Dale Reed watched Chad Latham die. It took three years.
Reed owns Contractors Flooring Supply in Puyallup. Latham installed carpet alongside his dad, Tom, as one of Reed’s subcontractors.
While Chad Latham’s inoperable brain tumor grew, so did a germ of an idea in Reed’s mind. Frustration fueled it. That germ would grow into a new nonprofit – The Lighthouse Community – launched in January to help people fighting catastrophic illness.
“Chad continued to work, and work hard every day. He had to,” Reed said. “He had these horrendous drug costs.”
Latham, a Curtis High School graduate, worked through convulsions on job sites until, three years ago next month, he couldn’t. He died three days later. Age 35.
“We witnessed this scenario where Chad was trying to cope with his death sentence and trying to get his mind around that,” Reed said. “And the father coping with this idea that he was going to lose his son. We saw this drama played out.”
As a small-business owner, Reed had a team of workers who wanted to do something for Latham but didn’t know how.
“I was struck by the most basic idea that there wasn’t an easy way to network, to be a real participant – financially and emotionally – in that whole process,” Reed said. “Bake sales and car washes didn’t seem like enough.”
At the memorial service, a parade of Latham’s friends came to the microphone “and said these great things about Chad. It really affected me,” Reed said. “Here were these people saying these things after the fact. … During those darkest moments during his life, Chad needed to hear that stuff. There needed to be a better place for him to connect and a way for people to help.”
Shortly after Latham died, Reed told that story to a man he just met – Randy Meyers, a Puyallup custom-home builder and framer who had started a major remodeling of Reed’s home in 2005.
Meyers listened, then confided his own secret, which only a few close friends knew. He had battled melanoma two years before. Meyers had surgery to remove 70 cancer-filled lymph nodes from his neck and shoulder. For the following year, he gave himself daily chemotherapy injections – with a 50-50 chance it would cure him.
But being self-employed with a stay-at-home wife and a teenage son, Meyers disobeyed doctors orders and went back to work four days after surgery.
“I had to,” said Meyers, now 50. “The doctor just shook his head.”
He didn’t have enough insurance to cover the bills. His wife, Sheri, went to work full-time. But the experience nearly destroyed his business and his marriage.
“I’m still feeling the effects – financially and physically – coming up on five years later,” said Meyers, who still works as a framer but undergoes regular physical therapy for his damaged shoulder and hasn’t caught up with bills.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
“We decided to do something about it,” Reed said.
Together, the two men and a team of advisers came up with the concept for a new kind of nonprofit. It took three years to incubate and refine and win approval from the Internal Revenue Service, but Reed and Meyers launched The Lighthouse Community, an online social network with a twist.
Clients suffering from catastrophic ailments – cancer, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) – get a Web page to keep their network of friends and family informed of their battle.
And the twist? Those friends and family, co-workers – even strangers – can make tax-deductible contributions online via PayPal to offset the financial burdens that often overwhelm patients.
The IRS doesn’t allow tax-deductible direct payments to individuals. So The Lighthouse Community clearly explains on its home page that its board of directors retains exclusive rights to allocate the contributions. In practice, however, your money will end up with the client you choose – up to the amount that TLC identifies as a “predetermined need.”
Perhaps with someone like Tony Portmann, a journeyman electrician, graduate of Puyallup High School, age 32, single. Diagnosed with leukemia more than a year ago, Portmann’s doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to stem the disease with three different drugs.
Portmann checked into the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle last Monday for 10 days of intensive chemotherapy to kill his immune system. On Thursday, he’ll have his bone marrow transplant. An anonymous resident of Switzerland, Portmann’s ancestral home, will fly in to donate the marrow.
Portmann is one of the first three clients on The Lighthouse Community Web site.
When I met talked with him recently in the living room of his modest home west of Puyallup, Portmann didn’t relish the attention from me, you or the many anonymous folks who already have donated more than $22,000 through TLC to his recovery.
“I don’t like it,” Portmann said. “I’m a guy who doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. I’m a person who’s used to giving, not receiving.”
He didn’t want to put his face and story on the TLC Web site, but …
“It’s like, ‘What the heck do you do here?’” Portmann said.
Doctors told him he can’t work for at least six months, but more likely a year, after the transplant. His insurance, unemployment benefits and other assistance will cover about $350,000 of the $450,000 cost of treatment and household expenses.
TLC set Portmann’s predetermined benefit level at $100,000.
In just over a month, Portmann has received contributions, some as small as $10, from seven states, Ireland and South Korea. Many have come from people he doesn’t know but who learned of it from an e-mail campaign launched by his Boone Electric colleagues, friends and family. And through Portmann’s network, both Google and Nike have committed to matching donations by their employees to any TLC client.
“It’s just … phenomenal,” Portmann said.
“It’s like an old-fashioned barn-raising,” said Meyers, who now serves as an adviser to TLC. “It’s everyone coming together. And that’s the beauty of it.”
“I know from my own experience that someone will come up to you and say, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’ But you know you need so much, it’s so overwhelming, you don’t even want to say it. So you say, ‘I’m OK.’”
Through TLC, people can give as little or as much as they like and do it anonymously or with their names attached.
So far, the success of Reed’s company, Contractors Flooring Supply, has underwritten nearly all of the administrative costs for TLC – though that will change with TLC’s growth. Reed’s employees have taken over operation of the company with vigor for the cause so he, and one full-time administrator, could launch and run TLC.
Meanwhile, Tom Latham, the carpet installer whose son’s death inspired the creation of this new venture – destined, perhaps, to help millions around the world – still chokes up when talk turns to his boy.
He remembers the day his son said, “Dad, look at this. I can’t stop my hand from shaking.” Not long after that, Chad Latham had a seizure and collapsed into a coffee table. At the emergency room, doctors diagnosed the brain tumor.
Some days as Chad continued to work, “he would go around behind the shop and throw up, then come back around and load the van. I raised him kind of tough. Now, I wish I could coddle him,” Latham said. “It’s tragic. But maybe (TLC) is the one good thing that’s come out of it.”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785
The Lighthouse Community
What it is: 501(c)3 nonprofit, authorized by the IRS on Dec. 12, 2006
Official launch: January 2008
Who can apply: People with cancer, AIDS/HIV, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s disease
Board of Directors: Mark von Ehrenkrook, senior pastor, Jovita Baptist Church; Ken Casey, senior vice president for global operations, World Vision International; Dale Reed, CEO, Contractors Flooring Supply
Staff: Janna Dyck, administrative assistant; Randy Meyers, client advocate
How to apply: Prospective clients fill out an application. A caseworker conducts criminal history check, obtains credit report and verifications from applicant’s family doctor, specialty doctor and employer. A TLC committee of three reviews the records and either approves or denies application. If approved, TLC assigns client a predetermined level of financial need, a public Web site to communicate with client’s personal network of family, friends and co-workers; and a caseworker.
How it works: Donors make tax-deductible contributions online through an assigned PayPal account. TLC makes some household expense benefit payments monthly to clients and pays some major treatment costs to care providers. If a client dies, TLC pays a $5,000 memorial benefit then allocates unspent contributions to other clients. TLC’s administrative expenses get covered by a 5 percent deduction from corporate and individual partner sponsorships.
Planned services: Individual client calendars for donations of services, such as meals, transportation, housecleaning and yardwork; automated application process
Notable: Google and Nike match contributions made by their employees to TLC clients.