SPRING HILL — Mark Lombardi-Nelson had a simple wish for his 21st birthday last month: make his papi happy.
Disabled and in deteriorating health, Mark Nelson's bills were stacking up. The large Spring Hill family's already tenuous financial situation was getting worse. Finding the money for rent, utilities and food had become a huge challenge.
"He was always so stressed about it," Lombardi-Nelson said. "It really got to him. Before he got disabled, he never had problems like this."
The Springstead High School graduate, now a senior at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the campus' student body president, knew what he wanted to do.
A week before his birthday on Oct. 19, he hosted a party to raise money for his father. In one night, he pulled in about $1,000.
Seeing the outpouring of support, he decided to do more. He created an online account with the fundraising website indiegogo and made his pitch.
His goal: Raise $1,000 — enough to cover his family's needs for one month.
"If this campaign is successful, my dad can enjoy one month without a worry," Lombardi-Nelson wrote on the site.
The donations poured in, and he reached his goal in three days. He set a new goal: $5,000, enough to support the family until Lombardi-Nelson's graduation in May.
On Nov. 12, the plans changed.
After years of battling a disability and other illnesses, Mark Nelson succumbed and died from a combination of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiac arrest.
His son, however, is continuing the campaign to raise money for the family — now in his father's memory.
"He was the best father that anybody could have ever had," Lombardi-Nelson said. "He was my Superman. He was my rock."
His father's health problems began about seven years ago. Lombardi-Nelson was 14.
Out on a commercial painting job, his father stepped on a nail. A diabetic, he got a staph infection and then MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection. He eventually lost his leg, limiting his mobility and forcing him to go on disability. On top of that, his father had COPD, which made breathing a challenge.
His condition never really improved.
"It was like a downward spiral," Lombardi-Nelson said.
He remembered his father constantly struggling.
The first in his family to go straight from high school to college, Lombardi-Nelson said he wanted to be an anesthesiologist.
"I wanted to take his pain away," he said.
Springstead Advanced Placement history teacher John Imhof said he wasn't at all surprised to learn about Lombardi-Nelson's efforts.
"That's just the type of kid he is," Imhof said. "He's very resourceful. He finds a way to help his family."
Principal Susan Duval agreed.
"He is a remarkable young man," Duval said.
Lombardi-Nelson says his upbringing was "from the Brady Bunch."
One of eight children, now ages 6 to 32, they always straddled the poverty line. Evictions chased them from home to home. He remembered nights when there wasn't enough food on the table.
"It just wasn't easy," he said.
Throughout, his father stayed strong.
"I looked up to the guy so much for everything he's done and put up with," he said. "He would always stay positive; he'd always be optimistic."
He made his son feel safe. He also pushed him to go to school.
At one point, Lombardi-Nelson considered taking up the family trade in commercial painting. His dad pushed him along.
"Go to school, get good grades and leave," Lombardi-Nelson remembers his father saying.
"He was very blunt."
He said his father was always there, keeping him on track.
"Stay on target," his father would repeat, often in an alien voice.
He was there to support his son during Senior Night at Springstead's final home football game in 2009, walking across the field with Lombardi-Nelson in his marching band uniform. He watched his son walk across the stage at graduation, even though he had to leave early.
Lombardi-Nelson said that his father, even on the brink of death, always came through for him and his family.
Now he wants to continue that legacy.
"All I know is I'm going to take care of them," he said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.