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"Hometown Hero"

- Grahamtastic Connection was featured in this American Profile article:

Connecting Hospitalized Kids
by Sandra Beckwith, photos by Tom McPherson

When Leslie Morissette lost her 8-year-old son Graham to leukemia seven years ago, she converted her grief into a good cause by providing computers to other seriously ill children and their families.

Morissette, 42, knew how important technology was to her family during the 18 months that Graham was confined to his home or a hospital bed. Graham would use the family's computer for hours to draw, stay in touch with classmates through e-mail, or get support from other sick children in online chat rooms. And when Graham wasn't online, his parents were, researching his disease and learning more about treatments and clinical trials.

Six months after Graham died, Morissette wanted to make sure that other families in crisis, and particularly their ailing children, had access to a computer, regardless of their location or income.

In 1998, she founded Grahamtastic Connection, a Springvale, Maine (pop. 3,488), nonprofit organization that lends laptop computers and provides free Internet access to seriously ill, hospitalized children and their families.

A graphic artist, Morissette had no experience with a nonprofit when she started Grahamtastic Connection, but that didn't matter– she substituted commitment for know-how. Her first call was to a local radio station she had worked with years earlier as a volunteer on a fund-raising campaign for a child's bone marrow transplant; she thought the staff could offer guidance. They took it further, interviewing her on the air about her plans. Donations arrived within days.

"I didn't realize at first how significant that first donated computer was," she says. "It really gave me a focus."

At the time, Morissette was on an extended leave from her job at Renaissance Greeting Cards Inc. in nearby Sanford (pop. 10,133). Now back to work as an art director, Morissette is grateful for her employer's continued support. The company donates shipping fees for the organization's 10 laptop computers, prints fund-raising note cards showcasing Graham's artwork, and provides other assistance. Colleagues host yard sales and returnable bottle collection drives to help fund Internet access fees.

Morissette's husband, Gary, 42, and their daughters, Tiana, 22, and Deneka, 20, help by dropping off and picking up laptops as needed. High school technology students– including many who knew Graham– refurbish the donated laptops and maintain the group's website.

Eddie Riddle, 19, a Sanford Regional Vocational Center student who has rebuilt computers for Grahamtastic Connection for three years, appreciates the opportunity to help while he learns more about technology. Riddle recently met two families using the laptops at the Maine Medical Center in Portland.

"Seeing the kids I'm helping did a lot for me," he explains. "It made all my issues seem so small."

Morissette smiles when she thinks about what the program would mean to her son. "I think he'd be very happy," she says, adding that Graham was the kind of boy who always wanted to help others.

She remembers when Graham was assigned to a hospital room near a toddler whose crying made him feel bad for her. Graham tugged a purple clown wig from the hospital playroom's collection onto his bald little head and made the child laugh.

Graham's legacy helped 9-year-old Clarice Diebold's family four years ago when she was hospitalized after receiving a stem cell transplant. "Being able to access the Internet provided a wonderful distraction for me," says her father, Thomas, 39. "In this situation, you have to get your mind onto something else or you go crazy."

Morissette understands. "My goal is to make it as easy as possible for other families with children experiencing life-threatening illnesses," she says. "I do this in my son's honor because I know he would be proud of me."

Sandra Beckwith is a freelance writer in Fairport, N.Y.
This article first appeared: 6/19/2005