Despite hardship, a young woman finds ways to touch the lives of many
A 27-year-old who had to fight for her life at the young age of one has done many things in her life, things that many have only dreamt about completing because Andrea Miller believes “God is good all of the time.”
“She really is like a real life angel,” her mother, Teresa Miller, said.
At the age of one, Andrea had a huge brain tumor, a very aggressive cancer, removed. Doctors told the Miller family that they did not expect her to live, that they should take her home to meet her grandparents and pick out a burial plot.
“We thought, ‘oh man, we can’t be doing this. No, we are going to fight for this kid,'” Teresa said.
Three weeks later the tumor returned causing the doctors to remove a third of her brain. A shunt was put in and Andrea started a year of chemotherapy, which included eight drugs in a 24-hour period. At the age of two she began radiation twice a day at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The doctors told the family that Andrea would never walk, talk or pass third grade. Andrea’s strength, determination and faith shined through beating the odds, allowing her to graduate from high school with honors.
Her life forever changed while she was attending a Catholic school in 7th grade. Since the sisters who taught at the school were from India, the students heard about a trip they were taking during summer break, which led to discussions about an orphanage next to the family’s home.
The class heard about the orphanage during “dress down Friday,” a special day allowing the kids to pay $5 to wear regular clothing, instead of uniforms. The story about the girls living in the orphanage and the $5 going towards the orphanage stuck with Andrea.
“I came home and I talked to my mom about it,” Andrea said. “I said, ‘You know what, I am going to write a letter to my family and friends and tell them how blessed they are.’ So I wrote this letter and said ‘Have you ever considered yourself really blessed in such a way that you give away some more to help?'”
Those letters generated $500. The following year Andrea collected $1,500 for the cause.
Jake, Andrea’s father, said the following year they made prints of a painting Andrea created with T. White. The prints were given to everyone who donated to Andrea’s cause and the orphanage. The paintings were a hit and the donations that came in generated more than $60,000.
The creativity continued as Andrea wrote poems, which were accompanied by paintings created by T. White in the book “Andrea and the Children of Karunalayam.”
“We had a wave of growth,” Teresa said.
The wave of growth led to an orphanage being built in India for 77 girls, which has since grown to 110.
In 2001, the Andrea Miller Founda-tion, a Minnesota nonprofit organization, was formed, so Andrea could continue to help orphans and needy children. What started off as helping orphans in India and Africa led to helping needy children in the United States after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The foundation also helps needy children in Minnesota, where the organization is based, with winter coats and boots, Andrea said so they do not freeze to death.
“We have had a big impact not only in India and Africa, but a huge impact here, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa,” Teresa said. “We are kind of all over the place.”
The foundation has also built hospitals, schools, boarding homes, bio-gas plant, bore wells, as well as provided such assistance as gift baskets around the holidays, food pantries and school supplies.
In 2009, in an effort to continue raising money for her foundation, Andrea published the book, “Reflections from a Simple Heart.”
This year a cookbook was created with recipes from family, friends and donors of the Andrea Miller Foundation.
“It’s another way to raise money, raise awareness and spread the word,” Jake said.
A visit from Andrea’s brother led to Andrea’s next entrepreneurial journey.
“I learned that this is the shell capital of the world,” she said of Sanibel, where her parents own a home in The Dunes. “My cousin’s grandmother, on her mom’s side, she would shell down here for years and make little mirrors and picture frames. She got too old and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore and I am going to give these all to you.'”
The collection of shells led Andrea to creating a cross with carefully placed sea shells for her mother and father.
“My brother came down and he saw that and said, ‘You know you can sell this on eBay.’ He just rips it off the wall, takes a picture of it and puts it on eBay. The eBay cross he put on there sold in 20-minutes.”
The sea shell crosses and angels are sold at B Unique Boutique, 1614 Periwinkle Way. The owner, Sandra Williams, donates all of the proceeds from the sales directly back to the foundation.
Andrea starts her piece of art with a wooden cutout, which is then painted before she begins placing an outline of shells around the cross, or angel. She then fills in the middle with different size shells. On the back of each piece she shares her story and information about her foundation.
“I always thought an artist was just a painter,” she said. “I always liked being creative. I wrote those two books and then I started with this (shell art) and I learned in school that creativity is not just painting, writing is creativity and this. I have a different way to express my creativity with art. This is a different way of forming ideas. I sit at my factory table and I have different ideas for what one of these are going to look like.”
Andrea is able to continue with her creativity because of her four-legged friend, Drake, a seizure assist dog. Drake came into Andrea’s life in October 2011 to help with her diagnosis of epilepsy and complex partial seizure disorder.
“With all Andrea has done, she has struggled with self-confidence. Drake has helped her with that,” Jake said.
Drake and Andrea went through extensive training for up to six months. Drake barks really loud when he hears noises, or someone is at the door because Andrea is deaf, picks things up for Andrea because she lost some of her mobility, causing unsteadiness and will get help if Andrea is in trouble
“If I’m in the kitchen and Andrea has a seizure in her bedroom, Drake will come and nudge me on the right hip and I know Andrea is in trouble,” Teresa said.
Drake also picks up on Andrea’s aura, which she said often times is an indicator that a seizure is coming.
“He’s right here for me. Drake makes me feel better and makes the aura go away,” she said.
Drake has given Andrea her self-confidence and independence.
“He has been a blessing,” Teresa said. “They are best buddies. He has really changed Andrea’s life. He has given her independence.”
For more information about the Andrea Miller Foundation and how to contribute to the organization, call Teresa at (952) 270-1910.
Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.