Probably no one in the Bay Area is more confident about 2013 than Debra Cargile.
"It's going to be a great year. I tell everyone," said the infectiously upbeat 58-year-old Santa Rosa resident. "As for me, I feel fabulous. I have everything I need - my health, a roof over my head, food on the table, my pets, family nearby. What more do I need?"
Cargile has always been optimistic and appreciative, but life was not looking so bountiful a year or so ago. The scrappy Ukiah native, who had worked all her life, often holding several jobs, found herself too sick to work much and unexpectedly faced a steep car repair bill that forced her to choose between paying rent or having a functioning car.
That's when The Chronicle's Season of Sharing stepped up to help pay her rent and get her through the financial jam.
But the greater gift, she said, was the realization that her life needed to take a radical new direction if she wanted to support herself in the future.
"It was my saving grace," she said. "Things were so bad, it was like, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' I knew I needed to make a change."
Cargile, who got Cs and Ds in high school and never attended an accredited college, enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College's culinary program. She's received 12 A's so far and plans to graduate this year. She already has a part-time job at a restaurant and a popular personal catering business, specializing in cakes and pastries.
"I'm a fighter. It's been a rough couple years, but I know how to dust myself off and continue on," she said. "I thank my parents for that."
Cargile grew up as one of 10 kids in a religious, hard-working and close-knit family. Cargile was such a tomboy as a kid the family nicknamed her Tarzan. In the mid-1960s, her father, a minister and a lumberman, moved the family from Ukiah to Oregon, where Cargile graduated from high school. For many years she bounced between Reno and Northern California, raising a daughter and putting two marriages behind her. She worked in bars, restaurants, factories, offices and anyplace else she could find a job.
Slipping into denial
Like many who work hard, on her days off Cargile liked dancing, drinking and having fun. Some of that fun proved almost deadly, however. In 1990 she was diagnosed with HIV, which she contracted through unprotected sex, and two years later doctors discovered she had hepatitis C.
She felt fine, however, so it was easy to slip into denial, she said. She tapered down her drinking and toned down her lifestyle, but otherwise did not do much to treat her conditions.
By the early 2000s she started feeling sick. In addition to the hepatitis C and HIV, which by this time had snowballed to AIDS, she said, she had developed cervical cancer.
Doctors put her on a 78-week chemotherapy-like treatment for the hepatitis, and she underwent a hysterectomy to treat the cervical cancer.
Shaken by tragedy
The result is that her health improved, but by 2011 Cargile was exhausted. She was working in a physically demanding job, as a caregiver for disabled and elderly people, as well as juggling restaurant shifts and various volunteer duties.
Her doctor ordered her to take it easy. She cut her hours down to about 15 a week, started relying on a food bank and to make ends meet began collecting cans and bottles for recycling.
"Dumpster diving," she described it. "It was something I had to do. But, in a way, it made me feel good. I was happy I could pay my bills and felt I was helping the community by getting those cans and bottles where they should be."
Life probably would have continued on that trajectory, but then Cargile's younger brother died at age 48, of AIDS and meningitis. The pair had been very close, and Cargile was deeply shaken, she said.
She had a dream that he handed her a set of cooking knives and a chef's jacket, and that - in combination with the gift from Season of Sharing - was when she knew something had to change in her life.
"I've always known I'm a talented cook. But it was time for me to get off my butt and do something about it," she said. These days she volunteers for an HIV education group, dotes on her two Chihuahua-mix dogs and two smoky gray cats, talks to her daughter in Lodi every day and keeps up with her family.
With her warm smile and friendly, easy demeanor, she radiates contentedness. "I feel great," she said. "I feel like if you stay positive, then you can do anything you want."
Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com