Family honors son’s memory, supports patients with Me Fine Foundation

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.

Folden Lee IV dressed in a Superman shirt in his hospital bed. Me Fine began calling monthly donors superheroes in honor of Folden’s love for Superman.

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.”

Lisa Brown (back, left), Anita Turlington (back, right), Tracee Norris (front, left) and Lori Lee (front, right) at dinner in 2018. They met in 1999 when their daughters took their first dance class together.

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.”

The Second Hope Shop works to provide name-brand clothes for affordable prices. Second Hope, run by Mary Angel Bastin, also aids in paying off Me Fine’s operating costs.

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

Fewer immigrants take on American names as more embrace birth names

By Mary Glen Hatcher

The night before seven-year-old Lufan Huang left China, she stuffed a small backpack with her sweater, some playing cards, a few snacks and a dictionary of English names.

She needed to choose a new identity. 

With her mother by her side, she pored over the book on the plane, tracking each syllable with a tiny finger.

Elizabeth, she thought, might be nice – after all the blonde, blue-eyed girls she’d seen on TV.

“No,” her mother hesitated. “You’ll be like everyone else in America.”

Her mother suggested Jessica, but Lufan wanted something a bit edgier, more androgynous. She wanted to be cool.

So on a chilly, November morning in 2004, Jessie Huang walked off the plane into New York City.

Finding a new you

The practice of adopting a new name is not foreign to American immigrants.

For centuries, people have immigrated to the United States for a fresh start. A vast majority of them come to find new jobs that lead to better lives and more opportunities for their families.

But starting a new life is tough, and starting a new life in America as a non-English speaking minority is tougher. For many, choosing a westernized name is a head start – if you can assimilate quickly, you can deter suspicion and possibly some discrimination.

Your transition in this new country might be a little easier.

“My parents weren’t of the educated class, so for us, coming into a new country, we tried really hard to hide ourselves and not be as noticed,” Jessie Huang, now a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said.

“Knowing now what it would have been like if I hadn’t chosen an American name, seeing other people get teased, I think it was a form of survival. I think, even then, my parents knew it was a form of survival,” Jessie said. 

Accommodating peers

For others, the choice to take an American name might come out of embarrassment or under the small burden of feeling pressure to accommodate others.

Irene Zhou, also a senior at UNC, emigrated from China with her family when she was less than a year old. She remembers being overwhelmingly flustered in grade school when teachers and peers couldn’t pronounce her legal name, Si Yang.

“As a kid, you feel like everything is a bigger deal than it is, but it really did feel like the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Irene said.

A shy girl by nature, Irene was uncomfortable with confronting people or speaking up to correct their pronunciation. “I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t want this to happen again,’ and it was bound to happen again unless I did something.”

She would later steal the name Irene from a girl in her third-grade art class. It’s been with her ever since.

Embracing origins

But the trend that has imprinted itself on the lives, name tags and coffee cups of first- and second-generation immigrants across the country might be disappearing.

According to a 2010 New York Times report, the number of formal immigration name changes has been declining over the past few decades.

Some researchers cite the decrease as evidence the United States is becoming a more multicultural society. Other explanations point to the complexity involved with changing multiple official documents or that the motivations to change one’s name – blending in, assimilating with American culture – are not as potent as they once were.

For Hoi Ning Ngai, whose family left Hong Kong for Brooklyn in 1978, having an additional American name never really stuck for her, but she doesn’t regret not having one. After several failed attempts to become a Nancy, a Victoria and a Samantha during her childhood, Hoi Ning decided to embrace her birth name.

“I felt most places I was the minority,” Hoi Ning said. “So if I’m already in that category, what’s the difference if I’m a bit more of a minority in terms of the name?”

While she admits her choice has left her frustrated at times, Hoi Ning said keeping her name has allowed her to reflect on the opportunities it provides for bridging cultural understanding.

“I think the name itself does open the door for conversation in some ways,” Hoi Ning said. “It’s been a nice turn for me to acknowledge whatever awkwardness there is surrounding me being different and turn it into an opportunity to educate on the meaning and background. I feel like that’s given me a little more control over the situation.”

Finding individualism in heritage 

A new generation of Asian-Americans might also agree.

A few years ago, after their parents gained U.S. citizenship, both Jessie and Irene had the opportunity to legalize their American names.

Both decided against it.

Irene said her decision was inspired by her parents, who chose not to take English names when they immigrated.

“They always told me I should never change myself to make others’ lives easier – it’s not an accommodation that anyone should have to make,” Irene said.

“I think throughout the years as I’ve become closer to my Chinese heritage, as opposed to trying to fit in to the American community, my English name Irene has lost meaning, and my sense of individualism has gotten stronger,” Irene said.

Although both of Jessie’s parents legally changed their names, she felt confident in her decision to keep hers, especially after immersing herself in a supportive Asian-American community at UNC.

“I’ve always felt a really strong tie to my name, so I didn’t want to legally erase it,” Jessie said.

“Even though I’m applying to jobs right now, and printing out my name on a resume can feel foreign, I still would never want to change it. It’s like this silent reminder to myself of where I came from.”

Edited by Sara Hall