Katrina Clarke | Nov. 28, 2015 | Toronto Star
BARRIE—A huge smile spreads across Frank Nelson’s face as he watches a young girl — a stranger — unwrap the special birthday gift he bought her.
She pulls a $200 American Girl doll and the party attendees gasp. “Grace!” they whisper, saying the doll’s name as the beaming birthday girl turns to Nelson for a hug.
This is what he lives for.
Nelson is a 59-year-old Barrie grandfather who is mid-way through his bucket list — to give away $1,000 to 50 needy families — something he committed his life to ever since doctors told him his colorectal cancer had metastasized in 2013. In October last year, they told him he had one year to live.
“This is what’s really helped me, I think,” said Nelson, seated on his couch in Barrie with his dog resting on his shoulder. “I don’t want to jump off of a plane, I don’t want to climb a mountain. For me, I want something that gives me meaning and purpose.”
The idea for the bucket list came when Nelson needed distraction most.
After working as a “suit guy,” running from meeting to meeting for 35 years, cancer suddenly brought his busy schedule to a halt. He knew he was driving his wife crazy with his boredom, but it was actually watching talk shows — the hallmark of daytime distraction — that sparked the idea for his project.
“When I watched (The Ellen DeGeneres Show) and she brings out people to surprise and help, I thought, ‘Wow, she’s got the greatest job,’” he said. “I thought, look, I can’t give away houses and cars and stuff but maybe I can do something small to help out.”
When he first unveiled his plan — giving away $1,000 to strangers — to his family, they admit they thought he’d lost his mind. But they soon became his champions. His daughter, Cindy Thompson, is now responsible for managing much of the project, including meeting with some families and launching his social media presence. Today, Nelson’s Paying it Back Facebook group has 10,000 members.
News of the year-and-a-half-old project has spread rapidly and Nelson said he’s been contacted by hundreds of people with tragic stories. He does his best to suss out the legitimacy of the submissions, giving priority to families in financial or medical need, but if it “touches the heart,” the story might be considered too.
“It’s never easy. I wish I had the funds to help everyone,” he said.
Eight-year-old Madison Donohue’s situation struck a nerve.
When Thompson heard that Madison’s mom, a registered practical nurse and a single mom of two, was hospitalized for viral meningitis and struggling to organize her little girl’s birthday, Thompson asked her dad to help out.
At a cost of $700, Nelson and his sponsors — friends from the Barrie area business community — paid for Madison’s party, including a limo ride and a day at Spa Diva Licious, a kids spa, with friends. It was a pricey event, but watching Madison giggling while spraying her now healthy mom with a bottle of cucumber water, Nelson said: “How do you put a price on that?”
He’s now given away $55,000 — $8,000 from his own pocket, the rest from sponsors — including $34,000 to 34 families and individuals who he likes to surprise in person with cheques. The rest goes to spontaneous projects, including shopping sprees, giving a microwave to a woman who was robbed and Madison’s party.
And it’s not just strangers benefiting from his generosity.
“We didn’t see much of him at all (growing up),” said Thompson, 32, who says her businessman dad was a workaholic. “Sometimes he would just stay at work and sleep over there.”
Finding out her dad was dying has been difficult for Thompson, but she says the bucket list project has ultimately brought them closer together. It’s given the two meaningful time together before his “journey ends,” as Nelson calls dying.
And while some want to pin words such as “hero” on Nelson, he shrugs off the praise, saying he just wants people to pay it forward — including Madison, one day.
“I know I’m idealistic, but to me… it’s just normal to help someone (in need),” he said. “The fact that people deem it to be so special and amazing, if you think about it, it’s partly what’s wrong with society. We should all be helping each other. We’re all part of the same human race.”
Nelson may never see his own granddaughter — a wide-eyed 6 month old named Mackenzie — turn eight, so he sits among the six giggling girls about to get their nails painted, mindful of the joy he helped create around him.
Then not wanting to intrude any longer, he wishes Madison a special day, wishes her mom well, thanks the spa staff and limo driver makes his exit.
Frank Nelson’s bucket list
When Frank Nelson talks about the families he’s helped, his voice gets a little quieter and he gets a faraway look in his eyes.
It’s these families that he calls the “real heroes,” people going through challenges more dire than his own, whose painful stories he can rattle off in a heartbeat despite his “foggy brain” — what he calls the memory lapses he experiences as a result of cancer treatments.
On the day the Star visited, he was preoccupied with thoughts of one mom whose child was going in for surgery that day. “She’s a nervous wreck,” he said.
Here are a handful of the lives that have touched him:
Nicole Marchand is a 29-year-old Barrie woman battling metastatic breast cancer. After Marchand’s friend contact Nelson last winter, Nelson surprised her with a $1,000 cheque, making her the 25th person on his bucket list. Marchand calls him “truly the most selfless man” she’s ever met. “I know how difficult it can be to even get out of bed everyday — but he manages to do it with a smile,” she said. Marchand herself is an online star in her own right, gaining online recognition for dressing up in “chemo costumes” with her mom every time they go to a chemo appointment.
Kayla Johnston, 19, is battling a rare illness called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. When Nelson surprised her at her Barrie home last November, her mom immediately recognized him and burst into tears. “It was kind of surreal to have him there wanting to help us,” Kayla said. Her mom said the $1,000 gift let her “feel like a human” and gave her back a bit of the financial independence she’d lost after her diagnosis. “There were honestly no words that night to describe how grateful I was,” Kayla said.
Kieley Mackey is a 15-year-old high school student who was diagnosed with pancreatitis — a disorder that makes it difficult to digest food — three years ago. She first met Nelson when he came to talk to her class in January and she was completely in awe of him. But it was only afterwards, when she realized he’d come especially give her the $1,000 gift, that she started crying. “I didn’t expect that,” said Kieley, who is currently recovering from surgery in Minnesota. “He is an amazing guy.”
The Slykhuis family in Fenelon Falls has been through a lot in five years. Daughter Sadie, now 5, was born with a rare eye disease that made her sensitive to light — forcing the family to live in the dark, keeping curtains closed in between shuttling Sadie to doctor’s appointments — and mom Chris was diagnosed with a rare blood disease in 2013. When Nelson showed up on their doorstep a year and a half ago, Chris says he was a like a godsend. “I didn’t know how we would have gone through that month without that gift,” she said. It helped them pay for items such as groceries when spare money had to go toward gas and hospital parking.
Sawyer Schultz is a Bowmanville 6-year-old who suffers from DiGeorge syndrome and Leukodystrophy. He has spent much of his young life in hospital fighting through infections, surgeries and procedures, said his mom, Kayla Schultz. The $1,000 from Nelson came at a challenging time for the family. “Being a single parent to a child with complex medical needs is exhausting and can be very lonely. For someone such as Frank to reach out and acknowledge that, and want to help during an especially difficult time, means so much to me,” Kayla said.