Strip nearly everything from Patricia Jefferson's life. Take away her home, her possessions, her vision. Place her, blind and humbled, at a dining table in a West Side apartment with a fraying wicker basket as a centerpiece.

What she'll do is smile and enumerate all she's thankful for: her adopted daughter, a challenging 13-year-old with autism; the more than three dozen foster children she and her husband have cared for; and that odd centerpiece, a beige basket filled with 12 small stones that have helped her find optimism where others might see only despair.

"You can't feel sorry for yourself," said Jefferson, 58. "How can we sit back and be upset and frowning? You have to look at life and find something positive in it."

In the past year, Jefferson lost her sight to diabetes, declared bankruptcy and, for a time, had her utilities shut off when she fell behind on payments. Three years ago, she and her husband lost their home and moved to a second-floor apartment, a devastating loss for a couple who worked diligently all their lives.

How can anyone mine positivity from such devastating events? Paired with the stories of three others from across the Chicago area, people who have reached the bottom or swooped perilously close, Jefferson's attitude as the holiday season dawns provides depth to the meaning of gratitude.

For Jefferson, the key lies in that basket of stones.

The first Thanksgiving her family spent in the apartment, they didn't know if they would even have a table. Jefferson, a Baptist minister, found comfort in the Old Testament story of Joshua, who built an altar to God made of 12 stones gathered by the Israelites as they crossed the river Jordan.

She returned to the yard of the home she had lost and found 12 stones, then placed them in a basket and set the basket on the dining room floor.

"Those stones were there as a reminder of our journey in life," she said. "No matter what's going on, God has taken us from point A to point B. And he'll always be there to watch over us and give us what we need."

The day before that Thanksgiving, a used table showed up at a nearby furniture shop, cheap enough for the Jeffersons to afford. The couple and more than two dozen of the foster children they had once housed sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, and the basket of stones took its rightful place on the table.

It has remained there since.

-- Rex W. Huppke

Starting over -- again

A new life was just unfolding for Kesi McTizic, a 35-year-old single mother from Calumet City.

She had struggled for 15 years with an addiction to crack cocaine. She stole from her parents and roamed the streets late at night. Her habit eventually landed her in Cook County Jail.

But by November 2008, McTizic managed to kick her drug addiction. She finished a yearlong residential rehabilitation program. She was volunteering at her church. She was rebuilding damaged relationships with her parents and son.

And then she learned she had the most advanced stage of lung cancer.

"I thought, 'Man, just when I decide I can get it together, here is some hopelessness,' " she said.

But rather than let it kill her spirit, McTizic decided to use her illness to lift up others. At Spirit of God Fellowship church in South Holland, she has yet to miss the hip-hop themed Friday night worship service she leads.