Adam Klein's mother died two hours after he returned home from filming season 33 of the CBS reality competiton
Adam Klein knew he had to get home.
After 39 days on an island in Fiji competing on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, the homeless shelter manager could sense he needed to return to San Francisco as soon as possible to be with his mother, Susie, who had recently stopped receiving treatment as she battled lung cancer.
Just two hours after Klein returned home, his mother was gone. She was 60 years old.
“I truly think she was holding in all this energy to support me in the game and once she knew she didn’t need to send it to me anymore, I think she started to allow herself a little more peace,” Klein tells PEOPLE. “I absolutely believe she waited for me to come home and I’m so grateful.”
Now officially crowned the winner of the CBS reality show — host Jeff Probst announced Klein as the sole survivor during Wednesday’s live finale — the reality show contestant, 25, reflects on how his mother inspired his Survivor journey and how he plans to honor her memory with his $1 million prize.
Did you have any reservations about competing on the show knowing your mother was battling lung cancer?
I applied with the full support of my mom. It was my third time applying and she was the one that said to never stop trying. So when I finally got on, there was no doubt in my mind what she wanted me to do. The producers were willing to cast me in a future season so I could be with my mom. I was so humbled and honored by that, but I went to each member of my family and they all agreed that this was the right time and it would give us all something happy to look forward to.
You said many times on the show you couldn’t wait to watch the season back with her …
While we didn’t get to watch it on the couch together the way I imagined we would, I know my mom was living it right along with me. When my family decided to stop treatment, my mom said she did not want to pull me from the game. She was not doing terribly. There was no indication she would pass away within weeks. But they had decided that if I was voted out of the game, even if I made the jury, that I would have gone home. So the fact that I wasn’t coming home meant that I was moving on in the game. So, every day that I moved on in the game was another day to brighten her spirits. She recorded 11 videos for me while I was gone, telling me that it was giving her so much strength that I was out there. I wanted one of them each week as the episodes aired. I am so thankful that she did that for me and I could live it alongside with her.
How important was it that your brother got to spend time with you during the family visits?
I needed that so badly. In retrospect, I needed it even more than I knew because not only would my mom get to know how I was doing in the game, but I got to tell my brother everything and walk him through my game and my plans for the future and he got to go home and tell my mom everything. I will never, ever forget what Jay did in that moment and let me go along on the reward.
Were you worried you wouldn’t make it home in time to say goodbye?
If I hadn’t made it home, oh my god. There are so many things that if they hadn’t happened exactly the way that they happened, I would be even more of a wreck than I already am. But the fact that I was able to really talk to her and tell her how much I love her and hear her say the same thing was priceless. Just two days before, probably during the final tribal council, she was walking around the block.
Have you processed the fact that you just won Survivor?
I don’t think it ever will. I saw [the series’ only two-time winner] Sandra Diaz-Twine at the after party last night and to think that I’m in similar company as the queen of Survivor is just incredible. I ran into Tony [Vlachos] in the elevator and I thought, “Oh! That’s a Survivor winner!” and then I thought, “Oh man. Somehow that’s me too!” As a huge fan of the show it’s hard to fathom.
What was your strategy?
A lot of superfans think that knowing how the game works and constantly running numbers is all you need. But “I’m not here to make friends” is a losing strategy. This game is all about making friends. I went into this game wanting to be as kindhearted as I could be within this cutthroat game. I think I made really strong connections — many of which we didn’t see on the show. But I was very straightforward with people and made strong bonds.
You’re donating $100,000 of your winnings to cancer research, but what will you do with the rest?
A lot of it is going to taxes, but whatever is left … I have no plans to go buy a new car or clothes. Maybe I’ll take a vacation, but I work for a homeless shelter non-profit, so I don’t make a lot of money. This money will just go towards making sure I can continue to do the work I am so passionate about and live comfortably. And I’m sure I’ll be buying dinner more often when I go out with friends.
Go to su2c.org/survivor for information in how you can support Klein’s efforts to fund cancer research.