The 2016 CNN Hero of the Year is Jeison Aristizábal
Aristizábal, who battles cerebral palsy, helps children with disabilities in his native Colombia
Learn more about Aristizábal's work and other CNN Heroes at CNNHeroes.com
Jeison Aristizábal wasn’t born destined for success.
Hailing from one of the poorest areas of Cali, Colombia, and waging a constant battle with cerebral palsy, the world seemed dead set against him.
“When I was a young boy, a doctor told my mom that I would amount to nothing,” said Aristizábal, 33.
Family support and a dogged spirit helped Aristizábal gain independence, and he set out to ensure other disabled youth could do the same. Launching a disability-advocacy foundation out of his parents’ garage was one of the first steps in a journey that’s taken him to law school and across the world.
Now Aristizábal has been named the 2016 CNN Hero of the Year for his work providing educational and medical support for youth living with disabilities in Colombia. Aristizábal was recognized during Sunday’s “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” alongside the other top 10 CNN Heroes for 2016.
The 10th annual show, hosted live by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa, saluted everyday people doing extraordinary things to improve the world. Aristizábal was selected the 2016 CNN Hero of the Year after a six-week audience vote on CNN Digital and social media.
Aristizábal will receive $100,000 to continue working toward greater opportunities for disabled and non-disabled youth. All of the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2016 will receive a $10,000 cash award. Donations made to each of their designated nonprofit organizations are also being matched up to $50,000.
2012 Hero of the Year becomes CNN SuperHero
Also announced during the show was a special award: 2012 CNN Hero of the Year Pushpa Basnet was selected the CNN SuperHero. Basnet works to provide housing, education, healthy meals and medical services to children forced to live with their parents inside Nepal’s prisons through her Early Childhood Development Center.
“Thank you for making my dream into reality,” Basnet said Sunday. “The most important thing is that you need to believe in yourself, have passion.”
The 10th anniversary CNN SuperHero is a former CNN Hero of the Year whose outstanding work continues to best embody the spirit of the CNN Heroes campaign. She will receive $50,000 to continue her inspiring work.
The star-studded ceremony included presenters Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Octavia Spencer, Keegan-Michael Key, Danielle Brooks, Diane Lane and Edie Falco, among others.
Idina Menzel performed the song “I See You” from her album “Idina.”
Born with a purpose
Jeison Aristizábal has been working to further the cause of disabled youth in Colombia for the past 15 years.
His small garage operation has grown: ASODISVALLE (an acronym that translates to Association of Disabled People of the Valley) offers a range of services that have helped transform the lives of more than 1,000 young people and their families — all for free.
When he began to question why God gave him a disability, Aristizábal explained in his acceptance speech Sunday, he had an epiphany.
“Today I realize God chose me to help children with disabilities and their families and build a chain of dreams. I am about to graduate as a lawyer, and I want to do more to change my country’s laws.”
As he works to improve the way his government treats people with disabilities, Aristizábal invited viewers to pick up the cause.
“Open your hearts and join this beautiful work, too. There are many children hoping for your support.”
His advice to anyone who wants to make a difference:
“Sometimes when we see a big problem, we feel like we can’t do something,” he said. “But starting with the little things, helping fix the little things, we can transform many lives.”
Here’s more about the other nine men and women who were selected, along with Aristizábal, as a Top 10 CNN Hero because of their dedication to helping others:
Craig Dodson: Breaking a negative cycle
Craig Dodson was a semi-professional cyclist in 2005 when he was asked to speak to a group of students from one of the roughest housing projects in Richmond, Virginia. Inspired to help, Dodson founded the Richmond Cycling Corps in 2010, for at-risk children.
“We are like the Navy SEALs,” Dodson said. “We have to infiltrate and be there for every part of their life.”
Sherri Franklin: Helping old dogs find new love
Sherri Franklin has poured her lifelong passion for animals into Muttville, a nonprofit that rescues and finds homes for senior dogs – more than 4,000 so far.
She started the nonprofit out of her home in 2007.
“It is not about the quantity of time, it really is about the quality of time you spend with your animal,” Franklin said.
Brad Ludden: Conquering cancer with sports
After watching his aunt battle cancer when she was 38, Brad Ludden started First Descents, a nonprofit that brings outdoor adventures to young adults battling the disease.
“It’s that important reminder that this life, it’s really fleeting,” Ludden said. “With that knowledge, we have this obligation to go out and live as fully as possible.”
Luma Mufleh: Forging a refugee family
Luma Mufleh founded a soccer program and school called the Fugees Family that addresses the unique needs of the refugee community in Clarkston, Georgia. Last spring, the Fugees Academy graduated its first class.
“It’s getting people from all over the world, from all different faiths, to come together to do something great,” Mufleh said.
Umra Omar: Caring without borders
Umra Omar left a career in the United States to help people without any access to health care in her homeland of Kenya. Omar founded Safari Doctors, a group that travels by boat, road and air to ferry free medical services.
“Being here, being close to home, to be able to fill some of the gaps in accessing health care, it’s kind of been an IV drip for life and purpose,” Omar said.
Georgie Smith: Designing with a purpose
Los Angeles County has the country’s largest foster youth population, and when they age out of the system, they’re often left on their own. Georgie Smith founded A Sense of Home to design comfortable living spaces for former foster children.
“By setting up their first home, it gives them the foundation from which they can succeed,” Smith said.
Sheldon Smith: Building up good fathers
Sheldon Smith grew up with an often-absentee father, and felt the effects. Serving jail time for robbery scared Smith straight and inspired him to stay in his child’s life. He later started the Dovetail Project, which teaches young fathers the life skills necessary to become responsible parents and positive role models.
“My goal when I started the Dovetail Project was to break the cycle,” Smith said.
Becca Stevens: Fighting human trafficking
Nearly 20 years ago, Becca Stevens set out to help the women of Nashville who have been scarred by prostitution, addiction and trafficking. Today, her nonprofit provides women a home, medical care, counseling and jobs – all for free.
“None of the women ended up on the streets by themselves. And so it makes sense that it takes a community to welcome them home,” Stevens said.
Harry Swimmer: Riding for a good reason
Harry Swimmer transformed his horse farm into a sanctuary for children with disabilities after meeting a special girl who responded positively to horse-riding therapy. “She just lit up like a candle,” said Swimmer. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
Since 1988, his organization, Mitey Riders, has provided more than 800 children with free equine-assisted therapy.
As part of the award package, each Top 10 CNN Hero for 2016 will receive free organizational training from the Annenberg Foundation, a leading supporter of nonprofits worldwide. They will participate in a customized version of the Annenberg Alchemy program, which offers practical guidance to help strengthen organizations for long-term success.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont and Drew Kann contributed to this report. For more on the 2016 CNN Heroes and to donate to the causes they support, visit CNNHeroes.com.