After Beating Cancer, COM Alum Is Giving Care Kits to Others with the Disease
Sonia Su’s growing nonprofit, Kits to Heart, has handed out more than 1,000 packages
Sonia Su vividly remembers the day she found a care kit on her hospital bed.
It was 2019, and the then-25-year-old Su (COM’15) was on her third round of treatment for an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’d been diagnosed the year before and gone through two rounds of chemotherapy. When she was admitted to the University of Maryland hospital for an intensive new treatment called CAR T-cell therapy, Su was nauseous, exhausted, and so weak that her mom had to help her walk through the hospital. So, when she saw a care kit—donated by a former patient for someone like Su—sitting on the bed in her room, it was “like the sun had just come out,” she says.
“I was having a really terrible time and it was crazy how much that kit completely changed my day,” says Su, now 28 and cancer-free. “Knowing that a complete stranger was looking out for me and rooting for me was so inspiring. I literally told myself that day, ‘I’m gonna do the same thing for someone else once I get out of here.’”
So that’s exactly what she did.
After finishing her graduate program at Georgetown University a year later (and, you know, beating cancer), Su founded a nonprofit in spring 2020. Kits to Heart (KTH) donates care kits to cancer patients across the country. Its tally so far: just over 1,200 kits. “We’ve distributed to 11 hospitals in the Maryland/D.C. area and shipped to 47 US states at this point,” says Su, who is executive director of KTH. “We did all of this during the pandemic, so it’s been an incredible year in the midst of a weird year.”
Reading testimonials on KTH’s website shows the impact Su has made on the cancer community. “I feel so blessed to have received this care package,” one patient wrote after receiving a kit. “Everything was so well thought out and it truly made this cancer gal feel better after an extremely rough chemo recovery.”
“Everything about what you are doing and the packages are beautiful,” wrote another. “I received mine and the tears flowed because of your kindness.”
Kits to Heart operates out of Clarksville, Md., where the local TV station picked up on her project. And by Clarksville, Su means her parents’ basement, where she, her husband, and any available family members assemble and package kits for delivery. “It’s totally a start-up here,” Su says, laughing. “With the vaccine rollout, I am very much looking forward to inviting people to actually come over and help out.”
Each care kit contains about 15 items. Su thought carefully about what she would have appreciated as a patient—like products to relieve dry skin and nausea from chemotherapy—and she polled patients and social workers to curate the kits. They differ from batch to batch and age group to age group (the nonprofit also offers personalized kits), but the basics are: unscented lotion, ginger tea and chews, lip balm, a KTH water bottle, snacks, hand sanitizer, and resource materials from Triage Cancer.
Beyond the products, each kit has a more personal element. Each contains a handwritten note, as well as a handmade item or two, courtesy of KTH’s 1,000 or so volunteers. A kit could hold a friendship bracelet, a face mask, a crocheted tote bag, an origami animal, a heart pillow—for breast cancer patients, to place against seatbelts as a protective barrier—a bullet journal for doodling in, or whatever else a volunteer could make in bulk.
“We put so much care into each and every single item, and each item has its own purpose in terms of reducing stress or providing comfort to help with a better treatment process,” Su says. “I could have just gotten bulk items from Costco and said, ‘There’s a kit!’ but I knew that I wanted to add personal touches.”
To help fund her project, Su relied on seed money she won at Georgetown pitch competitions. That allowed her to purchase items wholesale from retailers like the woman-owned Farmer’s Body (vegan lip balm) and the D.C.-based District Batch (bar soap). But almost a year in, she estimates that more than 50 percent of KTH’s inventory is donated to the nonprofit, such as a recent makeup haul from Thrive Causemetics and hand sanitizers from D.C.-area distilleries.
These days, Kits to Heart relies on donations, fundraisers, and merchandise sales for funding. Su balances her work with the nonprofit with her day job—though she plans to eventually transition to working on KTH full-time—and applies for grants and pitch competitions when she can. Recently, she was able to take on interns to manage fundraising and the ever-increasing number of volunteers. Running a nonprofit is hectic, she admits, but to her, it never actually feels like work.
“I definitely did not expect it to grow this quickly, or to have impacted so many patients already,” Su says. “Patients have reached out to say that they really appreciated the kits because they not only brighten their day, but just remind them that a whole community is rooting for them. More than a few people have messaged to say that they were moved to tears.
“I get joy by giving joy,” she continues. “Cancer is already isolating enough, but COVID-19 definitely exacerbated it. So to be able to do what I do right now, as a Chinese American cancer survivor in this time and climate, feels especially important. If even just one more person received one of our kits and felt cared for, that would mean so much to me.”