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'Survivor's' first loser enjoys delayed victory

Her 'booby prize' gift sparks the $1-million drive to build a new hall for her church.

January 18, 2008|Michelle Locke | Associated Press

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- The plan was for Sonja Christopher to go on TV's "Survivor," win big and give the money to her church to build a new hall.

The reality was that she stumbled in a challenge and became the first person voted off the American version of the TV hit.

But wait, there's more.

This month, the 70-year-old Christopher helped break ground on that hall, which is being built with more than $1 million in donations -- a campaign that caught fire after she donated her $2,500 consolation prize as seed money.

And the winner of that season's show?

That would be Richard Hatch, now serving time in a federal prison on charges of tax evasion.

Kind of adds a whole new layer to that "last shall be first, and the first last" thing.

Or, as the Rev. Diane Miller put it as she addressed the congregation of Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church shortly before the recent groundbreaking: "The moral is that giving is good."

Christopher had already survived breast cancer when she auditioned to be on the first season of CBS' "Survivor" in 2000.

She was intrigued by the idea of roughing it in the wild -- although less thrilled by the conniving nature of the contest in which castmates vote one another out.

During the interview she was asked what she'd do with the million if she won. It made her think. What would she do with all that money?

Set in her habits and "pretty thrifty," a lavish lifestyle makeover didn't seem likely. But the money would come in handy for her church. The congregation had built an airy, light-filled sanctuary atop a hillside in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek but had stalled on putting together funds for a fellowship hall.

The show became a huge hit as millions of people tuned in to see 16 people on a deserted island battling the elements and one another.

The personable Christopher established herself as a warm presence, serenading teammates with the ukulele she'd brought along as a "luxury item." But she lasted only one episode before getting the early boot for stumbling during a race.

She put a good face on it, but the loss was galling, especially for someone who played tennis and swam and had a keen competitive streak.

When it was all over, she decided to go through with her original promise, getting up in church and saying even though she hadn't come home with the big money, she would donate the $2,500 she jokingly called her "booby prize."

She knew she was on to something when two people stopped her as she walked down from the dais and whispered in her ear that they would donate too.

Church member Joan Redding, who later became part of the fundraising effort, was among those impressed by Christopher's pledge. "It touched my heart very deeply that she would do that. It really was our seed money," she said.

What followed was a lot of hard work by a team of people that eventually resulted in more than $1 million in pledges.

But the effort owes a lot to Christopher, Miller said.

"It was the generosity of it. It wasn't waiting until we had some big giant gift. That's really what's so unusual."

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