Throughout the year, CNN’s Impact Your World brought you stories of average people who’ve found extraordinary ways to help others. Their backgrounds and circumstances were different. But their motives were the same: to do good and inspire others.
We went back to see how some of these determined people – and the good works they started – are doing.
From the suburban mother who started a movement helping Detroit’s indigent to a 4-year-old boy in a superhero cape feeding Birmingham’s homeless, the stories are still inspirational. Their projects are still going strong and their combined spirit of service continues to make an impact.
The man who mowed lawns for vets and the disabled in 50 states
Last summer, Rodney Smith Jr. set out to voluntary mow 50 lawns in 50 states – and help the elderly, the disabled, single moms and veterans along the way.
When news of his foundation, Raising Men Lawn Care Service, spread through social media, donations poured in, giving Smith the opportunity to expand his mission.
At the start of the holiday season, Smith decided to dress as Santa Claus and surprise homeless people with gifts in every new city he visited.
“They can’t believe Santa Claus is coming to them for Christmas,” Smith told CNN from his most recent stop in Boston. “A lot of them out here are struggling. It’s moving when you hear their stories. It touches me forever.”
As part of his winter tour, Smith has been passing out blankets and backpacks stocked with supplies for the homeless. And he’s performed a few Christmas miracles as he spread the cheer.
“People have donated so much, so I’m able to buy them whatever they want,” he said.
In Idaho, he bought two men bus tickets so they could reunite with their family.
In Boston, he bought another person a few nights in a hotel room, including a much desired hot shower.
Smaller acts of kindness include a cup of hot coffee and a couple of cans of Mountain Dew.
“Seeing their faces light up,” Smith said, is the most rewarding Christmas gift of all.
In 2019, Smith plans to embark on a “seven continents - seven lawns” campaign to continue spreading his message of service around the world.
The teen who provides jobs for the homeless
In February, 17-year-old Kevin Barber – with some financial help from his mom – launched a pilot program in San Diego called “Wheels of Change.” It pays the homeless $11.50 an hour to clean up the streets.
“Workers are so thankful for the opportunity to work… contribute to the community and make a little money to buy their personal items, or buy a bus pass for a job interview,” Barber said.
“They even line up at 2 a.m. every morning ‘Wheels of Change’ operates, in order to have a chance to go out on the work crew!”
Grateful residents and store owners gather outside to cheer on the homeless participants, sometimes even buying them lunch. After every shift, the workers are paid their wage in cash, and then counseled on city services that might help them get off the street.
The crew manager, himself a former gang member, talks to the homeless workers about resources available to them.
For the participants, just getting a day’s work can be life-changing, Kevin said. “One female crew member openly shared that she had been suicidal and was on top of Coronado Bridge ready to jump last week. Today, she was on our van headed to work, was incredibly grateful, and says she wants to be an example to others.”
“Another homeless individual planned to earn money in the program so he could purchase hair clippers. He wants to use them to shave his head and his face so he can look better when he applies for a permanent job.”
“Wheels of Change” started with just one vehicle. Less than a year in, the program now operates two vans.
Kevin’s goal is to have both vans running five days a week, hiring 100 homeless people weekly. So far, his program has employed more than 800 homeless people – many of them more than once.
Kevin hopes his local success can be replicated across the world. So far, representatives from 36 other cities have visited San Diego to learn about the program.
The principal who installed a laundromat in his school
When school started at West Side High School in September there was a new addition: a laundromat.
Principal Akbar Cook had learned that some of the students at his Newark, New Jersey, school were chronically absent because they were bullied over their dirty clothes. So Cook installed washers and dryers for students to use before and after school free of charge.
“After the story got out, donated laundry supplies rolled in from around the world,” the principal beamed. “To receive such giving from places like Scotland and islands in the Pacific to help out our babies. And then Procter & Gamble got involved and sent us a thousand of everything for laundry. We now have two rooms full of detergent!”
He was initially unsure if the laundry machines would be used, but quickly realized the school needed to extend the laundromat’s hours and bring in more staff. The machines were running constantly until 8 p.m. every day.
More importantly, school attendance has improved.
Cook is already tackling the next obstacle to his students’ learning.
“We have opened a free store for the students, providing toiletries, feminine products, toothbrushes, laundry bags and more,” the principal said. “With so much generosity, we now have a school wish list on Amazon and Walmart to provide other necessities.”
“We feel like we can really do something here,” he added. “And that is the feeling we want our students to come to school with every day.”
The suburban mom who brings donors and the needy together
Six days a week, a suburban mom drives her pickup truck to inner-city Detroit, dropping off donations and spreading good will.
Erica Guido is president and founder of “To Detroit, With Love.”
“We turn houses into homes and neighbors into friends,” she told CNN.
In a closed Facebook group, Guido shares needy families’ wish-lists. People then offer whatever donations they have: beds, dining sets, clothes.
Guido or her volunteers pick up the donations and distribute them within the same day.
“We do everything with friendship and love,” the Detroit native said.
Since the organization started in October 2017, it has helped more than 200 families, and the network of donors has grown from 1,500 to nearly 3,000.
Since her first interview with CNN, Guido said people from all over the world have contacted her about starting similar initiatives.
“My main goal is to not expand where I am, but to get more communities to do the same thing – for example instead of ‘To Detroit, With Love’ it could be ‘To Chicago, With Love.’”
Known as “Lady E” or “Miss E,” Guido said she also hopes to directly pair families who don’t need assistance with those who do.
“It is the human impact and the connections made that outlasts any piece of furniture.”
Guido has a special need of her own.
“We need a cargo van big time,” she explained.
With a larger vehicle, her organization can make a bigger impact.
“We don’t have time for our items to sit in a warehouse or thrift store when there are children sleeping on the floor. We need to get it to families immediately. That’s the ultimate goal.”
The 4-year-old who feeds the homeless
Four-year-old Austin Perine captured the hearts of fans around the globe as video of him handing out chicken sandwiches to the homeless was shared millions of times on social media.
Since CNN aired his story in July, Austin has traveled to over 15 cities to spread his token message: #ShowLove. A little boy on a big mission, he trekked as far as San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“It’s been an awesome experience to make people smile, carrying something on that started with 25 chicken sandwiches,” Austin’s dad TJ Perine told CNN.
Perine said he cried in Detroit, when Austin got an applause-filled reception at a homeless and recovering addicts shelter. The staff even wore Austin’s #ShowLove t-shirts.
“It was remarkable,” Perine said. “He is an all-American kid who is an inspiration.”
Austin’s big year also included a letter from Lebron James, an appearance on Steve Harvey’s show and front row seats to a Miami Heats game.
“We are honored and thankful for all the opportunities we’ve had this year,” Perine said.
Austin’s favorite activity when he’s not being a red-caped superhero is hitting the mat as part of a local wrestling team.
“I like who I am, I never want to change,” he said as a matter of fact.
We hope he doesn’t. The world needs more people like him.
CNN’s Ben Burnstein, Mayra Cuevas, Christopher Dawson, Jennifer Grubb, Martha Shade and Ashley Vaughan contributed to this article.