Not all heroes wear capes, but they sure were super in 2020

IMG 5901 Not all heroes wear capes, but they sure were super in 2020
Birmingham is filled with heroes. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

As the year 2020 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on what we saw, endured and discovered. One thing we all learned is that Birmingham is a strong and resilient community of people who work together in the face of hardship. To the many people who stepped up this year to flex their superhero muscles, we created a list of local heroes as a way to say thank you.

1. Healthcare Workers

COVID testing
Several places in the County offer drive-up testing. Photo via UAB MHRC

The words “thank you” don’t fully express our gratitude to the incredible healthcare workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re the most courageous of us all, leading by example and reporting the facts to the rest of us.

From doctors and nurses who help patients and families in their scariest moments to the hospital staff that keep the equipment operational and the buildings in tip top shape, your dedication to teamwork and to the greater good does not go unnoticed. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 👏🏻

2. Healthcare workers from a distance

In many ways, we all found ourselves on the frontlines of something this year. Some of us were in hospitals and clinics, some were in school classrooms and others were on the frontlines at home, juggling work online and helping teach our children virtually. We all deserve a little pat on the back for our perseverance and endurance this year.

Here are a few extraordinary workers who made our list of 2020 heroes:

Dr. Michael Saag

Mike Saag
Dr. Michael Saag, Stanley Chair in AIDS Research + Director of the Center for AIDS Research at UAB’s School of Medicine. Photo via Dr. Michael Saag

For almost 40 years, Dr. Michael Saag has been at the forefront of the battle against HIV/AIDS. Currently, he’s the Stanley Chair in AIDS Research and the Director of the Center for AIDS Research at UAB’s School of Medicine. While he, of course, gets major applause for these roles, he’s also on our list of 2020 heroes.


  1. He contracted—and recovered—from COVID-19.
  2. He sat alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci (yeah, that one) on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal Prime Time” during a Q + A on the National Fight Against COVID-19. Check out the full story here

Dr. Jarralynne Agee

Dr. Jarralynne Agee, Vice President of Miles College, donated her kidney to Gary Burley, NFL defense end with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons.

Not only did her brave donation change her and Gary’s lives, but it also made a much bigger impact. In the wake of her donation, Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin signed a Human Resources policy that gives City of Birmingham employees up to four weeks of paid leave when donating an organ. Read the full story here.

Dr. Gary Edwards

United Ability
Dr. Gary Edwards and Mayor Randall Woodfin discussing employment opportunities for adults with disabilities. Photo via United Ability

It was in June that Birmingham grieved the life of beloved United Ability CEO Dr. Gary Edwards. 

Known for being a state and national advocate for people with disabilities and their families, Dr. Edwards held the title of CEO at United Ability for nearly 38 years. During this time, he helped the organization grow. Once serving just a few hundred in Birmingham, today United Ability now helps over 5,700.

Learn more about Dr. Gary Edwards and his role in helping those with disabilities.

3. Mask Creators

Birmingham, McWane Science Center
So. Many. Masks. Photo by Patience Itson for Bham Now

“Wear your mask.” “Don’t forget your mask.” “I can’t believe I forgot my mask.”

How many times have you heard or said this during the year 2020? It has to be at least a million. While we may be tired of seeing them, wearing them and talking about them, we have to give a major thank you to the many, many people in Birmingham who spent countless hours creating face masks and shields to help keep us safe.

Here are just a few:

Local Crafters

Fabric Masks 17 Not all heroes wear capes, but they sure were super in 2020
“We’re like the modern day Rosie the Riveter!” Photo via Paije Royal Sieber

While there are too many to name individually, many local Birmingham crafters sat for countless hours behind sewing machines to make reusable masks for the daily use of individuals. 

One group is Bham Face Masks. As of April 26, 2020, the group donated 58,942 masks.

Bham Support

Bham Support
Bham Support donated thousands of reusable face shields to Birmingham healthcare workers. Photo via Bham Support

Bham Support is a group of local volunteers in Birmingham who makes reusable face shields via 3D printers.

As of May 2020, they made and donated more than 2,800 reusable face shields to Birmingham-area healthcare workers. Places include Grandview, Children’s of Alabama, St. Vincent’s, Shelby Baptist, Home Hospice Care, Haynes Ambulance, local fire departments and dentists and more.

Learn more on their efforts and impact in Birmingham here

Students from The Altamont School

face shields, face masks
Nurses enthusiastically hold two thumbs up after receiving their brand new face shields. Photo via Rita Goyal

Meghan Goyal (10th grade) and Noah Warren (9th grade), both students of The Altamont School teamed up with computer science teacher Ryan James to engineer protective shields for healthcare workers throughout Birmingham.

