Messages of Hope

updated 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Chemotherapy for kidney cancer had left 13-year-old Laura Valentine bald and, at times, too weak to walk. Eventually the East Peoria, Ill., eighth grader had to quit school, and her prognosis wasn't good. "Cancer knocked her flat on her butt," says her mother, Sandy, 51. "She thought she was going to die and had nothing to look forward to." Then, shortly before Valentine's Day 2001, something strange and wonderful happened: Stacks of mail began arriving daily—all sent by total strangers from as far away as Japan and New Zealand. Within three weeks, more than 4,000 valentines, stuffed animals, books and other gifts had piled up knee-deep in her room. "Laura got excited about life again," says Sandy, "just to see what would come in the mail."

Valentine had been touched by ChemoAngels, the brainchild of Laura Armstrong, a former accounting clerk living in Julian, Calif. Operating entirely over the Internet, ChemoAngels recruits volunteers to "adopt" a cancer patient and send weekly cards and letters as well as care packages and modest gifts by mail. Working from a desktop computer in the trailer home she shares with her husband and three sons, Armstrong has enlisted more than 4,000 Angels to serve more than 2,000 patients since she started her Web site (www.Chemoangels.com) in November 2000. "When cancer hits your life, it can seem like all the good has gone out of the world," says Armstrong, 42, who lost her father to the disease. "To have a stranger be so caring can be a real boost."

Prospective angels and patients—or, as happened with Valentine, their parents—sign up at the Web site and fill out questionnaires. Armstrong then tries to match people by compatibility. A patient generally has two Angels, one to keep the cards and letters coming, the other to send gifts. In certain cases like Valentine's—due to her condition and the fact that it was Valentine's Day—a special team of Angels blankets the patient with mail and love. It can be wrenching work: Laura Valentine lost her battle in January. But her family credits ChemoAngels for the last three years they didn't expect to have. "Because of that love and support," says Sandy, who still receives condolence cards, "I believe it extended her life."

Not all cases end sadly. Breast cancer patient Rosalie Blair, 49, of Cadet, Mo., doesn't think she'd have made it through chemo without her angels, whom she has never met. "I had every side effect—memory loss, vomiting, fatigue and dizziness," she says. "Sick as I was, I'd force myself to the mailbox each day."

It was in part to honor her father, Chip, that Armstrong started ChemoAngels. A onetime center with the Baltimore Colts and mayor of El Segundo, Calif., he was stricken with pancreatic cancer in 1989 and died at 66. "He shrank from a larger-than-life man to almost nothing," Armstrong says. By then the mother of Christian, now 19, and Mike, 17, she faced her own health crisis in 1992: Numb on her left side, Armstrong was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Today she suffers fatigue, blurred vision and types only with her right hand. "I think I'm more compassionate because of it," she says.

She turned empathy into action in 1999. Pregnant with Charlie, 4, her son with second husband Stephan Luethi, 42, she joined an online support group for expectant mothers. When a member named Lynn developed breast cancer, Armstrong recalled how a flood of cards had lifted her father's spirits and sent care packages—soaps, popcorn, stationery. Later, a cancer-free Lynn wrote in a thank-you note, "I considered you my Chemo Angel."

That inspired the name of the organization Armstrong started the next fall, finding patients and angels through online forums. In three months 100 angels joined, and Armstrong quit her job with a CPA to put in 12-hour days with the group, which is funded by donations and now has an unpaid staff of seven full-timers and 75 volunteers. Armstrong, too, draws no salary, so Luethi supports the family on the $35,000 a year he earns as a caretaker of the ranch where they live rent-free. "To us," he says, "money isn't the means to all ends."

With the savings they scrape together, their dream is to buy a catamaran and set off for the Pacific—indefinitely. But as long as she has Internet access, Armstrong won't turn in her wings. The work can be emotionally draining, particularly when patients pass away, but worth it. "I try to keep in mind that while they were here," she says, "we made their last days a lot more happy."

Richard Jerome. Ken Lee in Julian

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