When most people think of a hero, they picture Superman swooping through the air to save the day in its most dire moments. But these 21 real-life heroes have saved the world in much more realistic, admittedly less grandiose, ways.

 

21. Frank Serpico

This New Yorker is known for whistleblowing on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His actions prompted Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint the landmark Knapp Commission, which investigates corruption within the NYPD. As a result of Serpico's efforts, the NYPD was drastically changed. Michael Armstrong, who was counsel to the Knapp Commission and went on to become chairman of the city's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, observed in 2012 “the attitude throughout the department seems fundamentally hostile to the kind of systemized graft that had been a way of life almost 40 years ago.”

Much of Serpico's fame came after the release of the 1973 film Serpico, which was based on the book by Peter Maas and which starred Al Pacino in the title role, for which Pacino received an Oscar nomination.

20. Lassana Bathily

Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shop assistant, was hailed as a hero in the hostage crisis known as the “Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege” in the city of Paris in January 2015. During the gunman situation, Bathily helped hide people in a cold storage container in the basement of the store. After Bathily was able to escape the store himself, he was immediately arrested by police who suspected him of playing a role in the attack. He was released an hour and a half later and provided the officers with a key to open the store’s metal blinds, assisting them in looking for the gunman and saving the rest of the hostages.

19. Candy Lightener

Candy Lightner is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in September 1980. She transformed a personal tragedy—the death of her young daughter—into a noble mission against drunk driving by forming this grass-roots organization dedicated to curbing alcohol-related traffic deaths. Lightener’s daughter was senselessly killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. According to the organization’s reports, they have saved over 300,000 lives.

18. Danielle Gletow

This passionate children’s rights advocate had spent nearly twenty years of her life living in familiarity with the disheartening state of the foster care system. A past emergency placement guardian and now adoptive parent, Danielle was a witness to the circumstances surrounding the “forgotten children” of the system. She saw babies, toddlers and adolescents robbed of their blissful innocence, and this led her to seek to bring love, hope and joy to each child through the work of her foundation, One Simple Wish. By empowering everyday people to grant a child’s wish through the organization’s website, as well as through programs, initiatives and community partnerships, she is working to make a difference in the lives of children who are less fortunate.

17. Marc Patterson

Mark Patterson saved 12-year-old Colton Reed from a cougar attack after the boy was targeted by the predator near a vacation lodge in south-central British Columbia where his family was staying. Patterson, who owns the lodge, kicked, choked and wrestled the cougar, but when his kicks were not enough to make it let go, he put a chokehold on the animal and squeezed as hard as he could until it gave up. He then drove the boy to a nearby hospital where he made an excellent recovery.

16. Richard Nares

Nares' inspiration is his son, Emilio, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 3 years old. Months of chemotherapy followed, and Nares met other families who were struggling to get their children to the hospital for treatments, which often occur several times a week.

After Emilio passed away shortly before his sixth birthday, Richard and his wife, Diane, founded the Emilio Nares Foundation to honor his memory and to help other children in need. The children and families he served often lived in poverty and had no car or money for transportation. At first, Nares was a one-man show, doing all the driving himself. The requests kept coming, and today, 15 years after the nonprofit was founded, Nares and his group have provided more than 33,000 rides.

15. James Persyn III

14-year-old James Persyn III helped save a college student's life when she showed up pleading for help on his family’s doorstep in January 2013. James was home alone with his siblings when he heard a loud banging on the door paired with cries for help. He let the young woman, a Central Michigan University student, into his home and quickly secured her and his two younger siblings in an upstairs bathroom. The woman had been assaulted and managed to escape her attacker’s car. Her rampaging attacker found out where she was and lit the house on fire after failed attempts to break into the home. Luckily, the boy’s father arrived home in time to put out the fire. The 30-year-old attacker was shot and killed by police later that day.

14. Dr. Georges Bwelle

In Cameroon, there is only one doctor for every 5,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. For comparison’s sake, the ratio in the United States is one doctor for every 413 people. Bwelle became a doctor himself, working as a vascular surgeon in Yaounde’s Central Hospital in Cameroon. He started a nonprofit that travels into rural areas on weekends to provide free medical care. Bwelle and a crew of up to 30 people jam into vans, tie medical supplies to the roofs and travel across rough terrain to visit villages in need and perform free surgeries. Since 2008, he and his group of volunteers have helped nearly 32,000 people.

13. Rajinder Johar

Johar suffered six years of depression after a bullet injury left him paralyzed and bedridden, but he eventually decided to help other disabled individuals become self-sufficient and founded the “Family of Disabled,” which looks after the betterment of disabled persons in Delhi. FOD’s mission is to build and nurture persons with disabilities through different sustainable interventions for improving their quality of life, making them self-reliant. Johar's service of the disabled over two decades has won him several awards and accolades.

12. Dale Beatty

Beatty, an Army veteran from Statesville who lost both legs beneath the knees in Iraq, co-founded Purple Heart Homes in 2008 to help provide injured veterans with new homes when they return from conflicts. The organization also helps veterans who need improvements to their homes, especially as they age and can't do the repairs themselves. The organization has assisted veterans in the Carolinas and other states coast to coast, often with volunteers providing everything from donations to labor. Purple Heart Homes completed its 300th housing project in November 2018.

Unfortunately, Beatty passed away unexpectedly last February at age 39, but Purple Heart Homes lives on, continuing to change lives.