12/08/2013 at 09:45 AM EST
After a self-proclaimed "hard summer," during which
she admitted to using a racial slur, was dropped by the Food Network and several sponsors, and endured rumors of marital discord, Paula Deen says she's looking forward
to the new year
"I'm gonna be really, really happy to see 2013 gone," Deen, 66, recently told about 200 guests at the Salvation Army Golden Kettle gala in Savannah, Ga. "There may be something in that number 13."
But as she reflected on the tumultuous year in front of the crowd, Deen called the past six months an "opportunity for me to grow."
"It taught me a lot about people – not all of it you like. But I learned that I had so many people that cared about me and prayed for me and my family. And I'm looking forward to 2014."
In the new year, the Southern chef will embark on her annual Paula Deen & Friends cruise in January before making her first foray back into the celebrity foodie world in February, joining her former Food Network colleagues at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
But first, Deen is preparing to celebrate the holidays with her husband Michael Groover, who was by her side at the event.
"About five years ago I decided that my children had way too much. I had way too much. So I went and approached the Salvation Army and I said, ‘We have decided that we want our gifts to go to someone who is [experiencing a] hard time,' " she says of the Deen family's holiday tradition.
"We all gather at the Salvation Army on Christmas Eve morning and Michael and I play Mr. and Mrs. Claus."
She also talked about the positive legacy she wants to leave. Said Deen: "When I'm dead and gone and someone hears my name … I just hope and pray that the first thing people think of is not the word butter, but hope."