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California Mother Recovers from Loss to Help Families with Sick Children


A California woman survived a personal tragedy with a commitment to help others that is keeping the memory of her late son alive. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with Valerie Sobel, who lost her son to cancer, and now helps the parents of seriously ill children.

Valerie Sobel came to the United States from her native Hungary by way of Canada, and ended up in Hollywood as a young actress. She appeared with Jimmy Stewart in the 1962 film, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, before leaving show business and settling down to raise a family.

Sobel was married to a successful lawyer, and says she had everything she could ask for. But, a series of shattering events would turn her life around. She lost her teenaged son, Andre, to cancer, and, within a year, lost her grief-stricken husband to suicide.

The deaths led her to contemplate the plight of other parents who faced the catastrophic illness of a child. She learned that such families often break up because of the stress of the child's illness, leaving a single parent to care for the child alone. She says many families lack the financial resources that she and her family enjoyed, and face hardship when a parent takes time off work to care for the child.

"At that point, you may soon lose your job, and with it, the medical insurance that is going to take care of your child. You will basically find that you will not become litigative, you will not be pounding the halls of Congress to say, 'Here I am, and I have no more money to pay my rent next month," she said.

She says, too often, people feel they are facing the crisis alone. There are avenues for help, including public assistance and provisions to keep health coverage after leaving a job. But she says distraught families often lack the time or ability to navigate the system.

Thousands have turned for help to a foundation that Sobel set up in memory of her son, called the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation.

She says the program, administered in just a dozen hospitals in seven U.S. states, helps pay for rent or utilities, or buys food and gasoline for people who have run out of resources.

"The neighbor does not come to provide meals any more. The church has already put on the bulletin board what has happened. Aunt Lucy in Nebraska has already sent all the money they can. They are not only dealing with a tragedy of possibly losing a child to terminal illness, but they have already felt the indignity of their situation, that they are alone financially," she said.

Sobel donated two-thirds of her personal fortune to finance the foundation, but the organization is small, and works through a small number of medical institutions. Hospital social workers screen and pass along requests from needy families.

Sobel worries about the families she is unable to help, but she says they are not always the ones with children in hospitals.

"I am most concerned about these families that, once they are discharged from a hospital - so they are no longer part of the medical system - do they have transportation to go home? And, is there a bottle of milk once they do?," she said.

She says the foundation keeps alive the memory of her son, whom she describes as a young man with a lively curiosity, a thirst for literature and a love for people. She says he was also compassionate, and the foundation continues its work in that spirit, as it helps the families of children and teenagers like Andre.

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