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The good fight Sonias 1,000 Points of Life



Last year, I met a bright-eyed and strong-willed 15-year-old young woman named Sonia Bawa.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Coloradoan, a daily newspaper in Fort Collins, where Sonia lived. She had an idea and I listened. Sometimes news is about ideas.

She had a theory that would significantly increase federal funding for leukemia research.

"OK," I said, skeptically. "How?"

Producing supporting documents, she noted that the $215 million in federal funds that was used to research leukemia last year could be doubled if the war in Iraq was halted for just one day. She handed me a copy of a letter she was sending to President Bush.

"If we could please put the war in Iraq on hold for just one day and give thousands of struggling children around the world hope of a cure ..." she wrote.

She reasoned that ordinary Iraqis and soldiers alike could use a break to contemplate what was happening around them and ways to improve the situation. Meanwhile, people with leukemia -- a cancer affecting white blood cells -- would have twice the hope of seeing a cure in their lifetime.

It was that simple.

Honestly, I didn't know what to say. So I decided to do my job. I called the White House and told them they were going to receive a letter. A spokesman there promised that the president would respond.

Sonia believed it. After all, as she pointed out, when the president was a child he had lost his 3-year-old sister, Robin Bush, to leukemia.

Sonia had it, too.

When I met her, she had been receiving bone-marrow treatments. They made her hair fall out. They were painful. But she didn't have time to complain. There were bigger problems in the world, she said.

I wanted to shake her hand after the interview, but couldn't. The treatment required her to be in a sterile atmosphere. No touching.

Several weeks later, the president did indeed reply to her letter. He praised her for being courageous and determined. He didn't once mention the war. Instead, he bragged that leukemia funding through the National Institutes of Health had doubled in the past five years.

"He didn't really address what I said," Sonia noted in a follow-up interview.

She became even more courageous, more determined, asking for more. Last summer, Sonia launched a campaign called 1,000 Points of Life on her Web site at She sought to send 1,000 letters to Bush, reasoning that if successful, her idea would be 1,000 times more powerful. The campaign asks for an end to the war for a month so that research funding for all types of cancer can be doubled.

She had reason to be confident. The year before, 2003, Sonia had raised more than $1,400 for the American Red Cross to help children in war-torn Afghanistan. Some funds also aided people in Africa who couldn't afford a measles shot.

She didn't like the idea that people might die for something as trivial as lacking an inoculation.

She once refused a gift from her mother, Beena, asking her to instead buy hats and gloves for homeless people. Sonia knew that some homeless people don't go to shelters and asked her mother to deliver the items to individuals.

Beena did.

On Sunday morning, Jan. 23, I finally got to shake the hand of this girl who had a selflessness that is absolutely cherished in her Hindu faith. Her favorite Bob Marley songs were playing.

There was a tube in her throat. Her eyes were shut, but her glasses were on. Only hours before, something had gone wrong. She was bleeding inside her head from a hemorrhage. It was a complication of the treatment.

Her parents were talking to doctors, asking not how to save her, but how to remove the tube and keep Sonia's dignity intact.

Her struggle was over.

I was there because "everyone" wanted me there -- mostly Sonia. My articles meant so much to her, everyone said, and gave her hope.

So I realized I'm part of her story, just as she is part of mine. You aren't supposed to get too close to your sources as a journalist, but in this case, I'm making an exception.

Several days later in Fort Collins, her family and friends remembered her. People who never met her came. They promised to gather those 1,000 letters and to deliver them to the president.

Michael de Yoanna is a staff writer at the Colorado Springs Independent.

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