Mom asks for birthday cards for daughter who's defied odds

Posted: Updated:

Shelly Miller is hoping to see a little more mail this week.

She’s asking people to send her daughter, Tonja, cards for her 35th birthday Saturday. These would replace nearly 100 birthday cards she lost in a flood in August 2016. The flood swept through Mulvane and ended up destroying their home. The cards were important to their family, though, Shelly said.

“I would show her every card, and we would read it,” she said. “Some of them played music and she would smile. Before long, I went and got a chair. I lowered her bed. We read some more. It took us the biggest part of the day to read all of those cards to her, but she absolutely loved it.”


Moments like this mean so much to the family. Tonja and her twin, Sonja, were born several weeks premature. The girls never hit traditional milestones, like sitting up, walking or talking. Doctors figured the two were slow with their development. By 18 months old, doctors diagnosed Sonja and Tonja with myoclonic encephalopathy. The girls suffered from seizures and had holes in their brains. Doctors said the girls would not live past three years old.

Tonja and Sonja defied odds. They grew up non-verbal. While it can be challenging, Shelly and her husband Mike found routines that worked for them. Time was precious. They learned to live in the moment. The girls were doing OK. By the time they were six, Shelly and Mike had a healthy baby boy. Two years after that, they welcomed another son into their family. Less than three weeks later, Sonja died. She suddenly stopped breathing. She was eight years old. It was tough, but Shelly said she fixated on her children. She also focused on her faith.


“Our faith in God, more than anything,” Shelly said. “I really believe you know, when I first had them, I thought, ‘Man, I did something bad.’ Not only with one but with two.”

“It wasn't a punishment,” she continued. “It was definitely a blessing. I've had so many people tell me, you know, most people wouldn't do this. The doctors told us put them in a home. ‘Forget about them. They're never going to amount to anything.’ And, it was like these were my babies. It's like, How do you do that? Needless to say, we didn't see those doctors anymore.”


Every day, nurses and family monitor Tonja. Machines help her function. Though she spends most of her time at home, the family travels with Tonja and has even gone camping with her this summer. They continue to make memories together. Tonja’s now an aunt, and kids bring her a lot of joy. Her eyes light up around children, Shelly said.

“Regardless of what she can and cannot do, her life is precious,” Shelly said. “ To me, it is so precious to me. I just would do anything to keep her here. She's happy. If she was hurting, it would be hard. But, she for the biggest part, is so happy. My saying with her: ‘A smile a day, and I can do anything.’ I usually get at least one smile every day.”


Those smiles continue, especially with each birthday. Shelly said she counts her blessings – 35 years of them. Tonja may not function like an average person, but she continues to teach her family and others every day.

Soon, the family will gather to celebrate with Tonja. They will also open up birthday cards. Shelly plans to save them and will read them to Tonja – just like ones from a card shower before. From the traditional to homemade to musical cards – all are appreciated.

“She loves to heard voices and loves to be read to,” Shelly said.

Tonja already has a small pile of cards stacking in her room. Some are mailed from Derby, Mulvane, McPherson – all over. In her last card shower – with the cards that were lost in the flood – one even came from Germany. The response from people, particularly strangers, is touching.

“It just blows me away. I just I couldn't even imagine, you know that response, “Shelly said. “I've always said that she's here for a reason. As much as I would love for her to be healthy and be able to walk and talk. I would not give up a minute of the time I've had with her. Never. She is my angel.”


Tonja’s birthday is Saturday, Sept. 7. If you would like to send her a birthday card, mail it to the following address:

Tonja Miller
1247 Briarwood Road
Derby, Kansas 67037

Check out these photos from across KAKEland snapped by our viewers, staff and local officials. Do you have pictures to share with us? Email them to