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amNY Year in Review: The most heartwarming New York City stories of 2021

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Looking back at a year of heartwarming stories.

The news cycle can leave both readers, and the journalists who report it, somewhat melancholy amidst what, at times, can seem like a never-ending deluge of tragedies. However, as much sorrow as there is in the world, there is also an outpouring of love and kindness.

It is with this in mind that amNewYork Metro looks back over 2021 at the year’s most heartwarming stories.

“A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

Cole learns about a train’s control system from MTA. Photo by Dean Moses

For many New Yorkers, Grand Central Station is a necessary hassle that must be undertaken in order to get to a destination, but for one young boy it is a magical place.

Fourteen-year-old Cole grew up seeing the world differently to other boys. Living with autism and suffering from a congenital heart defect, Cole harbored a great passion for train sets. Spending hours with his miniature locomotives, the young man could name all of his engines, yet the small-scale sets were as close as he had come to the real thing.

Cole waves from the train’s engine room. Photo by Dean Moses

Thanks to Make a Wish Foundation and the MTA, Cole and his family were transported from his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Grand Central where he was not only given a VIP tour of the transportation hub, but he also sat in the driver’s seat of a train. Bringing joy to the teen and tears to his mother’s eyes, Cole lived his passion on that day. You can read the full story here.

Home sweet home

Alex Lively and April Saccoccio near their Upper West Side apartment on June 2. Photo by Dean Moses

Homeless couple Alex Lively, April Saccoccio and their two dogs began a new life under the FDR Drive during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with just two sleeping bags, the family soon constructed an encampment thanks to the generosity of the surrounding neighborhood. Over the months the unhoused pair became valued members of Lower Manhattan and found themselves with their own makeshift shack.

Lively looks at the destruction in disbelief. Photo by Dean Moses

Things took a turn for the worse on June 30 when NYPD officers dismantled their encampment, leaving Lively bloody and the couple without a place to sleep. Not all was lost, however. Due to a collective outrage after readers who had been following their lives throughout the year discovered the news in amNewYork Metro, Lively, Saccoccio and their pets were offered an apartment on the Upper West Side, bringing a happily ever after to their long struggling lives. You can read the full story here.

A surgeons hands, a child’s future

Nagalem Haile and her father Matios Alafa Haile on July 6. Photo by Dean Moses

For many thousands around the world, New York City is an iconic tourist attraction overflowing with history and renowned buildings. However, Nagalem Haile didn’t arrive to see the sites.

Haile, a six-year-old Ethiopian child who suffered from a life-threatening tumor on her jawline, was whisked to Lenox Hill Hospital alongside her father to undergo a dramatic surgery. Thanks to surgeons Dr. Teresa O and Dr. Milton Waner, Haile was given a new lease on life thanks to a 12-hour, pro bono surgery. You can read the full story here.

Lessons learned

Rony Zeltser and Antoinette Messina reunited through a chance meeting after 30 years. Photo by Dean Moses

In July, a student and a teacher had a very special, very unique chance reunion.

As a child immigrant, Roney Zeltser found life in 1980s New York rather difficult. Struggling to learn the English language and becoming lost amid a school class brimming with 30 other children, life in the Big Apple looked rather bleak for Zeltser. Yet the boy would find a guardian angel in the form of Antoinette Messina.

A teacher who soon became a mentor, Messina took it upon herself to tutor Zeltser until he could not only speak English but also excel in academia. They struck up a bond that tethered through time, even when they lost contact for decades. However, they found their way back to one another when 42-year-old Zeltser, working as a physical therapist, was assigned to aid an elderly Messina who was also living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Zeltser encourages Messina to walk, remembering how she took the time to help him learn English and eventually find his voice. Photo by Dean Moses

Paying it forward, Zeltser worked for hours with his teacher, helping her to not only become more mobile but also regain some independence and memories thanks to their timeless friendship. You can read the full story here.

A lifesaving donation

Police Officer Tommy Alexander embraces Sergeant William Gaspari in emotional meeting. Photo by Dean Moses

Police officers often put their lives on the line while patrolling the city, yet instead of fearing a deadly encounter on the street, Tommy Alexander faced the ticking clock each and every day.

Living with a failing kidney, Alexander was forced to undergo weekly dialysis. When Sergeant William Gaspari discovered the plight of his brother in blue, he yearned to help. Being an incompatible donor, Gaspari opted to donate a kidney to the National Kidney Registry, on Nov.16, which in turn awarded him a voucher. Gaspari sent this voucher to Alexander, who could redeem it for a kidney. Thanks to this act of kindness Alexander completely recovered and on Dec. 8 the pair met for the first time, embracing in an emotional hug. You can read the full story here.

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