By April, the students successfully modeled their face shields and distributed them to nine locations across Alabama including:

  • Cancer wards
  • Diabetic patient wards
  • Emergency rooms
  • Infectious COVID-19 units
  • Organ-transplant wards

4. Small Businesses

While small businesses struggled in 2020, some tapped into their creativity and skillsets to help in a big way during the pandemic.

Dread River Distilling Co

Birmingham, Dread River Distilling Company, Dread River, distilleries, hand sanitizer, COVID-19
Hand sanitizer from Dread River Distilling Company. Photo via @dreadriverco on Instagram

Toilet paper wasn’t the only thing that quickly vanished from store shelves when the pandemic hit—hand sanitizer did too. 

By March, Dread River Distilling Company had created 450+ gallons of hand sanitizer in Birmingham

While the distillery initially prioritized hand sanitizer requests for healthcare and first responders, they later expanded their efforts to include local businesses and individuals. 


Birmingham, MotionMobs, contact tracing, contact tracing app, tech
Some of the MotionMobs team. Photo via MotionMobs’ Facebook

In May, Birmingham-based, data-driven company software MotionMobs made headlines in the New York Times for the development of a new contact tracing app. Its purpose—to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The app was first used by students and employees of UAB as they headed back to campus for classes.

The app is free—download it for Android or iPhone.

For another local COVID-19 contract tracing app, check out GuideSafe here.

Want to support local businesses in Birmingham? Check out our Small Business Guide.

5. Local Teachers 

Birmingham, Trussville, Trussville City Schools, Paine Elementary, e-learning, homeschooling
2nd grade teacher at Paine Elementary works from home to support students via e-learning. Photo via Cynthia Weyerman

If 2020 showed us anything, it’s that our teachers go to unbelievable lengths to educate our kids. From virtual teaching to in-person instruction, being an educator during a pandemic takes incredible effort and patience.

Nobody is more grateful than parents who saw firsthand just how hard it is to teach their own kids. It’s me, I’m parents.

Here’s what some local teachers did to make online learning a success.

6. Parents, you deserve a thank you, too

Working and schooling from home. Photo via Sharron Swain for Bham Now

This year was definitely hard on parents, too. From changes at work to becoming virtual teachers and trying to keep life as normal as possible, the list of amazing things you conquered in 2020 is endless. While your kids may not be doling out thanks you’s, we know we’re keeping our families together and keeping things flowing in the midst of many difficult challenges.

7. Those who kept us fed

Pelham Park, food distribution
Pelham City Schools staff preparing meals for curbside pickup. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

While many of us were able to hunker down at home and avoid leaving our houses in 2020, others were still out there working to ensure others needs were met. What would we have done this year if things like grocery stores and personal shopping apps had gone obsolete? My realest answer—I have absolutely no idea!

Here’s who makes our hero list for helping feed the Greater Birmingham Area:

8. Organizations who provided grants

Birmingham is home to many organizations that strived to help those affected by the pandemic. Here are a few that wowed us with their generosity:


Are you #BhamStrong? Photo via BhamStrong’s Facebook

#BhamStrong became, in many ways, the 2020 anthem for Birmingham. But where did it stem from? The answer is a public-private partnership entitled BhamStrong which formed to strengthen Birmingham’s COVID-19 response. To do this, they supplied grants to many in need, including small businesses, unemployed workers and residents.

According to BhamStrong’s website, along with help from their partners, they have served:

  • 2,800+ small businesses
  • 300+ unemployed workers
  • 8,800+ residents

United Way of Central Alabama

United Way
Bham Now’s Pat Byington and Annette Rowland with American Red Cross gave blood at the UAB donation site on March 13, 2020. Photo via Bham Now

The pandemic led to unemployment rates skyrocketing across the state of Alabama. To help, United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) stepped in.

In March, they created the COVID-19 Community Crises Fund, which allowed them to award grants to local nonprofit organizations within their five-county area.

From March to September, UWCA awarded a total of $664,817 grants through the Fund.

UWCA also surpassed their goal by $1.5M for the Because of You Hope Happens campaign which launched in September.

YMCA + Levite Jewish Community Center

LJCC on Montclair Road in Birmingham. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

In March, the YMCA and Levite Jewish Community Center (LJCC), closed their doors due to COVID-19. But they didn’t sit idly by as the needs of their community grew. Instead, they sprang into action by mobilizing and directing their resources to provide emergency childcare for frontline workers in healthcare and food services and rolled up their sleeves in support of blood drives.

Here are some stats:

  • From March to June, the YMCA + LJCC provided 3200 hours of childcare combined.
  • The LJCC’s food program served more than 1,300 meals.
  • The YMCA’s partnership with American Red Cross yielded 150 units of blood from blood drives held at their locations.

Find out more about the efforts of these two organizations during the pandemic.

Again, thank you to Birmingham’s 2020 heroes. We couldn’t have made it through this year without you. 

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Patience Itson
Patience Itson
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