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10 ordinary people who made 2021 extraordinary

From the pages of our print magazine this year, here are 10 people whose visionary thinking made a difference in 2021

From the pages of our print magazine this year, here are 10 people whose visionary thinking made a difference in 2021

Our alternative honours list celebrates the everyday heroism, incredible feats and visionary thinking that made 2021 a standout year – for all the right reasons. In no particular order, from our coverage this year, here are 10 ordinary people who made 2021 extraordinary

1. Justyna Green, the illustrator behind 100 Days of Gratitude

The great pandemic reset has provided time for grateful reflection on the simpler pleasures in life. London-based illustrator Justyna Green set out to capture 100 of the small mercies that helped us through these monumentally trying times – from beloved pets and family members to wild swimming, cheese and yoga. Her series, 100 Days of Gratitude, is the heartwarming result.

Image: Felix Speller

2. Darren O’Brien and Rail to Refuge

Just making the decision to flee an abusive relationship can be daunting enough, without even considering the practicalities. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, or – in this case – a train trip. The lifesaving Rail to Refuge scheme, which was dreamt up by station manager Darren O’Brien, was extended in March. It provides free travel for adults and children who are fleeing abuse, and has helped more than 1,000 journey into a brighter future.

Image: Southeastern Railway

3. Sol Escobar of Give Your Best

The gift of giving is forefront in our minds at Christmas, but Sol Escobar’s innovative online project extends the sentiment to bring about year-round cheer. A Calais refugee camp volunteer, Cambridge-based Escobar set up Give Your Best, an online fashion shop where the clothes are donations and the ‘customers’ are refugees and asylum seekers, who receive items for free (as well as – more often than not – a friendly note of welcome). Already, more than 6,000 fresh threads have been delivered along with a welcome confidence boost. Escobar told us how a priority of hers is to offer people not charity, but the dignity of choice.

Image: Sol Escobar

4. Tom Brown, heritage apple collector

Apple varieties are the spice of life for spritely 79-year-old Tom Brown, who lives in North Carolina, US. He’s spent the past two decades of his retirement tracking down apples that had all-but vanished from the orchards of Appalachia. Thanks to Brown’s painstaking detective work, more than 1,200 varieties have been coaxed back from the brink of extinction. The fruits of his considerable labour will be savoured for generations to come.

Image: Tom Brown 

5. Xueli Abbing, a model born with albinism

Albinism is seen by some in China as a curse – perhaps the reason why Xueli Abbing was abandoned on the steps of an orphanage after she was born. But for this teenager, the condition has also proved a blessing. Now working as an international model who has appeared in Vogue, Abbing (who was adopted by a family in the Netherlands when she was three) is inspiring others to embrace difference whilst championing disability in fashion. Her first name translates as ‘beautiful snow’, and as model names go, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Image: Rob Jansen

6. Lewis Pugh and his awareness-raising Arctic swim

Pugh dived head-first into the wintry wonderland of the Arctic in September, dodging icebergs on a multi-day, record-breaking swim across Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord. And while the North Pole’s most famous inhabitant wouldn’t be seen dead without his toasty warm red suit and hat, Pugh braved its icy waters wearing just a pair of Speedos – all to raise awareness of the glacier-melting climate crisis. His approach has been dubbed ‘Speedy diplomacy’ – and we salute it.

Image: Kelvin Trautman

7. Dance teacher Emily Jenkins

Dance can be a salve for the soul, an energising distraction, or simply a way of connecting with fellow humans in music and in motion. For women who are coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis – or the debilitating effects of treatment and recovery – Jenkins’ Move Dance Feel classes have proved to be all those things. One participant described them: “an oasis of creativity, movement, mindfulness, connection and calm”.

Image: Move Dance Feel

8. Blood donor campaigner Ethan Spibey

Spibey challenged a blanket ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood after falling foul of the discriminatory NHS policy, a relic of the 1980s HIV crisis. Working with LGBTQ+ charities to promote his Freedom to Donate campaign, he saw a new system introduced in June which allowed many gay men to give blood for the first time.

Image: Sam Bush

9. Ryan Riley and Kimberley Duke, authors of a long-Covid cookbook

We all like to eat, drink and maybe even get a little merry at Christmas, but for thousands whose sense of taste and smell have been wrecked by Covid, many favourite dishes are now off the menu. In their cookery book, Taste and Flavour, food writers Duke and Riley showed people who have long Covid the way to newfound, palatable, kitchen inspiration. Generously, it’s downloadable free – here. We’ll drink to that.

Image: Clare Winfield

10. Mental health podcaster Alex Holmes

Proving the old adage that it’s good to talk, Holmes has been tackling the difficult topic of male mental health via his podcast. He featured in an article about 20 inspiring UK mental health leaders who, in diverse ways, are making a difference to the wellbeing of millions. Now Holmes has proved he is as good at writing as he is speaking. After opening up about his own struggles, he published his mental health toolkit in book form, as Time to Talk: How Men Think About Love, Belonging and Connection.

Image: Andy Commons Images
Main image: Rob Jansen. Floral design: Conny van der Westerlaken; hair: Marije Helder; makeup: Didi Izendoorn

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