Lori Lee was going through the darkest days of her life, guiding her 2-year-old son through cancer treatments, when she got hooked on helping others going through the same struggle.
She recalls buying a coveted Tar Heel jersey for a teenage patient whose family’s finances were devastated by medical bills. He would later be buried in the shirt, she was told.
After her son, Folden, died in 2004, Lee started passing out the donations given to her family to others who needed them. Soon she had created the Me Fine Foundation, named for her son’s response each time he was asked how he felt during treatments.
“I was going through that same darkness, and I was looking around for any piece of light I could shine on them,” Lee says. “These things that seem so simple can make such a huge difference.”
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In the years since, Lee has herself become a cancer survivor. Through it all, Me Fine has flourished, helping more than a thousand families, doubling its assets in the past two years and delving into new programs that offer emotional as well as monetary support.
Me Fine will host its annual gala at City Club Raleigh later this month. The group now has a paid director, but Lee remains on the board and speaks widely about Me Fine and her own experience.
Her works have earned her accolades in national media, including being named a “Local Hero” in Family Circle last month. In 2013, she was featured as a “Woman of Worth” by L’Oréal Paris, which earned her a guest column in the Huffington Post where she offers advice for supporting cancer victims and families.
Me Fine stepped in when Valerie King was going through treatments for bone cancer, helping her mother pay the family’s electric bill and buy Christmas presents as she struggled with medical bills.
King, who was 16 when she was diagnosed, has been in remission for three years. She now volunteers with Me Fine and sees Lee as a mentor.
“She is just a driven person who can turn any negative situation into a lesson,” King says. “A lot of people who have been through cancer and lost a son would sit around and ask why, but she turned that situation around into Me Fine and has helped so many people in so many ways.”
Lee grew up in Princeton, on farmland owned for generations by her family; her current street bears her grandmother’s last name.
She attended college at Johnston Community College and N.C. Wesleyan College, but went to work before she earned a degree. She met her husband while running the office of his family’s logging business. Her husband, also named Folden, has a dental practice in Clayton.
At the time their son was diagnosed, the family had sold their home in Clayton and was planning to spend the summer at the beach while their new home in Princeton was being built. Folden’s doctors told Lee to take him directly to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Her car remained packed for the beach for months as he underwent chemotherapy treatments at UNC for eight months.
Throughout the ordeal, Lee had the help of her close-knit family and friends, who cared for her daughters, then 5 and 6, and offered her moral support and constant help.
She also received an outpouring of support from beyond her immediate circle after she started sharing updates about Folden on a website.
The website address was forwarded so widely that strangers from across the globe started checking in. Some days, she says, the site got as many as 10,000 hits; in the end, it had more than 300,000.
While Lee and her family received that outpouring of support from their community, she met other families who were virtually alone with their grief and financial worries.
Many were from out of state or even out of the country. Some were spending their life savings on their child’s treatment. These families would become the basis of Me Fine.
Reaching those in need
Even while Folden was still undergoing frequent treatments, Lee was steeling herself against the sadness of the situation by reaching out.
When Folden was at Duke Medicine, where he would receive a bone marrow transplant, Lee would bring in meals to share with the families with whom she shared temporary housing.
Her friends and family held a huge bone marrow donor event that yielded at least two matches, and raised money to boost awareness of the need for such donors.
The donations that had flowed to the family during Folden’s treatment totaled about $40,000. They donated half to the hospital, and Lee started Me Fine by returning to Duke to distribute the rest to families in need.
Some people had sent gas and phone cards, which she passed out. Money went to pay bills, build handicapped ramps or other needs. Within a year after Folden’s death, Me Fine was a registered nonprofit.
“Everyone handles grief differently,” Lee says. “For me, the work I’ve done with Me Fine and the difference we’ve made have made sure his life was not in vain.”
Eager to help more people, she and other volunteers sold bracelets and held mud runs and softball tournaments. They started a thrift store, and even recruited local builders to build an entire house and donate the proceeds to Me Fine.
“If it had a dollar sign attached to it, we did it,” she says.
But with time and experience she learned to focus on a few key events, its Second Hope Shop, which accepts donations and sells gently used items, and the group’s annual gala, which started in 2006 by raising $11,000, mostly by auctioning autographed purses.
Last year’s gala raised more than $100,000. In all, the group is now operating on a budget of roughly $500,000 a year. Plans include expanding its outreach to more hospitals.
Only four years after Folden’s death, Lee was diagnosed with an often fatal form of breast cancer. Her doctors advised her to make videos or write letters to her children in case she didn’t survive.
But she did survive, and she now puts her experience to use as a grief counselor and by serving as a family advocate on the N.C. Children’s Hospital Family Advisory Board.
Me Fine director Joey Powell credits Lee’s persistence for helping Me Fine thrive through her own personal struggles.
“These efforts borne out of tragedy can have a tendency to founder over time,” Powell says. “But she took that passion and never stopped working to keep it alive.”
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Lori King Lee
Born: November 1966, Princeton
Career: Founder, Me Fine Foundation
Awards: Daily Point of Light Award, 2014; L’Oréal Women of Worth Honoree, 2013
Education: Studied at Johnston Community College and N.C. Wesleyan College
Family: Husband Folden III; daughters Wilson and Anna Gaites
Notable: Lee’s eldest daughter is an animal lover who wants to be a veterinarian. Over the years, her love of animals has led the family to house all kinds of creatures on their 20 acres, including sheep, mini-goats and horses.
If you go
The Me Fine Gala will be held Sept. 26 at the City Club of Raleigh. Buy tickets or find more info at mefinefoundation.org.