2020's Most Heartwarming Stories From the DC Area

Stories that will make you feel a little better about 2020

Despite the stress and grief that 2020 brought, our neighbors across D.C., Maryland and Virginia proved the strength of the human spirit, again and again, this year. They persevered, they acted selflessly and they spread joy.

Every good headline shone brighter in the darkness, whether it was the National Zoo's fuzzy new panda cub, a triumph over obstacles or inspiring selflessness.

Here are some of NBC Washington’s most heartwarming stories of the year 2020.

Former Maryland Sanitation Worker Accepted to Harvard Law

A Maryland man who used to haul trash and clean dumpsters to make ends meet is pursuing his dream of going to Harvard Law School. News4's Aimee Cho reports.

While attending the University of Maryland, Rehan Staton of Bowie struggled to make ends meet. He kept his job as a sanitation worker, hauling trash before class. Sometimes there wasn’t time for a shower. 

“I would have to sit on the side of class and try not to bother anybody with my scent that day,” Staton said.

He managed to get through it and gave the commencement speech at graduation before heading off to Harvard Law.

“And as Terps, we are champions because we pick each other up,” he said in his speech.

Charles County Mom Will Feed Homeless on Christmas for 9th Year Despite Pandemic

A Maryland woman plans to feed people experiencing homelessness this Christmas, like she has for years. Although the pandemic has changed her tradition, it won't stop it. Darcy Spencer reports for News4.

One mom from Charles County has spent every Christmas for the past several years feeding the homeless. This year, continuing the tradition will bring new challenges because of the pandemic.  

Still, Angela Cowan said she never considered calling it off.  

“Just getting in our cars and reaching out to the homeless who are in the subways, behind buildings. Wherever we can find them, that’s where we’re going to be feeding them. And we’re not going to go home until every last meal is gone,” Cowan said.  

National Zoo Welcomes New Panda Cub, Xiao Qi Ji

The birth of a tiny panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo was a dose of unbridled joy that we all needed in 2020.

Since the little guy was born on Friday, Aug. 21, we've watched him grow his iconic black spots, take his first steps and helped vote to name him Xiao Qi Ji, which translates to “little miracle."

Photos: Early Glimpses of National Zoo's Newborn Panda Cub

Howard University Graduate Makes History as Air Force Thunderbird

When the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds saluted essential workers in the D.C. area, a trailblazing woman flew in formation. News4's Eun Yang caught up with Capt. Remoshay Nelson.

All across the country, U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds performed flyovers to honor the workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the team's new members is a Howard University graduate and the first black, female officer.

"I know a small percentage of African-American officers, specifically female officers in the Air Force. So to be in a position that is visible, to show little girls that this is attainable, to let them know they can do anything they put their mind to, is an absolute honor," Capt. Remoshay Nelson said.

She has spent eight years in the Air Force, serving mostly overseas, but says her best decision was attending Howard University.

'The Skate Kid' Says Making Viral Video on Black Lives Matter Plaza Was 'Just Amazing'

A video of 9-year-old Kaitlyn Saunders skating on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., has been viewed millions of times online.

But Kaitlyn, also known as The Skate Kid, was focused on expressing the power of the moment as she pulled off jumps, twirls and turns last week, hours before swarms of protesters returned to the area near the White House.

"It was just amazing that I could skate at a place that's historic, where thousands of people protested and tried to change the world," she told News4 when she returned to skate on the spot again with In the Community Reporter Molette Green.

José Andrés Closes His DC-Area Restaurants, Sets Up Community Kitchens

Spanish-American chef José Andrés is renowned for his efforts to fight hunger worldwide. When the pandemic hit, he made sure those at home also had a meal during a tough time.

Andrés transformed some of his D.C.-area restaurants into community kitchens, offering lunches for those in need of a meal.

Many seniors won't get to enjoy a big Thanksgiving meal with their family this year. News4's Shomari Stone shows how a local restaurant is making sure they don't go without.

Medium Rare also stepped up, delivering hundreds of steak dinners to seniors home alone during March, then doing it again for Thanksgiving.

"This isn't taught in business school," owner Mark Bucher told News4. "This is something I hope we never see again. But in a world of bad news every five minutes, we felt it was our duty to do something for the communities we're in for as long as we could."

Lost Treasure: Scrapbook Dating Back to WWII Returned to Family

Jimmy Weakland was visiting his son and daughter-in-law recently when he noticed a scrapbook on the table. It was full of memories of generations past, including local brothers who served in World War II, became prisoners of war and survived.

But the scrapbook belonged to the Weakley family — not the Weaklands. So, the family contacted NBC4 Responds for help tracking down its rightful owners.

DC Teacher Uses Stimulus Check to Start Nonprofit, Take At-Risk Kids on Fishing Trip

D.C. teacher Carmen Garner used his stimulus check to help start Inner City Anglers, a nonprofit that aims to take at-risk students on fishing trips while offering social and emotional support outside the classroom. He says people in the community are banding together to help his mission. News4's Molette Green reports.

D.C. teacher Carmen Garner used his stimulus check to help start Inner City Anglers, a nonprofit that aims to take at-risk students on fishing trips while offering social and emotional support outside the classroom.

He says people in the community are banded together to help his mission. 

"These last two months, people have poured out love to me. They've sent letters, they've sent donations, they've sent money," Garner told News4. "When you think America has a bad taste in its mouth, there are really, really good Americans out there that are really contributing and doing positive things for our kids and our youth.

‘So Grateful': Community Buys Wheelchair for Kindergartner With Cerebral Palsy

A 6-year-old boy in Montgomery County, Maryland, has a new set of wheels thanks to a fundraiser his teachers started. News4's Cory Smith has the story.

Six-year-old Abenezer got a new swagger in January — thanks to a community who banded together to give him a new wheelchair.

Abenezer has cerebral palsy. Like many kids, he’s growing fast, and his old chair was a hand-me-down. It was too small and hard to maneuver.

So, his one-on-one paraeducator Itai Bezherano started a fundraiser. Wheelchairs are expensive, but the community raised the money within 24 hours.

Strangers Help Preserve Virginia Girl's Memory of Fallen Soldier Dad

After Staff Sgt. Geoffrey Burleson lost his life in 2016, his memory lived on in a willow he had proudly planted in front of his house. His wife and daughter were heartbroken when the tree fell — but were able to preserve some of the wood with the help of strangers. News4's Melissa Mollet reports.

After Staff Sgt. Geoffrey Burleson lost his life to combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder in 2016, his memory lived on in a tree he had proudly planted in front of his house.

His wife, Céline Burleson, and daughter Brylie were heartbroken when the tree was blown down, but a friend turned to a Loudoun County Facebook group to help.

“Immediately, there was a team of people that would jump in,” Enright said.

Volunteers couldn't save the tree, but a woodworker transformed the wood into mementos that Céline and Brylie can treasure forever.

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