From celebrating the victories in battling health problems and narrowly escaping death to the joyous gift of life and generous donations from strangers, people across the suburbs have a lot to be thankful about this year.
These are some of the extraordinary stories of families and individuals who have much to be grateful and hopeful about this Thanksgiving, despite the trying times they've been through in the past year.
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Worries remain for mothers like Joan Evans of Elk Grove Village, who is battling breast cancer, and Tina Saavedra of Carpentersville, who is hoping for a kidney for her 3-year-old son. Those who accept the warm clothing collected by students at Marmion Academy may still face struggles too, as will the Fraleys of Wood Dale, who are learning the lessons of being first-time parents -- to quadruplets.
But today they, like the rest of us, are reflecting on everything for which they are thankful, and letting the people who helped them out along the way know how much they appreciate their kindness.
'I realized I'm gonna make it'
As she prepared for her second-to-last chemotherapy treatment Wednesday, Joan Evans looked beyond the cancer.
She didn't ponder her husband's unemployment or stress over the balancing act she faces dealing with her own health while caring for four children with disabilities.
This Thanksgiving, despite the fact her world has been turned upside down, Evans can only express endless gratitude for everyone who helped her family persevere through some exceptionally rough months.
"We're so thankful for so many things, oh my gosh," she said. "We are thankful and blessed for God's provisions for our family. He definitely does amazing things and He shows us blessings from trials ... Most people don't see that, but our family has definitely seen that throughout this year."
The Elk Grove Village mother of 18-year-old triplets with cerebral palsy -- including one who uses a wheelchair -- and a 12-year-old son with autism was diagnosed with advanced stage three breast cancer in May. Her husband, Mark, lost his job that same week.
As the Evans fell under the growing stress of keeping up with medical bills and paying their mortgage, a family member came to their aid, hosting a fundraiser that took the financial burden off their shoulders for a while.
"I'm forever grateful to my sister-in-law Patti, who did an amazing and awesome job orchestrating the Joan Evans' Family Fundraiser in September. What an overwhelming, but fun event that was," Evans said.
Organizers estimated that about 500 people turned out for the fundraiser, which raised more than $50,000 for the family.
"That fundraiser changed my spirit about my breast cancer, and I realized I'm gonna make it," Evans said, adding that she is especially thankful for the support of her doctors, nurses and fellow chemotherapy patients.
"I'm overwhelmed by the generous outpouring of gifts and support and words of encouragement by people who were inspired by the wonderful article and pictures in the Daily Herald," she added, referring to a story that previewed the event. "From gifts of $1 to $10,000 to a beautiful red (wheelchair) lift van donated by Chris and Gail (Margarites of Hawthorn Woods), our family can't thank you all enough, how you have blessed our family."
- Jessica Cilella, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanking his lifesavers
Forrest Ericksen doesn't remember the snowmobile accident that nearly killed him.
The 18-year-old college student from Lake Villa recalls going to the Winter Thunder Challenge racecourse in Wauconda that morning in January 2010 -- and then nothing until about month later, when he was transferred from Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville to a Chicago rehabilitation center.
He doesn't remember going over the snowmobile's handlebars. He doesn't remember a ski from the machine hitting him in the neck, fracturing his skull and severing an artery.
He doesn't remember arriving at Condell in such bad shape that doctors didn't expect him to live.
But he did.
And on Wednesday, he returned to Condell to thank the doctors who saved his life.
"It was pretty amazing," Ericksen said of his ordeal, as some of the doctors who cared for him stood nearby. "Without these guys, it would've been a whole different outcome."
Ericksen, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, arranged the meeting for when he was home from school on Thanksgiving break.
Among the doctors who greeted Ericksen was Dr. William Watson, the trauma surgeon on call the day of the accident.
Watson recalled not being sure if Ericksen would survive his injuries.
"He was literally pouring blood out of his nose and mouth," Watson remembered. "It was a devastating injury."
Dr. Shayle Patzik, head of interventional radiology at Condell, chose to guide a catheter from Ericksen's hip to his nose, where he inserted tiny devices to stop the bleeding. The procedure worked.
Ericksen spent about a month at Condell, including a few weeks in a coma. He then spent several months at the Rehab Institute of Chicago, relearning to walk, talk, eat and perform other tasks.
Today, Ericksen has nearly fully recovered from his injuries. The doctors are amazed by his progress.
