Mrs. Beard passed away in June of 2010, about three months after I spoke with her. This story was originally published at Tonic.com.
Fifteen years. That’s how long 74-year-old Sonya Beard has been fighting oral cancer. But now, after multiple surgeries and treatments, she says she has had enough. While her doctors wanted her to start radiation therapy, Beard is instead enjoying the time she has left, and making a huge difference in her community. She has already donated hundreds of thousands of dollars from her life savings to several organizations near her Mount Vernon, Wash., home, and she’s not done yet.
A lifelong reader, Sonya's first donation was $500,000 to the Mount Vernon City Library. In an exclusive interview with Tonic.com, she says that reading made her "the cornerstone of what I am today. I wouldn't have been able to travel or do the things I have done without my love of books."
As a child, Beard and family would go to the library on Saturday to get their books for the week. "I got to the point where I was obnoxious with my mother about trying to get my nose out of a book." She has since instilled "a passion for books and reading" in her four grandchildren.
Beard couldn't attend the library meeting where her donation was announced, but she finally made it down there on Monday. "I went this afternoon and I'm just thrilled to death with what they're going to be able to do" with her donation, she says.
The library is planning a major expansion that might not have been possible without Beard's donation.
Beard has also donated $165,000 to Skagit Valley Hospital, also located in Mount Vernon, so they can purchase hyperbaric oxygen therapy equipment to help patients recover from surgeries like the ones Beard has endured. Until this, the closest hyperbaric equipment was in Seattle, more than 60 miles away.
"I found it necessary to undergo the treatment after one of my surgeries, but I was not able to travel," she says. "I had to rent an apartment down there for six weeks. It's a terrible handicap for a person to have to move themselves to another area. A lot of people in Mount Vernon don't have the means to relocate themselves down there. I knew we had patients that needed it here and they couldn't afford it."
Beard has been pushing the hospital to get the new equipment up and running quickly. "I was just down there to see the progress on the oxygen chamber. They're moving fast. They're remodeling the wound center now, and we're hoping for an opening in June."
MORE TO COME
Her surgeries also inspired her to create a foundation, which will be established at the University of Washington Medical Center, where she had her surgeries, after her death. "You may not know this," she says," but people with oral cancer are not reimbursed by insurance for dental prostheses. I set up in my will that they'll have a foundation that will be able to pay for people who need these prostheses."
Beard was able to purchase her own prosthesis, but it had to be removed just five months later when her doctors found more cancer. "I spent over $20,000 for a prosthesis I only had for five months. That was very discouraging to think that this might happen to someone else. It's not right to say that this is cosmetic when it's the only means you have for eating. There's way too many people walking around without teeth because they won't be able to pay for it."
A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
Despite her cancers, which also includes a battle with breast cancer eight years ago, Beard remains a positive person who enjoys her life. "It's become a way of life," she says of her cancer. "But really, other people have it worse. So we won't dwell on that," she laughs.
"I have been extremely fortunate with my life," she says. "I never thought I would be in a position to do something like this. I don't have the education, but somehow I did it."
But Beard did learn from the people she met in her life. Beard she learned how to invest when she worked as secretary for stockbrokers and bankers, a talent that has made these current donations possible.
In an interview with local KOMO News, Beard said, "I'm not a wealthy person, I'm not a famous person - but I feel like if I can stimulate one person to get the ball rolling then we can make a difference."
Beard's husband passed away 11 years ago, leaving her with three step-sons she considers "her wonderful boys." "They've given me four wonderful grandchildren," she says. "My life is complete with them."
Beard continues her charitable contributions. She just paid off the mortgage at Bethany Convent Church, her church of the last ten years, and she is considering additional donations in her area. "My way is to help as many as I possibly can," she says. "And if that helps future generations as well, that's even better."