‘Survivor’ booby prize helps finance church hall

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times
The first person to be booted from the television show “Survivor” has parlayed her $2,500 consolation prize into a cache large enough to finance the expansion of a Walnut Creek church.

Seven years after the show, Sonja Christopher’s nest egg has grown to $1 million, and the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church will break ground on its new Fellowship Hall on Sunday.

Christopher, a banjo player who serenaded her island-mates with a satiric ukulele version of “Bye Bye Blues” on “Survivor,” told CBS officials that if she captured the $1 million booty, she would sock it into bricks and mortar at Mt. Diablo.

Alas, Christopher tripped during one of the show’s challenges and pocketed the booby prize instead.

Christopher, 70, lost out to Richard Hatch, a Rhode Island competitor who performed the required feats in his birthday suit. He was last seen publicly in a different kind of suit — an orange one with a federal prison imprint on it. The motivational speaker was sentenced to 51 months for failing to pay tax on nearly $400,000 in earnings.

Greed plus arrogance plus celebrity equals bad karma, Christopher, a Rossmoor resident, said Wednesday.

“He so infuriated the IRS, he told me they wouldn’t settle for anything less than jail time,” she said.

In a Sunday talk at the Eckley Lane church after her unceremonious exit from the show, Christopher said she would use her winnings — or losings — as seed money for an expansion fund.

“I apologized for not winning the million dollars,” she said. “When I came down from the dais, there were several families who said, ‘We’re so happy with what you’re doing, we are going to match it.'”

In true Unitarian fashion, she said, they prevailed on her to form a committee to lead the drive.

The church is not the only beneficiary of her stint on “Survivor.” Christopher, who has rappelled down a 50-foot cliff and hit steep terrain on her mountain bike, also speaks to groups about beating breast cancer.

“We ‘Survivors’ were in demand to make public appearances and endorsements and things,” said Christopher, in remission for 10 years. “NBC was so overwhelmed, they said, ‘You need to get an agent.'” She donated her honoraria to the Fellowship Hall fund.

As rain tore through the Bay Area on Tuesday, she nursed a sore throat — the result of her first gig in the new year.

But she will be ready with a shovel Sunday for the groundbreaking.

“I would have eaten bugs to see the darn thing built,” she said. “I’ll tell them, I didn’t stay on the island long enough to eat a bug, but now I will.”

That may call for some sleight of hand, she said.

Bay Area News Group, January 9, 2008 

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