NEW YORK (CNN) -- An Ecuadoran lawyer leading a landmark environmental lawsuit, a U.S. expatriate who encourages attendance at rural African schools and a Ugandan missionary who runs a boarding school for girls abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army were given special recognition at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" Thursday night.
"Community Crusader" finalist Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe was among the honorees.
Also honored were a Seattle, Washington, man who founded a clinic in his native Kenya, a Cuban woman who transformed a toxic dump in Cuba into an urban garden, and a teenager who developed a music system to help people with autism by linking language to sounds. Watch highlights from the show »
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, actress Rosario Dawson and musician Harry Connick Jr. presented the honors to "Medical Marvel" finalist Peter Kithene, "Defending the Planet" finalist Irania Martinez Garcia and "Young Wonder" finalist Kayla Cornale. Read more about each of the honorees »
Cuban-born environmental health advocate Alberto Jones accepted the "Defending the Planet" honor on behalf of his friend Garcia.
A blue ribbon panel of 15 eminent personalities selected the six honorees from three finalists in each category. Watch an interview with blue ribbon panel member Deepak Chopra »
Fajardo grew up in the Amazon and started working at the age of 14 to support his younger siblings. As he labored on a plantation and in the oil fields, he attended night school to get a high school education. For six years, he woke at 3:30 a.m. to study law, and now in his first case, he is up against the oil industry.
"Our work in Ecuador is an example of the good things that can happen when thousands of people most without money or power can come together in a common effort to better themselves and the planet," Fajardo said in accepting the honor. Watch Fajardo talk with presenter Jimmy Smits »
Peifer and his family moved to Kenya eight years ago. A former Oracle software manager, he was struck by the chronic poverty and he believed educating local children could help change that. He devised an inexpensive way for schools to provide meals to hungry students and he also builds school computer centers. The result: Attendance is on the rise.
"It's a privilege to be in Kenya," Peifer told the CNN Heroes audience. "We came to Kenya after one of our children died. Scripture says he who seeks to lose his own life will find it. When my son died, I felt like I lost my own life. Kenya gave it back to me. I'll always be blessed that we ended up in Kenya. There's such a need in Kenya. There's such an opportunity right now." Watch Peifer talk about his honor »
Nyirumbe reached out to young girls who had been kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army and had been forced to become soldiers and concubines. Hundreds responded and enrolled in her boarding school, where she teaches them tailoring, catering and business administration and helps rehabilitate them. Watch an interview with a former kidnapped child soldier »
"In humility and great gratitude, I accept the CNN Heroes award on behalf of those physically and psychologically traumatized young women and girls and children, and on behalf of the many people contributing like me to doing small things that [are] transforming people's lives," Nyirumbe said. "I honor the young women, the young mothers who have been forced to become mothers before they were prepared. I receive this award on their behalf, and I salute them all." CNN's Alina Cho talks to Nyirumbe »
Kithene lost his parents when he was 12 and he knew then the best thing he could do for his family was to get an education. Kithene, now pursuing a graduate degree in Health Administration, has founded an organization that brings medical care to poor rural Kenyans.
"I want to thank my late mother-in-law ... who just passed this last Saturday. She lived to be very proud of me. Despite unstable health Elaine was with me in Africa when I opened this clinic. She continued to support me until the last minute of her life. She would have loved to be here today, but I'm sure she is watching over, just as she used to say of my family members who didn't make it," Kithene said.
"To those living in dire need in Africa and other parts of the world, I say the world is watching over. Hang in there, do not give up, love and support one another." Watch Kithene discuss his honor »
Garcia transformed the city dump in Guantanamo into an eco-friendly garden by separating organic and inorganic materials. The organic material was used as compost for the garden and the inorganic matter was stripped down to its core and recycled or re-sold.
"It is with profound humility that I stand here to accept this award on behalf of Irania Martinez Garcia, a remarkable woman who single-handedly mobilized her community in Guantanamo, Cuba," her friend Alberto Jones said. "Irania reminds us all that a better world does exist, it is real and depends only on us."
Cornale's autistic cousin had a knack for remembering songs and at 16, Cornale invented a system called "Sounds Into Syllables." She figured out a way to link sounds to language, to help her cousin communicate. Two years later, Cornale, 18, runs a pilot research program while attending Stanford University.
"When I first began to work with my cousin Lorena, I saw myself as the teacher of a little girl largely defined by her autism," Cornale said. "I subsequently discovered a child with a strong desire to succeed, a great sense of humor and a genuine empathy for those around her. In working with Lorena, I learned to not let her autism obscure her individuality. That lesson has opened the doors to me to get to know other unique and interesting children who happen to have autism."
All 18 finalists will receive a $10,000 cash grant from CNN. The six CNN Heroes selected by the blue ribbon panel will each receive an additional $25,000. See photos of the event »
In addition to the viewer-nominated CNN Heroes, the show also honored Pat Pedraja, the most popular CNN Hero profiled on air and online between May 1 and September 30, as chosen in a viewers' choice poll conducted on CNN.com.
Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, presented the Viewers' Choice honor to Pedraja.
Pedraja, a 12-year-old leukemia patient from Tampa, Florida, traveled the country encouraging minorities like himself to register as bone marrow donors after he learned that minorities make up less than a third of the U.S. bone marrow registry and often die without donors. In three months, he raised more than $100,000 and helped sign up more than 5,000 people to the registry.
"I told everybody I wanted to win so I could come up here and tell everybody about the critical need for bone marrow donors," Pedraja said. "By just a cheek swab, you can be on the national bone marrow donor program's registry in over 50 countries, and [by] doing something so simple you can be the one who can save the life of a kid like me. All of us have the power to make a difference, you just have to never give up, and always believe, and I just want everyone to remember that you're never too young to change the world."
"CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour, aired live globally on CNN/U.S., CNN International and CNN en Espanol from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"Over the past five months, our CNN Heroes initiative has shone a spotlight upon dozens of amazing people from around the globe," said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide. "All of them deserve the designation as a 'hero,' and these seven we honored tonight truly stood out with their accomplishments, their courage and their humility."
CNN also honored the legacy of Christopher and Dana Reeve and their foundation with the inaugural CNN Heroes' Hero Award.
Actress Glenn Close presented the award to the Reeves' children, Matthew and Alexandra Reeve, and foundation board chairman Peter D. Kiernan III.
The award was created to recognize individuals who devoted their lives to helping others and whose names have become synonymous with their causes.
The Reeve foundation is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis through grants, information and advocacy.
The couple formed the foundation after a 1995 horse-riding accident left Christopher Reeve paralyzed from the neck down. Reeve died in 2004, and Dana Reeve died two years later after complications from lung cancer. Festivities began at 8 p.m. on Headline News with a one-hour red-carpet show live from outside the museum as celebrity performers and presenters arrived.
The two-hour gala that followed featured performances from Grammy Award winners Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, and acclaimed performer-producer Wyclef Jean. The show focused the spotlight on the 18 CNN Heroes finalists selected from more than 7,000 nominations submitted by viewers in 80 countries.
The finalists -- three each in six categories of cause-related work -- have been featured in stories airing on "Anderson Cooper 360" during the past two weeks.
The CNN Heroes categories are:
• Championing Children: extraordinary commitment to the welfare of young people
• Community Crusader: creating solutions to a local problem or social issue
• Defending the Planet: innovative efforts to preserve and protect the environment
• Fighting for Justice: advancing the cause of civil or equal rights
• Medical Marvel: dedication to the enhancement of human health
• Young Wonder: outstanding achievement by a person under the age of 18