The Million Dollar ‘Thank You’, by Sonja Kemp

As children, we are often taught the importance of saying ‘thank you’ when someone is friendly, kind, generous, or thoughtful. It was the very act of extending a note of thanks that changed my life and the lives of many others.

My childhood was full of hardships. At six months old, I was placed in foster care for the first time, because my mother had abandoned me for two weeks. I would eventually be returned to her care, but this was only the beginning. I spent the next eleven years bouncing around between an unstable and abusive home, along with a string of foster homes. At the age of eleven, I was permanently placed in foster care when my mother went to jail for drug and sexual abuse charges. I spent the next five years in a downward cycle, moving from foster home to another, experiencing severe behavioral problems, and struggling academically.

From the start of my education, I faced many problems. I repeated the second grade because I hadn’t attended enough school and as a result hadn’t learned to read and write. That was no way to begin an education, but sadly, it was the direction my education continued to follow. Fortunately, after many foster homes and various schools, the course of my education was altered. At the start of my freshman year in high school, I found myself in another new home and school. At this point, I reflected back on the course of my life. I realized the pain I had caused myself and the many others who had tried to help me along the way, and I hated myself for it. I was done allowing my past to control me; no longer would I hide behind the veil of a dark past. I made the decision to be the first college educated professional in my family.

From that day on, I have worked tirelessly to improve my education and my future. At the start of my journey, I was well behind the educational level of my peers. In the ninth-grade, it was estimated that I had the writing and reading skills of a sixth-grader, but I would not be discouraged. To meet my goal, I worked day-in and day-out with tutors, teachers, and my foster mother to complete assignments and gain ground on the fundamental gaps in my knowledge. As amazing as it sounds, by the end of the first semester, I was achieving nearly perfect A’s. In four years of high school, I transformed myself from a sixth-grade intellectual, to an Honor student, a member of the National Honor Society, a 911 Peer Tutor, a student in the Upward Bound Regional Math/Science Program, a varsity athlete, and a SADD/SMILE member. I was also working part-time as a bank teller and started a small home cleaning business to save money for college.

I could see my dream of becoming a college graduate on the horizon the day I was accepted into Chaplain College; but the money I had been able to save was hardly enough to cover the cost of one semester. So I began the process of applying for scholarships. I was fortunate to receive over eight scholarships my first year. I was very touched that the scholarship foundations and some individuals had made such generous contributions to my future. So I wrote each and every scholarship foundation and individual contributor a thank-you letter. I wanted to tell them about my journey. I wanted to let them know how grateful I was and how much their gifts meant to a foster child.

And here is where I believe my story comes full circle. Little did I know that one of my thank-you letters would lead to the creation of a scholarship fund with over 1.5 million dollars! My thank you letter to Terry F. Allen, an entrepreneur from Ferrisburgh, Vermont touched his life and heart in a way that neither of us will forget. Soon, an exchange of letters and cards began, many of which would contain additional small gifts from Terry. Our letters made a difference, because they gave a successful businessman the chance to see where his gifts had gone and the dreams he had supported. One afternoon, as I sat studying for college finals, I received a phone call from the Marketing Director of Champlain College. She informed me that Terry had made a contribution to another scholarship fund and that the college thought it would be a wonderful idea if I spoke at the unveiling, again thanking him.

The afternoon of the unveiling was a sunny one. I listened as the details of the scholarship fund were described and gasped when the announcer said, “The scholarship was established by an initial donation of one million dollars, by Terry F. Allen.” I had no idea the donation was so large. The announcer continued, “Terry has decided to make this donation because of a thank-you letter he received from a Champlain College student who sits among us now, Sonja Kemp.” My mind went blank and my eyes were hazy, as tears rolled down my cheeks. To this day, I can hardly remember making my way to the podium to speak, nor can I remember just what I said. After that day, I was consumed in learning more about the generosity of the human spirit from a flurry of newspaper articles, TV and radio interviews, and Champlain’s commencement.

Terry had been given the honor of delivering the commencement speech the day I received my Associate’s Degree in accounting. I listened to Terry announce that he would be increasing his donation to 1.5 million dollars, and that thirty students, for the next ten years, would benefit from my thank-you letter and his kindness!

I went on to achieve my Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting and was offered a career as an Auditor at one of the top four public accounting firms in the world. During my four years in college, Terry contributed over 25% to the cost of my education! Without his generous support (and support from many others) I would not have been able to afford college. I owe my success to hard work, my foster family, Terry F. Allen, and a thank-you letter.

In the end, I learned three very important lessons: 1) My background and circumstances may have influenced who I am, but when all is said and done, I am responsible for who I become. 2) Never be afraid to ask for a helping hand, for no one can make the journey alone. 3) Always say thank-you. My simple thank-you letter changed my life and the lives of others, as well.

~Sonja Kemp, Vermont 


This story is an excerpt from the book, Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heartwhich was named a “Top 5 Inspirational Book” by Dolce Vita Magazine. Real and raw, the book explores the many experiences and emotions of adoptees, adoptive parents, birthparents, foster youth, and foster parents.

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