By Cee Cee Huffman
JOHNSTON COUNTY, N.C. – Two-year-old Folden Lee IV sat in a hospital room surrounded by toy tractors, bulldozers and dump trucks. He was from rural Johnston County and loved anything you might find outside, so his family brought it all into his sterile room.
His dad, Folden Lee III, was a dentist. His mom, Lori Lee, was a stay-at-home mom. When his older sisters, Anna Gaites and Wilson, were going to first and second grade, he was undergoing chemotherapy to treat his acute myeloid leukemia.
“How do you feel?” Lori asked.
“Me fine, mommy, me fine!” Folden said.
He was 17 months old when doctors found that his bone marrow was producing large amounts of abnormal blood cells and sending cancer through his blood, but Folden was always fine.
Finding support through new relationships
The Lee family was in and out of UNC Hospitals for nearly a year before they were living in the close quarters of the Duke Children’s inpatient care unit, where neighbors became family.
If they needed support, they reached out to each other. If they had extra, they shared with each other. They talked about what they’d lost while trying to save their children.
“Oh my God, y’all lost your house?” Lori asked.
“I mean yeah, we lost our house a long time ago,” a mother said.
Five-year-old Spencer had been at Duke Children’s for a year. He could finally go back to his family in California, but his old house was filled with lead paint. His weak immune system wouldn’t stand a chance. He would stay isolated in a hotel nearby.
“Who fixes that?” Lori asked.
“There’s really not organizations that do things like that,” a doctor said.
The beginnings of Me Fine
The Me Fine Foundation was created the day Folden died.
Me Fine provides financial and emotional assistance to families with children at Duke, UNC and WakeMed Children’s Hospitals who experienced a life-changing event, whether it be a terminal illness or a life-threatening accident.
Lori kept an online journal to update friends and family since Folden’s diagnosis in May 2003.
If she mentioned that the kids liked books, friends and family would send books. If she mentioned that the parents needed phone cards, they’d send phone cards.
“I don’t have any money, but I’ve got a strong back,” one man said. Lori could not tell you who the man was, but he wanted to help.
Then they started sending money. When Folden passed on Sept. 1, 2004, they sent $20,000.
“We’d go visit the hospital, and it was still families that we knew, and we knew what they needed,” Lori said. “Sometimes $1,000 would just clear everything up for a while. They could breathe.”
Lori’s friends jumped in to help. They found a small office in downtown Clayton — down an alley and underneath an old printing shop. In the front, it looked like any other office with gray carpeting and wooden desks. In the back, it looked like Santa’s workshop with toy donations piled to the ceiling.
Lisa Brown had two children of her own and was a waitress at night, but she was free during the day. She worked directly with the families and social workers at the hospitals.
“We weren’t willing to say no if there was any possible way we could do it,” Lisa said.
Lori and Lisa wanted to help everybody, but their friend Anita Turlington stepped in to budget the money. She was also a stay-at-home mom, but if Me Fine only had $10, Anita would make sure it didn’t spend $15.
“I look back and I think, ‘It was so crazy,’” Lisa said. “None of us knew anything. The only thing we knew was that we wanted to help those people Lori had seen there.”
They took care of the patients that slipped through the cracks of other organizations, like the terminally ill 13-year-old boy Lisa remembers. He’d been accepted by Make-A-Wish, but, with so many children, Make-A-Wish can take a long time — time that he didn’t have.
“Can y’all please do something?” a social worker asked.
“Yes,” Lisa said.
With Me Fine, she had no fear of asking, so she called and asked anyone she could think of that day. They sent the boy and his family on a trip to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.
He died a month later.
When the social worker called Lisa and told her that three of the children she’d been helping had died, Lisa was beside herself. She was sobbing at her desk. She wasn’t sure she could do it anymore.
“What you have to concentrate on is not that they died but what you did to make their families more comfortable while they were here,” Lori told Lisa.
They helped around 30 families during the first year. They renovated a family’s entire house. They paid mortgages for others. They went with grieving parents to funeral homes and helped them pick out caskets and clothes for their children to be buried in.
Growth through local partnership
Today, Me Fine has helped thousands and makes more money at its annual gala than it made in its first year.
And now there’s the Second Hope Shop, a thrift store in Princeton, North Carolina, with hot pink letters on the front, where Mary Angel Bastin reorganizes the entire store to match the season. Reorganizing the store used to be her mom’s job, but when her cataracts worsened in 2007, Mary Angel took over.
Second Hope works to off-set Me Fine’s costs of operating, but it also supports the surrounding community.
Mary Angel remembers when she was a kid and her brother was sick. She and her sisters couldn’t afford the name-brand clothes like the other girls at school. Mary Angel now sells sells name-brand clothes at Second Hope to make sure other girls can afford them.
“It’s not like people are afraid or ashamed to say ‘I absolutely shop at Second Hope,’ or at Me Fine,” Mary Angel said. “Everyone knows us as Me Fine.”
But Me Fine still pays mortgages, light bills and gas costs for people like Valerie King.
“There’s so much they’ve done,” Valerie said. “I wish I could think of everything.”
When she was 16, Valerie’s cancer was so advanced that doctors didn’t think she’d recover. Thinking it may be Valerie’s last, Me Fine gave her and her little brother Christmas that year.
After chemo and surgery, Valerie’s scans were clear.
“I had to come meet you for myself because you are a miracle,” a radiologist said.
After seven years cancer free, Valerie relapsed, but Me Fine is still there if she needs it.
“One hundred people in a room and it only takes one to believe in you, to push you far,” Valerie said. “Me Fine has been amazing. They go above and beyond and have helped me more than any other foundation has.”
All because of 2-year-old Folden Lee IV who, no matter what he faced, was always fine. Because of him, other sick kids and their families will feel that way.
To donate, visit the Me Fine Foundation’s website.
Edited by: Sara Hall