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In 2008, Brad and Beth Thorp buried their 18-year-old son, Mitchell, after an excruciating five-year medical odyssey that maxed out their insurance, emptied their bank account and led them to specialists all over the country.
But during those black-cloud years, the Carlsbad couple said there was a silver lining. Friends and strangers organized a 2006 walk-athon that raised $70,000 the family used to pay down medical bills. It was a gift the Thorps never forgot. Just nine months after they lost their son, the couple launched the Mitchell Thorp Foundation, which each year provides more than $250,000 in support and counseling to the parents of children with life-threatening illnesses.
“I think God was speaking to us,” Beth said of starting the foundation. “We were in such shock and pain and heartache. This was him telling us this is not the end. We’ll get through this and what was evil we will turn to good. He knows who we’re helping.”
Among those helped in the past year are Cameron and Audrey Molifua of Oceanside. Their 6-year-old daughter, Anuhea, was diagnosed in June 2015 with acute lymphocytic leukemia and still has another year of daily oral chemotherapy before her treatment’s complete. Last summer, the foundation helped the family with groceries and nutritional supplements, as well as gas cards to cover the sometimes-daily drives to Rady Children’s Hospital. The foundation’s youth leadership council (a group of teen volunteers) also adopted the family for Christmas, delivering baskets of gifts and toys for the children.
Audrey Molifua said the financial support has been wonderful, but it’s the warmth and caring showed by the Thorps that has been the true blessing.
“They’re really down to earth and easy to talk to. Beth is so kind-hearted. Every time I talk to her she’s never just about the cancer child. She’s about the whole family,” Molifua said. “When you need help, a lot of foundations can be intimidating to work with, but the Thorps are right there always asking ‘what can we do?’”
Brad Thorp, who sells fitness equipment to health clubs, said the compassion he and his wife have for other parents comes from their own painful experience.
“We walked in their shoes, we knew what they were up against and how hard a battle they faced,” he said.
In February 2004, Mitchell was an energetic seventh-grader at Aviara Oaks Middle School with a 4.0 GPA and a serious talent for baseball (his dad pitched for three seasons on the Dodgers’ minor league team before blowing out his shoulder). What started as headaches evolved into severe and chronic pain, uncontrollable seizures, loss of muscle control and the ability to walk or feed himself. When he died in a Houston hospital on Nov. 19, 2008, doctors still hadn’t traced the cause of his undiagnosed illness.
The following year, two 16-year-olds who played in the same baseball league as Mitchell were diagnosed with cancer. Brad, who serves as the foundation’s chairman, said it was the wake-up call they needed to redirect their energy in a productive way.
“We were a middle-class family with great insurance, but once you max out you’re on your own. What do you do when you have a sick child? We would’ve sold everything we had and lived on the beach if we had to. We knew exactly what these families were experiencing,” said Beth, who runs the organization full-time on a volunteer basis.
That was the beginning of the Mitchell Thorp Foundation. The group has an eight-member board who review applications for aid from families from Alpine to Menifee. If approved for assistance, the families can submit invoices for direct payment of bills for medical accessories, electric bills, plane flights to visit specialists and other needs. The foundation serves from 12 to 20 families a month, at an average of $1,500 to $2,500 each. More than 93 percent of the $800,000 the foundation has raised since 2009 has gone toward client families, a record of efficiency so impressive it earned the 2016 Starfish Leadership Award from the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce.
Besides offering expense reimbursement, the foundation also covers recuperative needs for the child (camps, swim and horse therapy, integrative medicine) and the family (counseling, sibling support and pampering days for mom). The foundation has also awarded two adapted vans, at a combined cost of $60,000, to families with ill children in wheelchairs.
Another service Brad offers to parents is coaching in self-advocacy and in dealing with the seemingly insurmountable medical bills.
“I will go to the hospitals and tell them, ‘I’ve got cash, now what can you do for us?” Brad said. “Sometimes they’ll knock the bill down 30 to 50 percent just because they want to get it off the books. When these parents are in a situation that’s stressful, they just need someone to come alongside them and let them know they’re not alone.”
San Marcos residents John and Dawn Sullivan said the Thorps have been a great resource for financial advice and how to handle medical claims. The youngest of their three children, 2-year-old son Keane, was diagnosed last April with stage 3 neuroblastoma.
“They come by the house to talk whenever anything is going on,” John Sullivan said. “It’s scary to ask for help but a lot of people out there want to help and Brad and Beth have been right there with us.”
The Sullivans are among the families fielding walking teams for the annual Mitchell Thorp Foundation 5K Run/Walk at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 4 in Carlsbad’s Poinsettia Park. The event, which includes Navy SEAL skydivers, entertainment, a children’s obstacle course and speeches from parents like the Molifuas and Sullivans, raises about $150,000 a year. It’s the organization’s biggest fundraiser, followed by the Pillars of Hope, a new tennis-themed banquet that raised $90,000 last year.
The Thorps, and their 24-year-old son Matthew, say they’re gratified by the foundation’s accomplishments. But the years haven’t passed without pain. Mitchell would’ve been 26 this year, and counseling families with dying children reopens the wound of his loss.
The foundation website has an “In Memory Of” page for children it has helped who have since passed away. One is Rebecca Edgin, a Carlsbad High freshman cheerleader who died in 2014, just five days short of her 16th birthday following a seven-month battle with leukemia. Rebecca’s mom will be volunteering next month at the 5K Run/Walk to pay it forward and carry on that circle of generosity the Thorps began in 2009.
“Through the foundation, our tragedy can be a blessing for others,” Beth said. “It was the thing that pulled us out of the pit we were in and back into the light again. At first I was so deep in grief I was just floating through the process but now I see the growth and say ‘wow!’ That’s rewarding. It has brought hope to our family and a sense of purpose.”
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