Commentary

Mother who lost son to cancer hopes foundation will help others

Updated: November 1, 2007, 4:45 PM ET
By Jay Weiner | Special to ESPN.com

As he lay dying, Eli Florence had a dream: that other boys and girls in his predicament would have a chance to spend lots of time with their parents.

As he lost his battle with leukemia, Eli, 15, knew that his mother, Trina, had left her $55,000-a-year job so she could be with him, as she says, "24-7," from diagnosis to stem-cell transplants, from remission to his final, sad days.

After all, the son said: "Mom, you can't spend time with money."

And so, Wednesday, Trina Florence-King, 41, told ESPN.com that she's formed The Eli Foundation, with the goal of raising money and advocating for mothers and fathers who must choose between their jobs and, in most cases, a terminally ill child.

Eli Florence
Tri-County Times, Fenton MichiganKing Eli and part of the Lake Fenton royal court.

Eli died three weeks ago as his town of Lake Fenton, Mich., rallied around him. His story gained national prominence when he was named homecoming king at Lake Fenton High. Five Blue Devils senior athletes -- four football players and a golfer, all candidates for homecoming king -- opted to forego their chances for the honor and instead gave it to Eli, a sophomore whose fight with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) became a community cause.

He was honored at halftime of the homecoming game. He was invited to visit the Michigan Wolverines at their homecoming game, but he was too weak to attend one day before his death. A song was written about him. An entire region grieved.

"His death was an awful tragedy," said Mayor Don Williamson, of Flint, Mich., the nearest city to Lake Fenton. "He touched the hearts of probably 98 percent of the people in this county.''

After Eli was diagnosed in August 2003, Trina Florence-King, divorced from Eli's father, turned all her attention to her son's illness, from local doctors' offices to hospitals in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis.

Florence-King said that 10 days before Eli died, they talked about the future.

"If things really go the way the doctors say they are going, you're going to have to do my part," she said Eli told her. "You should keep meeting other moms and dads at hospitals, at the coffee pots, and keep them hopeful, tell them to never give up."

With that in mind, Florence-King, with the help of a local bank, registered with the state of Michigan and single-handedly started The Eli Foundation. She wants to identify a small handful of families around the nation in the same bind as she was -- forced to leave her post as a successful carpet and floor covering salesperson to tend to her child's needs. She wants to counsel them.

Most of Eli's health care costs were covered by insurance, but other expenses -- travel, hotels, co-pays -- caused her to refinance her home and take out various loans. She wants other families to have it easier than she did. Eli wanted that.

"Eli's dream was for me to help another child have their mom or dad with them all the time," she said. "That's my goal."

The Eli Foundation

Eli Florence's mother, Trina Florence-King, says contributions can be made to: The Eli Foundation, P.O. Box 931, Fenton, MI 48430, or at any Chase bank nationwide.

And you can go here to see more photos of Eli and the special night that five Lake Fenton athletes organized to honor him as homecoming king.

• Photo gallery

The first major event for The Eli Foundation is planned for Saturday. At a local Buick dealership, a couple thousand people are expected to gather for a previously scheduled sales promotion. As it turns out, Patsy Lou Williamson, the owner of the dealership, is the wife of the Flint mayor. The Williamsons seemed poised to make a substantial contribution to The Eli Foundation.

"We've offered to help to get this foundation started,'' Mayor Williamson said.

Before Eli got sick, on a lark, Trina Florence-King bought a 1987 very-used Greyhound bus, with 900,000 miles on it. She had hopes of traveling in it on vacations. She never did. Now, she's hoping to refurbish it with money raised by The Eli Foundation and to live in it as she travels to aid other families that can learn from her experience.

"I want to interview them, get to know them," she said, "and then help those families with the greatest need.''

ESPN.com correspondent Jay Weiner writes from St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.