It Wasn’t All Bad: 16 Good News Stories From 2016

Clockwise from top left: South African HIV vaccine trials; Pope Francis; Viola Desmond; announcing the Colombian Peace Deal; display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the Chicago Cubs win the World Series

2016 wasn’t fun. We get it. We lost a number of beloved celebrities as one particularly orange celeb won the White House. Meanwhile, everything from war zone refugees to Brexit to police shootings dominated the grim day-to-day news cycle.

Believe it or not, though, this year yielded a solid stream of good news stories, some of which got glossed over in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media landscape. We’re talking everything from medical breakthroughs to the building of spiritual bridges to the crushing of curses that range from local to international to intergalactic in scope. So, as we prepare to ring in 2017, our new year’s gift to you is the very rare experience of having 2016 news bring a smile to your face.

Heartwarming Hangover

Up until last August, John McMillan, 69, didn’t garner enough business at his Lethbridge, Alta.-based restaurant, Whitbie’s Fish & Chips, to generate his own paycheque. Sometimes, though, it only takes one customer to make a difference. For McMillan, that customer was a hungover and hungry local named Colin Ross, who found his way into the restaurant for the first time, ate and then posted a photo of the place on Facebook extolling the delicious food and kind proprietor. He asked his friends to share the info about this rarely frequented restaurant and next thing he knew the post went viral. Now business is booming and McMillan has customers literally lined up out the door. It’s a wonderful reward for his hard work and proof that there are fantastic uses for social media beyond sharing pet photos and spreading fake news.

A True Toy Story

Think of him like Santa Claus, except he hauls his sack of toys on his back without the help of reindeer and, instead of sliding down chimneys to deliver presents with care, he’s dodging bombs and sniper bullets in a war-torn land. Last September we learned about 44-year-old Rami Adham, a Syrian-born Finnish man who, in the past five years, has snuck into refugee camps in Syria at least 28 times to deliver toys to kids and orphans affected by the war. The kids call him the “Toy Smuggler” and not only have he and his family gone to great lengths to bring smiles to the faces of children devastated by the conflict, but he’s started a charity that sponsors Syrian children and helps build schools in the camps so that they can get an education. It’s an amazing story of one man’s will to spread happiness in the darkest of places.

Pope Francis Builds Faith Bridges While Railing Against Trump’s Wall

It’s no secret that Pope Franics, dubbed the “rock star pope” by some, is perhaps the most progressive pontiff in anyone’s memory. In recent years Pope Francis declared the atheists could go to Heaven and gave the thumbs up to gay parishioners and priests, earning him praise from the faithful and non-religious alike. In this, his 80th year, the pope continued on his mission to unite, rather than alienate, in the name of his faith.

One of the pope’s main focuses this year was the refugee and migrant crises out of Syria and other war-torn areas. “The sickness or, you can say the sin, that Jesus condemns most is hypocrisy,” Pope Francis told a group of pilgrims in October. “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian … It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

The Pope even created a new dicastery, or department, within the Holy See dedicated to “Integral Human Development” and which “will be competent particularly in issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.”

Speaking of appropriate Christian responses, when asked about U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S. Mexican border, the pontiff responded by noting that, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” In typical Trump fashion, the Republican shot back calling the comment “disgraceful.” Pope Francis, however, used actions rather than words to illustrate his point, meeting and embracing Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, the first meeting of the Pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch in the near 1,000 years since the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split.

And to cap off what he dubbed the “year of mercy,” Pope Francis declared that the Church must not judge others, but rather must try harder to listen to and understand the difficulties families face. “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

Amen.

Female Civil Rights Pioneers Shatter Another Barrier

This year brought the announcement that two female Civil Rights pioneers from two different nations will become the first women from their respective countries to be featured on their national currency. Canada’s Viola Desmond, often described as our own Rosa Parks, took a stand against racial segregation at a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946, effectively triggering a major Civil Rights movement within our land. In December, it was announced that Desmond would replace Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, on the front of the $10 bill in the coming year. Meanwhile, American officials announced that Harriet Tubman, a hero of the Underground Railroad, would replace former President Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill, though reports say that it may take years before the Tubman bills are in circulation. Still, it’s a welcome development and a level of recognition that, ironically, money can’t buy.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the Colombian Peace Deal in Cuba (via Getty Images)

Peace Comes to Colombia

A landmark Colombian peace accord that hit bumps in the road but never faltered from its goal and which ultimately won its architect, President Juan Manuel Santos, the Nobel Peace Prize, came to fruition, halting more than five decades of fighting between government forces and their allies and FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

It didn’t come easy, as earlier in the year, when a deal was all but done and celebrations already held, an ensuing popular vote vetoed it by a slim margin and threatened to upend the entire process. It was around that time that Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize, at first an embarrassing gaffe but ultimately legitimatized by the peace deal reaching final approval later in the year. Political infighting remains but, for the Colombian people caught in the crossfire of the decades-long battle, the deal is a welcome reprieve and proof that peace, even in the most volatile of clashes, is possible.

