Leslie Morissette lives every day to make her son proud.

In the 20 years since Graham died of leukemia at age 8, Morissette has helped 1,576 kids stay connected to their families and schools as they battle serious illnesses. The Springvale woman founded the nonprofit Grahamtastic Connection in the months after her son died as a way to honor his memory and give other children a feeling of control when it seems like everything in their world is upside down.

Morissette is one of 10 contenders for the CNN 2017 Hero of the Year, an award that comes with a $100,000 prize. As a finalist, Morissette receives $10,000 for Grahamtastic Connection, along with training from the Annenberg Foundation. Voting for the CNN Hero of the Year is open until Dec. 12. People can cast up to 30 votes each day using email, Facebook and Facebook messenger.

The Hero of the Year will be announced Dec. 17 during an award ceremony in New York City that Morissette plans to attend with a little boy who has benefited from Grahamtastic Connection. The entire experience has been “extremely humbling,” she said.

“I don’t feel like a hero,” Morissette said. “My son and these kids I work with are the real heroes and I’m happy to represent them.”

The founder of the Grahamtastic Connection,
Leslie Morissette says she lives every day trying to make her late son proud, and is in contention for CNN’s 2017 Hero of the Year award, which carries a $100,000 prize. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Morissette’s dedication to providing sick children with the technology that allows them to stay connected to their family, friends and teachers began in the months after Graham died on Christmas Eve of 1997. Graham – a loving child who often cared about others before he thought about himself – died two years after he was first diagnosed with leukemia.

During the time Graham received treatment, the family was in and out of hospitals in Maine and Massachusetts. Morissette found she didn’t have access to computers away from home to look up the information about her son’s illness and treatment.

Within months of Graham’s death, Morisette had founded Grahamtastic Connection in his honor and was giving computers and dial-up Internet to families with children fighting cancer and other serious illnesses. She also put computers in doctors’ offices and hospitals so families could use them to stay connected when they were away from home.

The clunky desktop computers and dial-up Internet Grahamtastic Connection first gave away to families have given way to newer technology like high-speed cable Internet, laptop computers and iPads. The nonprofit last year took in about $200,000 in grants and donations. Morissette and the Grahamtastic Connection board members are not compensated financially for the hours they spend running the organization, according to tax records.

ROBOTIC RELIEF

Five years ago, the nonprofit received its first $6,000 robot to lend to a child who could not attend school in person. Since then, the organization’s fleet of 17 robots has allowed 39 seriously ill children to “attend” school with their friends by connecting to a robot they control from home or their hospital room. The robots are serviced by students from the Sanford Regional Technical Center, who are then available to train teachers and school staff to use the robots.

“It’s really neat to see the reaction of the students and teachers when we deliver a robot to the school,” Morissette said. “Their friends just immediately talk to the robot as if the child is right there.”

But, Morissette said, the best part is seeing the sick child log on and take control of the robot to maneuver it around his or her classroom. The children often ask if they can go to the cafeteria with their friends.

“Sometimes you can see the depression lift from their bodies. They do not want to be away from school. They get really sad when they’re in the hospital and feeling isolated and removed from their normal life,” she said. “As soon as they dial in, you can see their smile. The real magic happens when they’re walking up and down the hallway with the friends they haven’t seen in so long.”

Philip Lippolis, an 11-year-old from Walpole, Massachusetts, has been battling cancer since he was 6. He missed so much school he stayed back in first grade, but didn’t want the same thing to happen in fifth grade. After a bone marrow transplant to treat his cancer, he couldn’t attend school.

“It’s been a long illness for him. He’s been in isolation for a year,” said his grandmother, Jean Allen.

When Morissette and Grahamtastic Connection provided a robot for Philip to use to “attend” school, the boy was beyond thrilled to see his friends and his classroom.

“He can keep up with everything with that robot,” Allen said. Philip hopes to return to school in January.

Philip and his family will travel to New York to attend the CNN award ceremony with Morissette. It will be Philip’s first trip to New York City.

Allen said the family is excited to see Morissette receive attention for her work. Morissette – whom Allen describes as the “sweetest person in the world” – was especially comforting to Allen as her grandson b

Mainer Leslie Morissette, founder of Grahamtastic Connection, might be CNN’s next Hero of the Year. Staff photo by Jill Brady

attled the same form of cancer that Graham did.

“She tells me it’s OK and they’ve done so much research and Philip is going to be OK,” Allen said. “She really gave me a lot of hope when I was scared to death.”

LOGGING IN TO THE CAUSE

Larry O’Bryan, a Grahamtastic board member, first became involved with the organization in 2010 when he was introduced to Morissette by a friend. Drawn to Grahamtastic’s mission, he began using his computer repair skills to fix donated computers. From the beginning, he admired Morissette’s dedication to the organization.

“When I first heard (Morissette’s) story and how she started the organization, I thought this was something everyone needs to know about,” O’Bryan said.

During the summer of 2016, O’Bryan was watching CNN when he heard about Hero of the Year and thought it would be a “great way to get Grahamtastic’s name out there and get some recognition for Leslie.” Later that year, a CNN producer contacted him to say Morissette would be featured as a 2017 Hero.

Since the CNN stories started airing and voting opened, Morissette has seen a surge in requests for assistance from families across the country.

“As wonderful of an honor as this has been, every time it airs, we receive requests from families,” she said. “Right now we’re receiving more requests than donations.”

Though Morissette has created a waiting list until donations catch up with the requests, she is confident that will happen. Morissette, a former graphic designer who gave up that career to run Grahamtastic, said obstacles have always been lifted to allow her to continue her work with the organization. Often that has meant a donation being made at exactly the right time to fill a pressing need.

During all her work to run the organization – from grant writing to meeting new children with cancer – Graham remains constantly on Morissette’s mind.

“I live every day trying to make my son proud,” she said. “If he’s proud of me and happy with what I’m doing, it fills my heart back up.”

Votes for Morissette and the other nine finalists can be cast by going to the CNN website. During the Dec. 17 ceremony, donations made to Grahamtastic Connection through CNN and CrowdRise will be matched dollar for dollar by Subaru.