CNN is showcasing five people who did extraordinary things in 2014

They inspire us through the unspoken power of their example

They range from a brave helicopter rescue pilot to NBA MVP Kevin Durant

CNN  — 

What makes a person extraordinary?

For someone like 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, it’s a physical trait. For others, it’s a special talent: Very few people in the world, for example, can act as well as Meryl Streep.

And then there are still others – seemingly ordinary people, most of them – who become extraordinary almost overnight through a single act of heroism. Often, these are unassuming men and women who inspire us not through grandiose words and gestures but through the unspoken power of their example.

CNN is honoring five such people – only one of them previously famous – who did extraordinary things in 2014. Here are five lessons they can teach us.

Show courage in a crisis

On September 15 helicopter pilot Gary Dahlen was on a refueling stop near an enormous wildfire in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains when he heard an urgent call on his radio: All available helicopters, prepare for an emergency launch, it said.

“I’ve been doing this 28 years, and I’d never heard that terminology before,” Dahlen told CNN sister network HLN.

A crew of 12 firefighters had been trapped by the ever-shifting blaze and time was running out. Dahlen, who had spent his morning dumping water on the flames, raced to his chopper and sped toward the blaze, 10 miles away.

He plunged the helicopter through thick smoke until he spied the men, who were hunkering in down in flimsy fire shelters.

“I saw a wall of fire coming,” Dahlen said. “I knew if they stayed there they were going to die.”

Dahlen radioed one of the firefighters on the ground and told him to collect his crew and run. Follow my chopper, Dahlen said. He led the fleeing crew through a clearing where the flames were less intense to a logging road, where he and another pilot landed and swept the men away to safety.

The U.S. Forest Service gave Dahlen an award for his bravery. One of the firefighters has called him a “guardian angel.” But he doesn’t see it quite that way.

“All I could think about was getting those guys out of there,” he said. “I never thought about my safety or what was going to happen if it didn’t work. I just saw a window of opportunity. A very short window of opportunity and I took it. And I’m very happy that it worked out.”

Exhibit grace under pressure

Ron Johnson, a captain in the Missouri State Highway Patrol, was returning to St. Louis in August from a national conference of black state troopers when he heard that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, had been fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson. By the next day, the suburb had erupted in racially tinged protests, riots and looting.

Johnson grew up in the area, which has a large African-American population, and says he moved back there as an adult in part to inspire young black kids to become cops instead of getting intro trouble.

When he heard about the unrest, he knew he needed to go to Ferguson.

“When I got there, I began to see people that I knew, out on that street,” Johnson told CNN. “And, you know, when you see fire and you’re hearing gunshots and you see people that you know, and you know their life story and you know their families and that (their) dreams are just like yours, and you’re seeing the kids that are friends with your kids and that you’ve coached in football and baseball, it told me that I needed to be there.”

To Brown, the chaotic streets felt unreal, like watching a documentary about the protests of the ’60s.

“Nobody saw the magnitude of it, initially. I don’t think anybody saw the magnitude and it just kept growing and growing.”

When the riots showed no sign of easing, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon tapped Johnson to lead the police presence in Ferguson. He immediately extended a hand, and an ear, to the protesters, crossing a symbolic divide to diffuse their anger.

That afternoon, Johnson took the unusual step of joining a protest march through the streets. And instead of hurling rocks or insults, members of the community began to approach him with hugs and thanks.

“I tell people that was a changing point,” Johnson said.

The riots in Ferguson flared again in November, after a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting. But many credit Johnson with helping to ease tensions that inflamed the neighborhood and beyond.

“This community will never be the same,” the trooper told CNN. “But this community doesn’t deserve to be the same. It deserves to be better.”

11 extraordinary people of 2014

Meet evil head on

On the morning of October 22, shots rang out in Parliament Hill, the grand Ottawa building where Canada’s lawmakers were meeting. A disturbed gunman had forced his way into the building after fatally shooting an army reservist standing guard at a nearby war memorial.

The shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, ran down the building’s main hall, a rifle in his hand, while security officers gave chase and terrified legislators barricaded themselves in caucus rooms.

“It was very, very scary,” said lawmaker Mylene Freeman. “We could hear there were a lot of guns and a lot of shots being fired and didn’t know where they were coming from.”

That’s when Kevin Vickers, a former police officer and sergeant-at-arms of Canada’s House of Commons, heard the commotion and sprang into action.

In a scene like something from an action movie, Vickers ran to an alcove where Zehaf-Bibeau was hiding, took cover and began firing. The shootout ended after Vickers dove out from behind a column and emptied his 9mm handgun into the suspect, killing him.

A shy man, Vickers has declined interview requests since the shootings. His family told reporters the episode was the first in his long career that required him to fire his gun.

But his bravery and quick response likely saved many lives.

The next day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the gathered members of Parliament gave Vickers a lengthy standing ovation.

“There’s no amount of gratefulness that will be enough to thank him, really,” Freeman told CNN. “Kevin Vickers is absolutely a hero.”

Miracles are within your grasp

Fatu Kekula was in her final year of nursing school last summer in Kakata, Liberia. But her education didn’t fully prepare her for what came next.

After her father was diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus in July and turned away from three hospitals, Kekula took him home and began treating him herself. Then her mother, sister and a cousin all contracted Ebola. She took them in, too.

Almost overnight, their modest home was transformed into a makeshift clinic, with Kekula, 22, as its only caregiver.

“I treated them all by myself,” she told CNN.

The young student didn’t have the proper equipment, but she knew she needed to protect herself. So every day, several times a day, Kekula put trash bags over her socks and tied them in a knot over her calves. Then she put on a pair of rubber boots and then another set of trash bags over the boots.

She wrapped her hair in a pair of stockings and over that placed another trash bag. Next she donned a raincoat and four pairs of gloves on each hand, followed by a mask.

For weeks Kekula fed, bathed and treated her stricken relatives. Overcome with her responsibilities and the long odds against her, she cried often. But she didn’t give up.

Three out of her four patients – all but her cousin – survived. That’s a much better result than the estimated Ebola death rate of 70%.

And somehow Kekula stayed healthy – a remarkable feat considering that hundreds of health care workers have become infected with Ebola. International aid workers have even begun teaching her “trash bag method” to other West Africans who don’t have protective gear of their own.

“I was not afraid,” said Kekula, who will come to the U.S. to finish her nursing degree. “I had faith. And that is why I’m here today.”

Share credit for your success

On May 6, amid the NBA playoffs, Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder stepped to a podium to accept an award as the league’s most valuable player.

His emotionally raw speech was free of the macho posturing that’s common among elite athletes. His tone was humble, even vulnerable. Instead of boasting about himself, Durant singled out each of his teammates for heartfelt thanks and praise.

And then he turned towards his mother, Wanda Pratt, who was seated in the audience. His voice cracking, Durant told the room how she, despite being an impoverished young single mom, fought to provide a home for him and his brother.

“We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe, you kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry, you sacrificed for us,” Durant said, fighting back tears. “You’re the real MVP.”

Durant’s words, spoken five days before Mother’s Day, struck a chord that reverberated far beyond the world of sports. Millions viewed his speech on YouTube, and many said he moved them to tears.

In an exclusive interview months later with CNN, Durant said he didn’t know what he was going to say that day until he stepped to the microphone and it poured out.

“The only thing I wanted to do … (was) to show love to everybody that helped me get to to that point. And I think it was important for me to do that for them,” he said.

Durant believes the world of professional sports is so focused on winning that athletes don’t always take the time to appreciate special moments and the hard work it took for them to get there.

“So I just wanted to sit there and just, you know, not worry about tomorrow or what happened yesterday and just focus on today. And that’s what I did with the speech … just tried to inspire people,” he said.

“I’ve learned that these last few years, that basketball’s my life, it’s what I do. It’s what I love to do,” he told CNN. “But there’s so much more to me as a man.”