Patzik called the reunion gratifying.
"It makes you feel good about what you do," he said.
Accompanied by his parents, his brother and his girlfriend, Ericksen acknowledged how lucky he was to survive. When asked how he got through the ordeal, he pointed to his mom and said she never left his side in the hospital.
"I'm extremely grateful," Ericksen said.
-- Russell Lissau, email@example.com
Generosity keeps mother hopeful
Nathan Saavedra celebrated his 3rd birthday Sunday. About three weeks ago, he learned to walk. And later this month, the Carpentersville toddler will start preschool at the deLacey Early Childhood Education Center.
It may not seem so for a 3-year-old, but these are significant accomplishments for Nathan, a little boy who underwent a kidney transplant last October, only to have his body reject the organ less than six months later.
Nathan was born with a condition known as "prune belly syndrome," a birth defect that causes an underdeveloped stomach and leads to other health issues, especially with the urinary tract and kidneys.
His mother, Tina Saavedra, said her son had the chance to reach these milestones thanks to modern medicine and the kindness of strangers.
"I am thankful for dialysis because that is all right now that keeps Nathan going," she said.
Saavedra is also grateful for the half dozen people who responded to her plea for another organ donor after doctors found Nathan's kidney had twisted.
"I think five or so people were able to get tested and now we are waiting to see," she said. "They could give Nathan a chance."
People 18 to 55 years old with Type B or O blood and no history of heart disease or blood pressure problems are encouraged to see whether they can donate to Nathan. To start the process, get documentation of your blood type from your doctor and fax it to Children's Memorial Hospital at (312) 227-9405, Attn: Whitney.
-- Larissa Chinwah, firstname.lastname@example.org
'If I needed someone, someone would be there for me'
Beth and Lane Fraley had plenty of first-time parent worries when they learned she was pregnant. Those concerns grew fourfold when the Wood Dale couple discovered they were having quadruplets.
But even before Landon, Olivia, Clare and Maya were born in April, the couple found themselves surrounded with tremendous support from family, friends and even Beth's doctors. And once the babies arrived at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, the couple knew everything would work out, Beth said.
"Even in the (neonatal intensive care unit), I got such positive support from the nurses who always let me see the babies, soothed the worries I had as a new mom, and some of them even bought us diapers and formula," she said.
The Fraleys were just as grateful for the people who awaited them and their newborns at home. Everyone, it seemed, knew when to give the young couple the space they needed to bond with their newborns -- or when to step in.
"They gave Lane and us time to be a family and figure out what we needed, but I always felt that if I needed someone, someone would be there for me," Beth said.
That meant her mom coming to spend the night, or her two sisters and Lane's family pitching in around the house, and even neighbors bringing meals in the early months.
Beth said there is one person she's been most thankful for during her journey into motherhood: her husband, Lane.
"We definitely came together, and our relationship grew a lot," she said. "I am so lucky to have an open and loving husband."
- Elisabeth Mistretta, email@example.com
Student coat drive gets tons of support
When students at Marmion Academy say they've collected a ton of winter clothes for the needy, they mean it literally.
The Aurora school's sophomore theology class and campus ministry program co-sponsored a Winter Clothing Drive with a goal of collecting more than 2,000 pounds of clothing to be delivered to four local agencies: Hesed House, Lazarus House, Dominican Literacy Center and Wayside Cross Ministries.
"We try to do as much as we can around the holiday times, including this clothing drive, and a Thanksgiving dinner we have coming up," said Madelyn Weed, Marmion's director of communications and public relations.
Each class was challenged to collectively donate the largest amount of gently used winter clothing, with the winning class awarded an out-of-uniform "Civvies Day."
Weed said students collected more than just coats and jackets.
"(They collected) sweaters, snow pants, and other warm clothing for winter," Weed said.
When the drive closed Nov. 14, the sophomore class soared above the rest, hauling in over 1,200 pounds of coats, hats and gloves. The entire school's total was 1.5 tons.
Marmion mothers will sort the clothes, which will be delivered to the participating agencies, and from there to the needy.
"The moms will sort through and make sure (the clothing) is all gently used or in decent shape," Weed said.
Students were led by campus ministry director and theology teacher Bill Johnson and student chaplain the Rev. Michael Burrows.
-- Susan Klovstad, firstname.lastname@example.org