Mom with cancer seeks aid for adopted daughter

A former Stelly’s Secondary School teacher facing a terminal cancer diagnosis is appealing for financial help to keep her adopted daughter in Canada.

Joni Miller, 49, has spent much of the last 12 years living in Belize, where she opened a school for children in Caye Caulker, a small island that is home to about 2,000 people and was previously without a secondary school.

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It was also in Belize that she adopted her daughter Naijah, now 11.

When Miller, who grew up in Metchosin, found out that the cancer she had beaten years earlier had returned, she came home to Victoria for treatment and brought Naijah with her. Her daughter doesn’t have Canadian citizenship and is currently on a visitor visa, and Miller is worried about what will happen to Naijah when she’s gone.

Miller and her family are working to ensure Naijah will be able to stay in Canada, but it’s a confusing and costly process. The retainer for a lawyer is about $10,000.

Miller dedicated herself to running the high school in Caye Caulker and, as a result, had few savings when she returned to Canada. Six months of cancer treatment and being unable to work has left her without an income.

Her sister Laurie Marczak started a fundraising page to help cover the legal fees for Naijah’s immigration. In just four days, more than $11,000 has poured in from friends, family and others touched by Miller’s story.

Marczak believes the generosity is a reflection of her sister’s giving nature.

“My sister is this incredibly impressive person who pulled something amazing out of nowhere,” Marczak said of Miller’s work opening the school in Belize.

“I think people see her as someone who has given a lot to people and they want to give back to her.”

Miller said she has been struggling to accept her diagnosis, especially after surviving cancer once already. In 2005, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer on her olfactory nerve after suffering spontaneous nosebleeds that wouldn’t stop. After surgery and radiation, she was told she was in remission.

That same cancer has returned as a brain tumour on her frontal lobe — a part of the brain that controls important cognitive skills such as memory, language, judgment and problem-solving.

After thinking she was in the clear, Miller said the diagnosis now hits her in waves “of denial, then grief, then an urge to find a higher spirit or purpose of it all.”

Naijah is staying in Terrace with Miller’s friend Sara Hopkins, who stepped up to become the girl’s guardian in the event of Miller’s death. Marczak described Naijah as cheerful and bright, despite having faced some hardship in her short life. “Joy just comes out of this kid.”

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