Flapping softly in a gentle summer breeze, the colorful flag that stands tall on the golf course green tells a story. It shares details of a fundraiser but what strikes you is the photo of a smiling, but very sick little girl, her bald head and pale skin a jarring contrast to her pretty summer dress.
Below the flag, stands the same little girl posing sassily for the photo, hands on hips, curly dark hair blowing in the same slight breeze.
Look at me now.
Neuroblastoma has been a long, ugly journey for Sofia, now 4, and her exhausted but resolute family. It is a journey that has brought them all the way to Ohio to devotedly support the hospital and the foundations that have carried them through their darkest of times, through frightening surgeries, painful treatments and hopeful drug trials. The event this time, though there have been many, is the Speedway Miracle Golf Tournament. It is a fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMNH), which supports, among others, Sofia’s hospital: Johns Hopkins All Children’s back in their hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Sofia has proudly painted a picture and carried it with her to Ohio, where it is being auctioned off during the event to help raise money for children like herself.
Nearly two years after her mother noticed something off in her eyes, a drooping really, and immediately took her to the emergency room leading to her being diagnosed with stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma, Sofia proudly arrives at the tournament a cancer-free, newly minted artist.
Words like “cured” are sensibly avoided. After all, she is still participating in the drug trial that may well have saved her life. But “Sofia is a miracle,” says her mother, Catalina, herself a passionate fighter, organizer, fundraiser, cheerleader and believer. “We praise God every day for her.”
Now that she is feeling better, after once softly asking, “Mommy, where did my hair go?” Sofia loves to go boating and fishing with her family, explains Stephanie Hall, director of CMNH for Johns Hopkins All Children’s. “It was her love of the water and family motto that inspired her to paint ‘Just Keep Swimming’ for the auction.”
Sofia’s painting has been selected as one of six that goes up for auction at the dinner following the Speedway Miracle Golf Tournament. The piece is a fun and colorful picture of her sea-worthy life, typical of a 4-year-old, but one that perhaps wasn’t coincidentally titled.
“Our family went through a roller coaster when she was diagnosed, but we decided together to just keep swimming,” Catalina explains.
Perhaps it is Sofia’s hand-printed “fish” in her painting that represent her and her brother, Aiden, or the photo of the smiling artist holding her work. Maybe it is the family’s pain, fear and ultimate joy at their little girl’s cancer-free diagnosis all readable through the painting’s sparkling blue waters. Something ultimately inspires the unknown woman—hundreds of miles from Sofia’s home and hospital—to not only purchase the piece, but pay an unprecedented $10,000 in order to own it.
That is $10,000 that not only helps children, but money that makes its way back to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital through CMNH to directly help patients such as Sofia, who still visits the hospital every few months for checkups and scans.
Catalina, Sofia’s dad, Patrick, and her protective big brother, are all adamant about participating in fundraisers and sharing their harrowing story with other families, physicians and donors in hopes of inspiring more attention, more research and more funding to pediatric cancer in order to ensure Sofia has plenty of time to paint masterpieces like, “Just Keep Swimming.”
“We see a bright future for our Sofia Strong,” Catalina adds. “We’re all still swimming toward it.”