The gift of gratitude

In a small outdated kitchen in her Fort Lauderdale home, Gloria Lewis spends more than eight hours every week preparing 125 homemade meals for the homeless community in Broward County.

Sometimes, she marinates 80 pounds of chicken in lemon juice and cooks 20 pounds of rice. Other times, she makes pasta and meatballs. But always, she makes sure the dinners are paired with steamed vegetables – zucchini, squash, carrots, cucumbers – and a fresh fruit salad.

And the finishing touch: A “God loves you” message in black marker on the top of the plastic dinner boxes.

“I do it because I was brought up to give back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how little you have. I always wanted to help the underdog.”

Lewis is one of scores of South Floridians who are giving back on Thanksgiving and throughout the year or are grateful for the help they’ve received during troubled times.

“People are always asking me what kind of kitchen I got,” said Lewis, 49, a waitress in her day job and who estimates she and her husband, Antonio Vargas, 42, a part-time mechanic, and her son, Cedric, 24, spend about $12,000 a year in their cooking effort. “These people have already been let down so much. We do our best to help. We have been at the bottom before, not that low, but we’ve been there so we know what it feels like.”

This Thanksgiving, Lewis is grateful for the health and security of her family, grateful her husband has been a father to her son for the past 14 years, and thankful she and her family can live out the gift of giving in their everyday life.

James Kelley, a 64-year-old resident of Kendall, had less than a month to live before getting a call from Jackson Memorial Hospital in April saying they had a liver ready for him.

Being in and out of the hospital during the last couple of years made him miss Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and the birth of his two grandchildren.

Kelley, who suffered from a fatty liver due to high blood pressure and diabetes medications, was weighing 375 pounds and had undergone more than 340 tests before having a successful liver transplant.

Now he is back to weighing 196 pounds, gets to enjoy the holidays, spends time with his grandchildren, goes hunting and fishing and is an elder at South Kendall Community Church.

“I’m 64, but I feel like I’m 30,” he said, laughing. “That’s why you never give up. The one thing I had going for me was my faith. It gave me something to hold on to. I am just thankful for another few days on the planet.”

Arlex Pardo, a resident of Pembroke Pines, is also thankful for another chance at life. After being diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of leukemia and undergoing six months of chemotherapy, doctors told him a bone marrow transplant was the only way to save his life.

The 48-year-old was feeling tired, had lost his appetite, and was having fainting spells before the diagnosis came. Being strong in his faith helped him remain positive.

Then the news came: His older brother, Victor, who lives in Tampa, was a perfect match. The bone marrow transplant happened on Oct. 8 at Memorial Cancer Institute at Memorial Hospital West. The next day, Arlex felt better. And today, almost all of the leukemia has been in remission.

“Every second of my life, I have faith and hope,” he said. “I was reborn again the day of my transplant.”

Besides being grateful to be alive this Thanksgiving, he is thankful for his brother who donated his bone marrow, his wife Margarita, who has been by his side through it all, his doctors, and the Memorial Cancer Institute, which he says has become his second family.

For Mark Amarant, regaining his vision and his health has been at the top of his thankful list this year.

After weighing more than 305 pounds, undergoing surgery for a fully detached retina that made him temporarily blind in his right eye, and constantly spending his life in meetings – “breakfast with that person, lunch with this person, dinner with another” – he decided it was time for a change.

The 44-year-old resident of Davie has lost more than 80 pounds and now realizes what is important in life after undergoing multiple eye surgeries and living an unhealthy lifestyle. Now, he is getting ready to launch his new business, a cloud service provider, and is enjoying the time he spends with his wife Leslie and his two children, Marley and Aaron.

Although he is most thankful for his eyesight – he regained his 20/20 vision – and his newfound health, he is thankful for the health of his family.

“Time heals everything,” he said. “I noticed that first hand. I lost a little bit of my sight, to get back all of my vision. I’m about as thankful a guy as you can find.”

And Sabrina London, a 16-year-old resident of Miramar, is about as thankful a teenager as you can find.

Although she has cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder that affects her speech, body movement and restricts her to a wheelchair —she is thankful for everything she can do, including win a beauty pageant.

She was recently crowned as the first Miss ARC Broward. ARC Broward is an organization dedicated to helping disabled individuals discover and build on their abilities.

“The ARC has helped me to be more confident and proud of who I am,” she said.

Some people are at a loss of words this Thanksgiving, trying to figure out how to say thank you to those who stepped in during a time of need.

Maria Nunez, a resident of Miami-Dade County, doesn’t believe any words can thank Carla and Jose Luis Rivas. After Nunez’s mother had an unexpected stroke, her family’s life changed instantaneously.

Payments for medications and therapies were through the roof and they had to travel to Duke University in North Carolina for therapy. Her life was upside down, but the Rivas family rescued her and gave her the money she needed. They didn’t ask anything in return.

“They didn’t question how much it was,” she said. “It was unbelievable. Who does that? They made it possible for me to be there with my sick mother. They did the jobs of angels. They knocked on my door to help me. I never asked for anything. I want people to know that angels do exist.”