Every year at this time, I realize I've been negligent in bringing readers up to speed about the people you came to know and care about from previous columns.
So many of you reach out to help the total strangers profiled on these pages, the least I can do is offer a progress report. With appreciation and thanks, here goes.
Francis Tucker in Hollywood
Francis Tucker, the refugee from Sierra Leone whose educational adventures I've chronicled over four years, graduated from college and landed his first job as a nurse at famed Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
"I'm in the gym, working out," the 26-year-old former Camden resident said when I reached him by cell phone on his day off from the surgical unit in Beverly Hills.
"I've treated some celebrities," Tucker shares, "influential people," though privacy laws and his moral compass prohibit naming names.
I'm not at all surprised Tucker found work in the Great Recession.
The driven young man went from living as a war refugee in Africa to being named valedictorian of Camden High's adult night school program in just six months. He plowed through college (with financial assistance from Inquirer readers), knowing relatives on two continents were counting on him.
Tucker adores his day job, but the L.A. nightlife holds little appeal to the devout Seventh-day Adventist who doesn't drink or smoke.
"There are a lot of people here who are materialistic," he notes. "People are friendly, but they have boundaries. You try to be nice and they are thinking you want something."
What Tucker wants? To become an American and a nurse anesthetist. Next week, he'll sit for his citizenship exam. Next fall, he hopes to start graduate school.
Between now and then, Tucker intends to master a skill native Californians may take for granted.
"I can't swim," he confesses. "If I'm going to live here, I need swimming lessons."
One son helps many
July's piece on a little-known Pennsylvania law that forces adult children to pay their parents' health-care costs struck fear into baby boomers everywhere.
Donald Grant of Havertown got sued because his mother - from whom he's been long estranged - refused to pay an $8,000 rehab bill at a Delaware County nursing home. He lost when the home's attorney cited a law most families have never heard of.
"She's got as much [money] coming in as we do," Grant groused at the time. "And I'm being held responsible for her irresponsibility."
State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) read the column and sprang to action. He's sponsoring legislation that would make clear that no child should be held liable for their parents' debts unless by choice.
"The nursing homes, they'll know Mrs. Smith wants to be admitted and that she has children," Leach explains, allowing staff to ask them "if they are willing to be involved. This way, everyone knows who's on the hook. There's no surprises at the end of the day."
Grant hasn't paid the bill out of principle. He worries that the judgment could mar his credit.
"We may cosign a car loan for our daughter," he says. "I guess we'll find out then."
Last year, Doug Geary, 76, lived in a Ford Bronco on the streets of Burlington County with his three dogs. This Thanksgiving, the University of Pennsylvania alum and onetime suburban success story woke up in a warm Medford apartment, then shared a feast with 51 members of his extended adoptive family.
My January column about Geary, an Air Force veteran and paramedic who lost his home to foreclosure but refused to go into a shelter because he would have to abandon his dogs, moved animal lovers to tears. Readers - including Gov. Rendell - lined up to help a man so committed to his pets.
As promised, Geary allowed the Medford couple who rescued him from his front seat to organize his finances. After finding him an apartment, they set up rent payment from his Social Security check so he can't mismanage his money and wind up in the cold again.
Money remains tight and a bankruptcy filing looms on the horizon, but Geary doesn't complain.
"He's doing well, considering," says Kelley Meyer of Medford. "He knows what's expected of him. If he's strapped one month, he'll go to the Goodwill pantry for food."
Sadly, Geary recently said goodbye to his beloved Frisky Buster, an 18-year-old bichon. He tapped a "dog use only" fund for cremation.
"Right now, I'm relaxing and sitting at my desk looking at [his remains] in a little box," Geary relays. "Please tell everyone that everything's just fine."
Fighting the urge
My March column about Scott Jones focused on the laughable notion of casino self-exclusion lists.
Jones, a Barrington man with Parkinson's disease and a gambling addiction, banned himself from the Atlantic City casinos, then kept on blowing his disability checks. The casinos knew full well he was there; employees often helped Jones override his ATM declines.
I'm pleased to report that after the column ran, C.P. Mirarchi, a fellow recovering gambler, offered to treat Jones at Genesis Counseling Center in Collingswood.
"Gambling was filling a void for him," explains Mirarchi, a lawyer-turned-national certified gambling counselor. "People need a sense of purpose. I think Scott lost that."
Jones agrees that his disease and loneliness contributed to the urge to gamble.
Mirarchi, Jones says, "gave me his home, cell, and work number and told me to call at any time. Just making himself available has made all the difference."
Jones has met with Mirarchi nearly every week since. And he hasn't gambled since March.
"I'm seeing a woman. I ride my bike. I try to get out and do something every day," he says. "The busier I am and the less I dwell, the better I am."
Waiting and working
Gisell Torres has plenty to be grateful for this holiday season. Months ago, the 22-year-old Rutgers graduate faced deportation to Peru as punishment for a decision her parents made to protect her.
Torres did not personally violate immigration law. Her family arrived legally in the 1990, after terrorists threatened her father. A decade later, after their asylum claim was denied, without telling the kids her parents ignored an order to leave. Torres' mother, father, and sister were deported; she was allowed to finish school and sought a green card after marrying her college sweetheart, a U.S. citizen.
After my column about her conundrum, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) intervened and won Torres a one-year reprieve. Her case will be reheard by an immigration judge in Newark; her Bala Cynwyd attorney, John Vandenberg, believes she'll win based on her marriage.
Torres has not waited idly. The 23-year-old honors finance graduate is working as a merchandise analyst for Macy's in New York.
"I've been there three months," she tells me. "I deal with the vendors and buyers. It's going really well so far."
For now, at least, her parents and sister must remain in Peru.
"We talk on the webcam. I want to see them in person," she says longingly. "That's my other wish."
Wanted: A kidney, a life
No column better illustrated the lunacy of the current health-care system than the one explaining why Leonard Porter, a 40-year-old West Philadelphia man, lost his second transplanted kidney.
Medicare paid $100,000 for his transplant, but stuck Porter with a $36,000 annual bill for antirejection medication. When he couldn't pay, the government happily picked up the tab for dialysis - which can run $71,000 a year for life.
"I can't believe they'd give me a kidney and not help me keep it," Porter said angrily this fall. "What's the point?"
After we met, Porter reluctantly went back on dialysis, a four-hour, thrice-weekly regimen that prevents him from working in construction.
"It drains you just like chemo," he explains. "It makes me more sick. By the time I'm well again, I have to go back for more dialysis."
Depressed but determined, Porter seeks a third chance. Next week, he'll meet with surgeons about his chances of getting back on the transplant list.
This time, he's already researched programs that provide antirejection medication for low or no cost to needy patients.
"I've got 25 people lined up to give me a kidney," he says, excitedly. "I've got to get on that list. I'll do anything to get my life back."