The U.N. Makes a Landmark Decision in the Fight for LGBTI Rights

The United Nations Human Rights Council took a major step forward in the fight for the rights of LGBTI people by appointing the first independent investigator to explore and expose abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, 64, an award-winning veteran U.N. human rights lawyer and crusader whose work with the organization has, in past years, tackled everything from child trafficking and pornography to human rights abuses in nations from North Korea to Thailand, takes up the inaugural LGBTI investigator post. The news of the new U.N. role earned praise from LGBTI groups and human rights groups alike, with John Fisher, a director at the international group Human Rights Watch, declaring, “This critical mandate will bring much-needed attention to human rights violations against LGBT people in all regions of the world.”

India Gets Serious About Solar Power with World’s Largest Solar Plant

In 2016 India constructed the world’s largest solar plant in under a year for US$679 million – less than the cost of the three Hobbit films combined. Seriously. And it can power 150,000 homes. It covers four miles and, according to Popular Mechanics, this 648 MW generator makes India “one of only a handful of countries to generate more than 10 GW of solar power. India is expected to become the third largest producer of solar power next year.”

For a country with more than a billion people, that’s fantastic news. And perhaps in the future, instead of attempting to build the world’s tallest building, nations will race to see who can top India for the prize of world’s largest solar panel. Sure you can’t put restaurants and an observation deck on it, but it does more to help sustain the Earth than some tall piece of concrete in the sky.

Historic Museum Opens in Washington

In one of the most poignant and poetic moments of the year, U.S. President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, opened the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, located on Washington’s National Mall within view of the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol. Georgia-based politician John Lewis, a civil rights leader who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries to organize the March on Washington in 1963, called the institution “a dream come true.” The museum, which documents the history of African Americans in the U.S. from slavery to Black Lives Matter, is the first of its kind in the nation and features artifacts ranging from Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman’s shawl to the rehearsal piano of Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music,” to statues of Jackie Robinson and Jessie Owens to Chuck Berry’s Cadillac. “We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America,” President Obama declared at the opening of the museum. “We are America.”

 

The first person to take part in the South African HIV vaccination trial, 23-year-old Nkosiyazi Mncube, in November, 2016 (via Getty Images)

Happy Health Part One: Large Scale HIV Vaccine Trial Begins

Researchers in South Africa began a large-scale trial of an HIV vaccine in November with hopes of scoring a major breakthrough and possible shield against the deadly virus. Unlike testing a cure for a disease, in which scientists would treat the afflicted and see if the cure works, a vaccine study relies on healthy volunteers to willingly put themselves in the line of fire with only an experimental suit of armor between them and their deadly foe. The fact that healthy people in a nation ravaged by HIV and AIDS are willing to put themselves at risk of developing HIV in the service of a study that could give birth to a life-changing vaccine makes this story even more incredible.

The last such trial of a similar vaccine took place in 2009, with a 30 per cent success rate. The results for this vaccine won’t be available for four years, but optimistic experts told the BBC that they hope this vaccine proves, “‘the final nail in the coffin’ for HIV.”

Happy Health Part Two: We’re Winning the Fight Against Cancer

When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with brain and liver cancer that had spread due to advanced melanoma at age 90 in 2015, the news seemed grim. However, treatment with new immunotherapy drugs in tandem with radiation completely wiped out the nonagenarian’s cancer, resulting in a clean bill of health only months later. The trend continued in 2016 with new data showing the increasing positive effects of new immunotherapy drugs in treating various types of cancers.

Louis Weiner, the director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, told The Washington Post in April that, “We are in the midst of a sea change in how we are treating cancer. We’re really seeing the fruits of many years of research into what drives cancer and how it interacts with the immune system to defeat it and survive.”

Happy Health Part Three: New Ebola Vaccine May Prove 100% Effective

Results of a study led by the World Health Organization that tested an experimental Ebola vaccine were released in the waning days of 2016 and the news was astonishing: the vaccine proved effective in 100% of the study’s test cases in protecting against a disease that has killed tens of thousands of people in the last few years alone. The study offers hope that the vaccine could be the safeguard affected countries have been waiting for.

Dr. KeÏta Sakoba, director of Guinea’s national agency for health security, which helped lead the West Africa-based study, told CNN that, “Ebola left a devastating legacy in our country. We are proud that we have been able to contribute to developing a vaccine that will prevent other nations from enduring what we endured.”

