On Jan. 12, 1995, Valerie Sobel's 19-year-old son, Andre, died of a brain tumor. Exactly one year later, her husband shot himself. His suicide note stated that he did not wish to live past his son's tombstone unveiling. Three months later, Sobel's mother died of a stroke.
"This kind of agony hits you in the gut," says Valerie Sobel, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor. "At one point, I had a breakdown. I didn't think I was going to live."
A vision Valerie Sobel had on her son's deathbed has helped her to recover. After Andre Sobel died in her arms, she held him for several hours and determined to do charitable work in his name. In February 2000, she quit her thriving interior design practice to open the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation, which helps single mothers with gravely ill children.
Aug. 10 is the deadline for the organization's second annual essay contest, open to cancer survivors 21 years old and younger. The topic is: "The letter I would have liked to receive from my friends during my illness." The first prize is $5,000.
Over the past year, the foundation has also provided about $200,000 to several dozen families with no place to turn. "I was neither single nor financially challenged when Andre became ill, and I barely survived," says Sobel, explaining why the group targets single mothers. "A child's life-threatening illness devastates any family, but for a single parent without financial resources, it's unimaginable. I don't want mothers to have to go to work when their children need them. I want to help them stay by their child's side for the journey."
Even before suffering multiple losses in the mid-1990s, Sobel knew all about struggle. In 1941, when she was 3 days old, her father was whisked off to a Nazi labor camp. She survived by hiding with a non-Jewish family and in safe houses sponsored by the Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg.
After fleeing Communist Hungary with her parents in 1957, she dropped out of high school to support her family and went to work as an actor, appearing in films such as "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" (as Valerie Varda) and TV shows such as "Wagon Train." In 1971, she gave it all up to marry Erwin Sobel, a successful trial attorney and fellow Holocaust survivor. Four years later, their only son, Andre, was born.
By 1993, the family (which by then included a daughter, Simone, now 22) had moved into an elegant home next to a golf course in Rancho La Costa, Calif. Andre Sobel had grown into a quiet, intense, charismatic young man who voraciously studied everything from Kafka to St. Augustine. "He used to leave the house before dawn each morning to read for three hours on the beach," Sobel recalls. "It's as if he knew on some level that he didn't have much time."
Andre Sobel had already been accepted to film school at NYU when he woke up with double vision one morning in November 1993. Six weeks later, his mother received the news in a gray hospital corridor: her son had inoperable brain cancer. "I fainted," recalls Valerie Sobel, who dropped down to 85 pounds in the frightening weeks after Andre's diagnosis.
Over the next year, she nursed her son, as the tumor caused him to go blind and to lose his ability to walk. In January 1995, he could no longer fight the cancer. "I gave him permission to go, and 10 seconds later, he let go of my hand and died," Sobel says.
After her son's death, the interior designer transformed his bedroom into a sanctuary that was featured in the October 1997 issue of Architectural Digest.
Despite the loss of her husband and mother in the following year, Sobel held fast to her vision of a charitable organization in Andre's name. She created a family endowment to fund the foundation, hired an administrator, and arranged for social workers at four Los Angeles area pediatric hospitals to identify families in need.
Since February 2000, the organization has helped 67 families pay for everything from rent to medical insurance to alternative cancer treatments. Recipients have included a woman who was about to be evicted from her single room and a blue-collar worker who was finally able to quit her job to care for a son paralyzed by a spinal tumor.
The work is healing for Sobel. "It's become my mission in life," she says. "I'm grateful to be able to help others whose lives I intimately understand."
For information or essay contest submission forms, visit the Web site at www.AndreRiverOfLife.org or call (310) 276-7111.