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News / Health / Clark County Health

Founder of nonprofit Thrive2Survive keeps sister’s memory alive with Sonya Fund

Program aims to help those who lose loved ones to homelessness, drugs, mental health conditions

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: December 28, 2023, 6:06am

Charles Hanset carries his sister’s legacy with him every day.

His sister, Sonya, died of an overdose in 2014 and Hanset permanently inked her name into the skin on the side of his neck. He also started the Sonya Fund. It helps local families who have lost loved ones to homelessness, substance use or a mental health condition pay for memorial services. Thrive2Survive, a nonprofit Hanset founded, facilitates the fund.

“We’re losing people in our community every day. Everyone is affected by homelessness, addiction in some way,” Hanset said. “And you can’t prepare to lose someone like that. We just want families to have a way to remember their loved ones.”

In 2023, the Sonya Fund helped three families, but more than that applied for aid. The fund’s board selects recipients. Hanset said beyond financial help, the fund refers people to other organizations for help with grief or other challenges.

The fund is seeking donations for the upcoming year, Hanset said. He hopes with additional money, the fund can help more families in 2024.

How to Help

To donate to the Sonya Fund, visit thrive2survivewa.org/sonya-fund online.

“We want to honor my sister, her passion, but also the passions of others and remember to … say their names,” Hanset said.

Sonya’s legacy

Hanset said he and his sister, whose full name was Sonya Ulestad-Monahan, were a year apart in age and close growing up. Hanset said they had rough childhoods, traumatic at times.

“She was always so strong, stronger than me,” he said. “She supported me and never judged me. She was my best friend.”

Hanset said his sister was the opposite of him growing up; he called himself the “bad” one. She married, bought a home and was the mother to four children.

“Life was good for her,” Hanset said.

But then Ulestad-Monahan developed bunions on her toes that were excruciatingly painful. Her doctor prescribed painkillers. Over time, she became sick if she didn’t take the pills, Hanset said.

“She got really hooked on them and started going to the doctor with a problem she had, then another problem, to get more painkillers,” Hanset said. “It was similar to myself. The doctors were my drug dealers at the start.”

When doctors began cracking down on supplying painkillers to patients about 10 years ago, Ulestad-Monahan started using heroin and became homeless, Hanset said.

In 2014, she was admitted to a treatment facility. Their mother went to drop off clothes for Ulestad-Monahan and was told her daughter had left the facility with another resident.

Ulestad-Monahan overdosed on heroin shortly thereafter, Hanset said. Four days later, her family took her off life support. She died March 1, 2014.

Hanset said he started the fund in his sister’s memory to not only provide financial help to families but offer them support during a time of grief. He said his sister’s story is all too common in our community, and families are often unprepared for the financial demands.

Lessens the burden

When Joann Irvin remembers her sister, Nicole Blair, she reflects on her kind and genuine heart. She was also smart and driven. She earned a presidential letter in school. But she struggled with a mental health condition. Earlier this year, Blair died of an overdose.

“She wasn’t someone who regularly used drugs, so it blindsided me,” Irvin said.

A majority of the financial responsibility fell on Irvin, a single mother of two. But someone contacted Sonya Fund staff on her behalf.

“They helped me give my sister a proper burial that she absolutely deserved,” Irvin said. “It was beautiful and huge, so many people showed up to remember her. It wasn’t focused on her mental health or struggles on this Earth but on who she was as a caring person.”

Six weeks later, their father died from a stroke. He suffered from the same mental health condition as Blair, Irvin said. Sonya Fund staff had called her to check in, Irvin said, and learned of her father’s death. They offered financial assistance again.

“In a time of grieving and hardship, to have an organization like that reach out to you lessens the burden of the strain,” Irvin said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.