Two years into the grieving process, Linda Adamo is ready to face her new reality.
It wasn't easy coming to terms with the loss of her 21-year-old son, James Birk, who died on Thanksgiving Day 2009. But she has found a way to convert that paralyzing grief into philanthropic action.
"I guess being ready is accepting that he is gone and that now I need to do something to keep his memory alive," she said.
To that end, Adamo set up a foundation that will award college scholarships to graduates from Freedom High School, her son's alma mater. This Saturday, the first fundraiser will be held at the Little League field where Birk once played as a boy.
Adamo didn't have potential benefactors in mind when she started the foundation, least of all 23-year-old Wade Thorson, a young man who happens to have a lot in common with her son.
They weren't close friends, but Thorson and Birk once played on the same Little League team. Both were in Freedom High's class of 2006. And Thorson is the same age that Birk would be today.
In March, Thorson learned that he has stage III colorectal cancer.
A mutual friend told Adamo about Thorson, and she decided the fundraiser should benefit him as well. Now, Birk's death is no longer the only motivation for Saturday's event. It's about helping to prevent another family from losing a beloved son.
"I know that James would say, 'Mom, help him, too. He's alive,' " Adamo said.
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Birk had driven from the University of Central Florida to join his family for the annual Thanksgiving holiday outing at Hillsborough River State Park. The large extended family spends the day eating and laughing together, then stays overnight at a campsite.
Birk joined his younger brother and sister, aunts, uncles and cousins playing rounds of cornhole. Then, that evening, he left temporarily to go watch football with a friend. On his way back to the park, he lost control of his car along U.S. 301 and hit a tree.
A friend driving behind him saw the car in a ditch. Adamo arrived at the scene just as firefighters were cutting off the car's roof and a door. She watched them pull her son out of the vehicle and place him on a stretcher.
"I saw his arm move, but they wouldn't let me near him," she remembered.
Paramedics did what they could at the scene and then rushed Birk to Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, but his injuries were too severe. He died that night.
Adamo, who lives in Land O'Lakes, decided early on that she wanted to launch a foundation in her son's honor. Plans for the fundraiser came together when friend Sheila Tramontana stepped in.
During one conversation, Tramontana mentioned cornhole.
"It just kind of rang a bell when it came up to have a cornhole tournament because that was one of the last games he played with his family," Adamo said.
About half the money will still go toward scholarships, but the rest of the proceeds will be donated to Thorson for medical expenses.
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Thorson is in the middle of a six-month round of chemotherapy, receiving treatments at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research every other week. The treatments leave him nauseous and tired. If he's feeling good enough, he said, he plans to attend the fundraiser.
He takes a positive approach while combatting his condition. Others have faced worse, he says.
About five years ago, Thorson started experiencing pain in his stomach that doctors diagnosed as food allergies or constipation. Early this year, however, it got worse and he sought more opinions.
In late March, workers at a walk-in clinic discovered blockage in his colon and sent him directly to the hospital. Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital found a tumor they removed two days later. It was malignant and the cancer had spread to his bladder and small intestine.
Colorectal cancer usually strikes people in their 60s and 70s and only rarely someone as young as Thorson. Oncologists told him that he likely has a genetic predisposition, Thorson said.
Thorson, who grew up in Lutz but lives in Tampa Palms, recently learned that his great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother had colon cancer.
Still, his best friend, Lauren Hanes, said he refuses to feel sorry for himself or ask for pity.
"He's been very strong about it," Hanes said. "He just feels bad that his family has to go through it."
Thorson had to leave his position as a McDonald's assistant manager because the workload was too intense. Now he works at a store at International Plaza, which is less stressful but also provides fewer hours and less money. He gets some financial relief through insurance from his job and his mother's policy, but his share of the bills is still more than he can afford.
"Things definitely changed," he said. "I can't buy anything for myself. Now it seems like I get more and more medical bills every time I open the mailbox."
He loves to travel and has been to Paris and Switzerland, as well as numerous cruises. Thorson wants to go on an African safari and to South America one day, but all that is on hold for now.
Still, he remains enrolled full time at the University of South Florida, where he's majoring in business management. Thorson is leaning toward a career in finance, perhaps as a money manager.
Hanes also grew up with Birk; he once defended her against a middle school bully. She created the cross-shaped memorial that marks the spot where he died.
She is the one who told Birk's mother about Thorson. Hanes also launched a website to keep family and friends updated on his condition and to help raise money, about $6,000 so far.
Even though they didn't know each other well, Hanes said, Thorson and Birk have similar personalities. Both are family-oriented and the kind of people who would do anything for a friend.
"Had they known each other and hung out more, they probably would have ended up being best friends," she said, "because they had so much in common that they didn't even know about."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.