The year may have begun tragically, with a deadly shooting in Arizona, but 2011 still had its share of heartwarming moments. From a Hollywood legend's courageous testimony of elder abuse to a couple's undying love, here are a look at seven stories that warmed (and sometimes broke) our hearts, and the viral videos that helped spread their inspirational messages:
1. Mickey Rooney's tearful plea
In March, the 90-year-old Hollywood legend delivered passionate testimony to the Senate Committee on Aging, detailing the emotional and financial abuse he suffered at the hands of a family member. "You're not alone, and you have nothing to be ashamed of," Rooney told other seniors. "Please, for yourself, end the cycle of abuse and do not allow yourself to be silenced any longer." With more than 2 million older Americans suffering from elder abuse, Rooney's tearjerking story shed some "much-needed light on a genuine problem," said Stephen M. Silverman at People.
2. The mini motivator
Thousands of young Americans learned how to ride a bike this year, but only one captured our hearts with his inspirational speech afterwards. After his first successful ride around his suburban cul-de-sac, this breathless, helmeted boy stepped onto the curb to deliver a rousing and hilarious speech insisting that his fellow would-be riders never give up. "If you believe in yourself, you will know how to ride a bike!" he declared. "We defy you not to feel inspired," said TNT Magazine.
3. Gabby Giffords' return
Just six months after nearly being killed by a gunshot wound to the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) returned to Congress this summer to cast her vote on a debt-limit fight that had divided Congress for much of the year. Giffords' surprise appearance earned a bipartisan standing ovation on the House floor, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed her colleague as the "personification of courage."
4. Hawkeye, the grieving Labrador
In August, American troops suffered their deadliest day in a decade of war, when 30 American servicemen died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Among them was 35-year-old Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson. Roughly 1,500 mourners came to a local Iowa high school gym to pay their respects, but one griever stood out: Hawkeye, the chocolate lab. Tumilson's loyal dog lay in front of the casket for the entire service, and as friends and family members filed out, the dog was unwilling to leave the casket's side. Photos of this heartbreaking display of devotion were pieced together into a time lapse video that quickly went viral.
5. The 'cutest grandparents' enter the digital age
Bruce and Esther Huffman of Oregon starred in a viral video this summer that captured them trying to figure out how to use a webcam. Unaware that they were being recorded, Bruce made monkey faces at the camera and flirted with Esther, his "firecracker" wife, who chewed gum and poked and prodded at the newfangled technology.
6. 72 years together: The couple who died holding hands
Nonagenarians Norma and Gordon Yeager were lovebirds till the end. "They just loved being together," said their son, Dennis. Married 72 years, they had promised each other to live as long as the other one, and, in October, they did exactly that. When the Yeagers were hospitalized following a car accident, the two lay side-by-side in the intensive care unit, barely responsive, but holding hands. After Gordon passed away, the heart monitor kept beating, responding to the faint pulse of Norma's heart through their clasped hands. Exactly one hour later, Norma followed him. The couple shared a casket at their funeral.
7. A powerful anti-bullying message
In a raw, heartwrenching YouTube clip that went viral this fall, middle-schooler Jonah Mowry silently explained how he's suffered homophobic bulling for years. Through tears, Mowry shared a series of brave admissions scrawled on notecards. Mowry ended with a powerful message of inspiration: "I'm not going anywhere, because I'm stronger than that. I have a million reasons to be here." With the show of such strength in the face of adversity, Mowry proves to be "one of the bravest boys I've never met," says Matt Cherette at Gawker.