Five years ago, Sonia Su was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was a 24-year-old grad student who had studied journalism and was working on a master’s in Asian Studies at Georgetown University. As a Chinese American, she had dreams of telling the stories of fellow Asian Americans, but then everything got derailed.
“That experience, especially as a young adult, was devastating and very difficult for not only me but also my loved ones,” she states.
One semester into her program, Sonia took a leave of absence to begin treatments before picking back up with an originally-planned fellowship in Taiwan that summer. Unfortunately, life had different plans, and due to a relapse, she returned to the States for further care.
During an emotional low point, physically wrecked and feeling hopeless, Sonia walked into her final treatment to find a care package on her bed.
“That care package came at a really great time, because it was a complete surprise, and it was put together by a former patient who was treated in that unit one year prior who was doing well again,” she recalls. “As soon as I received that and saw that, I just felt so inspired to not only keep going but also to pay that kindness forward.”
A year later, in May of 2020, she founded Kits to Heart to do exactly that, provide care and hope to those battling cancer or supporting someone who is. After the promise she made to herself to help others and explore entrepreneurship during her last semester at Georgetown, she had found a new path forward.
With the onset of the pandemic, things weren’t always easy, but she persisted. While many in-person volunteer opportunities were shut down due to COVID concerns, Sonia’s budding organization offered an easy way for people to contribute from the comfort and safety of their homes.
“If anything, the pandemic exacerbated the loneliness that patients felt, especially since they couldn’t have visitors for what could be a very long day of treatments, or even nights,” she says. “[Our care kits] started with handwritten letters. Then, some volunteers knew how to fold beautiful origami that symbolized hope. And then, it turned into a lot of sewing projects since, especially around this time, people were just picking up how to sew masks for the pandemic.”
Today, Sonia serves as executive director managing the day-to-day operations, raising funds and mobilizing volunteers. So far, 5,000 people—both virtually and in-person—have filled and distributed more than 7,000 cancer care kits in all 50 states. One volunteer is a high school senior from Clarksville, Maryland. Sanjana Jain has been assembling kits for a year and half and sometimes donates handmade cards and bracelets.
“The organization is so genuine in their mission, and so is Sonia and all the volunteers. It truly makes a difference in what they’re doing,” she says. “The issue with a lot of larger scale volunteer organizations is that you’re dedicating a lot of time, but you don’t get to see the impact it has on your community, whereas Kits to Heart is local for me. Even though they operate on a national scale, I can see the impact that they’re having on my direct community.”
In 2022, with the help of United Way of Central Maryland, Sonia also launched Art for Cancer Wellness. The program offers virtual art therapy workshops to address loneliness and provide patients, caregivers and oncology healthcare workers with tools to heal and cope. It expands beyond the local community to provide comfort to anyone with an internet connection. And Sonia, who now runs the organization full-time while being a full-time mom to her new baby boy, couldn’t be happier.
“March will be my five-year cancer-versary, as they say. That’s from when I received my last treatment. Five years is an incredible milestone for cancer survivors,” she adds. “I’m just very grateful to be alive and for the advances in medicine that saved my life.”
Her husband and German Shepard, no doubt, agree. Sanjana credits Sonia’s tireless dedication during the pandemic as an inspiration for herself and others.
“She’s very welcoming. She has an incredibly sweet personality, and she’s very kind. She draws people in,” Sanjana explains.
Sonia’s ability to connect with and inspire others has led her to help students start their own organizations and develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills. She encourages them to consider the resources available to them through their school or local businesses and then to jump in. Her belief is that even if they don’t become sustainable, the effort is worth it, and helping people is always a good thing. In her own experience, she was never afraid of failing.
“Even if we didn’t have enough funding to grow it into a national or international thing, I would always find the time and opportunity to do this, even on a smaller scale,” she insists. “It’s so meaningful to me as a cancer survivor, and it’s something that I know really helps.”
Additionally, she acts as a patient advocate for the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center Patient and Family Advisory Council and is a First Connection volunteer for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She is also an ImmunoAdvocate for the Cancer Research Institute and was a speaker at the 2021 annual patient summit and featured as part of its 2022 10th Annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month.
Looking ahead, Sonia hopes to continue to cover more ground by creating branches in other cities where operations can be replicated, and more hospitals reached. As things stand, the organization can physically drop kits off en masse but also ships kids to individuals upon request via their website.
“Even though it may be something as simple as a care kit with some handwritten letters, it really helps to lift people’s spirits and give them that hope and joy that they really need. It lets them know that they really aren’t alone in this, that people are rooting for them, because it can really be a lonely journey,” she emphasizes.
Sonia’s is a story of resilience. It’s a lesson in kindness, and it’s a reminder that hope and encouragement are gifts that anyone can—and should—give.
“Whether it’s going through a serious health condition or going through something really difficult otherwise, it’s really important to persevere and stay strong,” she declares. “And just to know that the human spirit is much more resilient than one might think.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sonia? Find local volunteer opportunities.