CNN’s Star-Studded Night for Everyday Heroes

By Chris Ariens 

CNN has announced the names of 18 finalists for the first CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute. The project is the culmination of a five-month audience nomination process through which “ordinary people will be recognized for accomplishing extraordinary things.” CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour, host the event which will air live on CNN, CNN International and CNN en Espanol next Thursday at 9pmET.

More than 7,000 nominations came in from viewers in 80 countries. There are three finalists in each of six categories including Medical Marvel, Young Wonder and Championing Children.

Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Wyclef Jean, and Norah Jones will perform at the gala, while Tyra Banks, Glenn Close, Harry Connick, Jr., LL Cool J, Kyra Sedgwick, Rosario Dawson, and Jimmy Smits will present the heroes with their awards.

After the jump, the list of nominees…

MEDICAL MARVEL — Peter Kithene of Seattle, who founded a clinic in his native Kenya that has provided services to more than 18,000 patients; Ann McGee of Las Vegas, who started a transportation program to provide free medical flights for families with gravely ill children; and S. Ramakrishnan of Ayikudy, India, a quadriplegic man who runs one of India’s largest centers for the disabled, serving people from 330 surrounding villages.

YOUNG WONDER — Kayla Cornale, 18, of Burlington, Ontario, Canada, who developed a musical system to improve communications with autistic people; Dallas Jessup, 15, of Vancouver, Wash., who produced a video and an online program designed to teach young women and girls how to escape an attacker; and Josh Miller, 17, of Santa Monica, Calif., who established a student-run nonprofit group dedicated to motivating high school students of all backgrounds to succeed in school and life.

CHAMPIONING CHILDREN — Dr. Rick Hodes of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who has served as a conduit for Ethiopian children to receive essential vaccinations, surgeries and other medical procedures; Scott Loeff of Chicago, who founded a camp for children with Tourette Syndrome to enable them to fit in with other children; Steve Peifer of Kijabe, Kenya, who combated severe dropout rates in Kenya by ensuring that more than 11,000 children have daily lunches at school and access to computers.

COMMUNITY CRUSADER — James McDowell, a U.S. Army sergeant major who serves with the 82nd Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and led efforts to encourage Afghan farmers to switch from growing poppies to equally profitable saffron bulbs; Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe of Gulu, Uganda, who opened a school in her town to rehabilitate girls devastated by the Lord’s Resistance Army; Julie Rems-Smario of Oakland, Calif., who founded a nonprofit agency that serves deaf survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

DEFENDING THE PLANET — Florence Cassassuce of La Paz, Mexico, who invented a five-gallon bucket that can purify several days’ worth of water in four minutes; Irania Martinez Garcia of Guantanamo, Cuba, who has taught hundreds of residents to learn how to grow food efficiently while using organic and sustainable materials from the local dump and their own trash; and Mark Maksimowicz of St. Petersburg, Fla., who co-founded a volunteer armada of boats to help clean up North American coasts.

FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE — Pablo Fajardo of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, who seeks to force one of the world’s largest oil corporations to pay more than $6 billion to clean up toxic waste in the Amazon rain forest; Rangina Hamidi of Stone Ridge, Va., who founded a company that enables women in her native Afghanistan to make money from their intricate embroidery skills; and Lynwood Hughes of Rocky Mount, N.C., who started a nonprofit group to help U.S. veterans secure their disability benefits.

The event will also pay tribute to “Everyday Superheroes,” three men chosen by CNN for exhibiting great courage in tense, life-threatening situations. They include: Wesley Autrey, who jumped onto New York subway tracks to save the life of a student; Zach Petkewicz, who helped prevent a shooter from killing a classroom of students at Virginia Tech; and John Smeaton, a baggage handler who thwarted a terrorist attack at Glasgow Airport in Scotland.

Joel Gallen, who has helmed ambitious telethon events supporting victims of both the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, serves as executive producer for the event. Gallen won a Peabody Award for “America: A Tribute to Heroes” and has been nominated for several Emmys throughout his career. Kelly Flynn is senior executive producer for the CNN Heroes initiative.