Happy Health Part Four: All Those Ice Buckets Paid Off

Remember those videos you saw in 2014 of everyone from movie stars to your friends and family dumping buckets of ice water over their heads in support of ALS research? Well, in 2016 those chilling efforts paid off, according to a study published in the medical journal Nature Genetics in July, with the discovery of a gene called NEK1 that could give researchers significant insight into the neurodegenerative disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

So how exactly did all these people pouring ice water over their heads, which reportedly raised $200 million, help out with this discovery? In a press release from the non-profit ALS Association, researcher Lucie Bruijn explained, “The sophisticated gene analysis that led to this finding was only possible because of the large number of ALS samples available. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge enabled The ALS Association to invest in Project MinE’s work to create large biorepositories of ALS biosamples that are designed to allow exactly this kind of research and to produce exactly this kind of result.”

While there are some dissenters about the claim, the ALS story seems to prove that not only is there hope for those who suffer from the disease, but hope that, going forward, online viral charity campaigns can make a significant impact on affected lives around the world. 

Member of the Chicago Cubs celebrate winning game seven of the 2016 World Series (via Getty Images)

Curses Are Made to be Broken

If the second half of 2016 taught us anything, it was that no odds are too long and no curse too strong to keep any person, or team, from reaching the pinnacle of their success. In June, the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the world when they came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in four games straight to take the NBA championship, not only bringing the city of Cleveland its first major sports championship in more than half a century, but also bringing the return of the team’s biggest star, LeBron James, full circle, allowing him to win a title for the team he once left for the sunny shores of South Beach.

A few months later, in early November, a Cleveland-based team once again vied for a major sports championship, this time the elusive World Series trophy, which they’d ever won. However they came up against a team of destiny, the lovable loser Chicago Cubs who, thanks to a long ago disgruntled billy goat owner, faced down the barrel of a 108-year-old curse that had supposedly kept them from winning baseball’s biggest prize. In the end, the Cubs shattered the curse, earning cheers from baseball fans across North America (well, maybe not in Cleveland). The elation that spread across America lasted about six days until another underdog came from behind to snag a major prize, though there’s something about the slogan “Make America Great Again” that just doesn’t convey the sense of joy that we’ll always remember when we heard the phrase “Cubs win!”

A Transgender Story at Age 70 Proves It’s Never Too Late to Be True to Oneself

In a beautiful tale of love and acceptance, Bill Rohr, 70, and Linda, his wife of 44 years, proved that it’s never too late in life to be true to oneself. The Rohr’s story, featured in The Washington Post, is one of young American sweethearts who married and raised a loving family. The patriarch, however, harboured a secret he’d carried with him since childhood – he’d always believed he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Finally, during retirement years often occupied with relaxation, travel and time spent with loved ones, Rohr confessed his secret to his wife and family and, with their blessings and support, underwent gender re-assignment surgery in 2016 to become Kate Rohr. The couple’s rock-solid foundation of love and acceptance prove an inspiration to anyone of any age, showing it’s never too late to pursue the happiness you’ve yearned for, even if you’ve waited your entire life for it.

That Hole in the Ozone Layer is Shrinking!

We’ve all heard the warnings over the past three decades about the hole in the ozone layer and how CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) gasses used on Earth were the cause. Over time, despite the protests of chemical companies we stopped using aerosol spray cans and other items that resulted in the CFC gasses that tore the ozone layer a new one. And guess what – shockingly, the chemical companies were wrong and all that cutting back on harmful gasses is paying off! New research published in 2016 by a team of scientists from MIT, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of Leeds showed that the ozone hole over Antarctica is shrinking. MIT’s Susan Solomon, the lead researcher on the study, said that the ozone hole, which opens every year, “is opening later, it is smaller, and its depth is depleted. All of the measurements are independent, and when they all point to this [healing], it is hard to imagine any other explanation … It gives us hope that we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle large environmental problems.”

Albert Einstein’s “I Told You So” Moment

We don’t know if Albert Einstein was the type to say, “I told you so,” but an announcement from researchers early in 2016 proved that the famed scientist was, indeed, right all along when he predicted you can hear sounds in space.

In February, researchers announced that a team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana discovered gravitational waves, a breakthrough that echoes – no pun intended – a component of Einstein’s general theory of relativity that he published around a century ago. Talk about calling your shot. The waves, “ripples in the curvature of spacetime,” emanated from a collision between two black holes and offer extraordinary new insights and opportunities for studying everything from the origins of the universe to black holes themselves.

“Until this moment we had our eyes on the sky and we couldn’t hear the music,” Szabolcs Marka, an astrophysicist with Columbia University and a member of the LIGO team, said. “The skies will never be the same.”

The discovery was first made in September 2015 but announced at a press conference in Washington on Feb. 11, 2016.

“We’re actually hearing [the waves] go thump in the night,” Matthew Evans, a physicist with MIT, added. “We’re getting a signal which arrives at Earth, and we can put it on a speaker, and we can hear these black holes go, ‘Whoop.’ There’s a very visceral connection to this observation.”

Have a good news story from 2016 that we missed? Let us know about it in the comments section below.