You meet a lot of fascinating people when you write three columns a week. Here are a few from 2013 I won't soon forget:

  • Chris Dikes was a homeless drug addict at 37, looking at a third-strike prison term when he was arrested on suspicion of producing methamphetamine in 2000. Thirteen years later, he is a Contra Costa College graduate, a chef and acting director of a culinary arts program.

    He credits his turnaround to a judge who favored rehabilitation over incarceration and the counseling he received at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, where lessons in anger management, codependence and forgiveness are part of a 10-month recovery program. But the hero is Dikes, who seized an opportunity to reclaim his life and now works at the mission helping others.

  • Gil Johnson, of San Leandro, has been a woodworker most of his 75 years. He's built desks, dressers, nightstands, bookcases and three sets of bunk beds for his grandkids. He's remodeled kitchens, rewired electricity and reshingled roofs.

    What makes him special is that Johnson has been blind since age 14. He senses wood grain with his fingertips and makes measurements with a "click-rule" that has notches spaced 1/16 inch apart.

    "The smell of fresh-cut wood, the sound of a sharp saw whisking across a board, the sound of a drill -- all those things really touch my soul," he said.


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  • Greg Schmidt, Antonio Costa and Jack Elliott are but three of many De La Salle and Carondelet High School students who have belonged to the Healing Spaces Club, but the project they undertook in March speaks volumes about all participants. They pooled their energy and talents to bring joy into the lives of Concord resident Stoorai Nuri and her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, who were devastated by a tragic auto accident in 2012 that took the lives of Stoorai's husband, Solaiman, and Hannah's 9-year-old sister, Hadees.

    The students raised money for materials and worked around the clock to make over the interior of the Nuris' condominium. "Everywhere I look, it's love to me," Stoorai said, "because I know how much love went into everything around me."

  • When Mark Ruefenacht, a Type 1 diabetic, was awakened from hypoglycemic unconsciousness by his puppy, Benton, 14 years ago, it gave him an idea: Perhaps dogs could learn to warn diabetics of low blood-sugar levels.

    His background in forensics taught him that illnesses produce a distinctive smell in human perspiration and breath because of the reaction of internal organs. Who better to recognize that scent than man's best friend?

    Thus was born Dogs for Diabetics, a Concord-based nonprofit that trains and places canines who can alert owners to the onset of hypoglycemia. The organization has placed about 100 canines, valued at $25,000 apiece, in its nine years.

  • Menbe Aklilu grew up in Ethiopia and was orphaned at 10. She later moved to Rome with a man who promised her a motion picture career, but he abused and impregnated her. She was homeless and destitute at 22 when she took refuge in a women's shelter.

    Today, through hard work and good fortune, she is the owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante in Richmond, where she annually feeds the homeless on Thanksgiving. This year, she served up 1,000 meals.

    She lives by the words of a man who helped her when she was in need: "He said, 'Pass it along. Do for others.' I'll never forget that."

    Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayarea- newsgroup.com.