‘Shine bright like Sophia’: 9-year-old cancer warrior gave back to others fighting

SANBORN, N.Y. (WIVB) — We’re one month away from Shine Gold, a night to honor and support kids fighting cancer. Proceeds go toward four local non-profits that help children fighting, including one charity called Sophia the Fierce Incorporated.

Sophia’s story

“Sophia loved sunflowers,” said Kristina Benintende, Sophia’s mom. “They’ve been a big part of our journey.”

The sunflower is bright, bold and a symbol of hope. And recently, on a Thursday night, cancer warriors and their families got their pictures taken at the Sunflowers of Sanborn for free. They came together in honor of Sophia Benintende.

“Sophia was very caring, very giving and always thought about other people,” her mom said.

In July of 2021, Sophia was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare cancer that mainly impacts kids and teens. She started treatment, but from day one refused to think about herself.

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“We found ourselves taking a lot of trips to Roswell. On the way home from Roswell, she took notice of a man underneath a bridge.”

After seeing that man over and over again, Sophia asked her mom to take her to the store to buy him a sleeping bag, pillow and blankets. She rifled through her dad’s closet and collected him some clothing too. She even got snacks together.

“And she made him a card,” Kristina said. “And on the card, she said ‘I hope this makes you smile.'”

Sophia then dropped everything off under the bridge.

“The next day, we drove by again and she goes, ‘Mom he took it! He got it!'”

Less than a year after her diagnosis, last April, Sophia was given the amazing news that she was in remission. So, she decided to ramp up her helping. She came up with the idea for Sophia the Fierce Incorporated: a non-profit to help others who were going through what she was.

“Sophia loved to have lemonade stands… that was her thing,” Kristina said. “And she made a pretty good buck.”

Sophia the Fierce Incorporated started at her big, custom lemonade stand, raising money from the sale of the drink.

The non-profit helps in three ways: Respite, relief and research.

Respite: Sophia loved to camp and loved watching the Bills, so one third of profits help other kids battling cancer go on camping trips and sending them to games.

“As trivial as that may sound, that was huge to her,” Jillmarie Giardina said, Sophia’s aunt. “Going to the games during her treatment gave her something to look forward to every week and it was so much more than watching football for her.”

Relief: Sophia wanted to help families financially who were struggling, so another third goes toward financial help.

“You never know what’s going to happen in a given day, and these families need help,” Giardina said. “It’s devastating to them financially.”

And lastly, the final third of proceeds coming into the charity go to finding a cure for Ewing Sarcoma.

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Last summer, Sophia boosted production of her lemonade and even sold cookies. And in September, Sophia handed over a check at the Shine Gold event for $7,000 to help other kids going through cancer.

“She was so happy to do that, to just give back,” her mom said.

But one day before she handed over that check, she found out the cancer had relapsed.

And in May of 2023, she passed away after fighting until the very end.

“Sophia never gave up the urge to fight,” Kristina said. “She didn’t want to stop fighting. Up until her last week, she told my husband, ‘I’m not done. I’m going to get better this year. I’m not going to get better next year, I’m getting better this year.’ I will say this 100 times… with awareness comes funding, with funding comes research, and with research comes a cure. And I think everybody should Shine bright like Sophia.”

Sophia’s family has carried on her wishes to continue the Sophia the Fierce Inc. charity. They’re currently raising money to build or buy a cabin to allow families time away in the woods together.

And on September 27, you can help them work toward that goal by attending Shine Gold. The event includes food, drink and a massive fireworks show. It’s happening at the Orchard Park Country Club. Tickets are $75.

If you would like to give directly to Sophia the Fierce Incorporated, click here.

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Kelsey Anderson is an award-winning anchor who came back home to Buffalo in 2018. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.

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