By Jerry Barca
Elias Stevens won’t be in a cap and gown graduating from high school in Woodbridge this week. But the life he lived continues to make a difference.
“We’re living on with him. We cherish the moments we have because of what he showed us,” said Bryan Pater, a classmate of Elias who is headed to Middlesex County College next year to study criminal justice. “When we’re walking (at graduation) we’ll be thinking about him.”
Elias was 11 years old when died six years ago after a faith-filled fight against cancer. To his 205 classmates from Fords Middle School – many who are slated to graduate Wednesday from Woodbridge and John F. Kennedy high schools – Elias will forever have a place in their life.
“He touched so many people’s hearts,” said Allie Henriques, Elias’ classmate. “I always tell people about him, how an 11-year-old dealt with what he dealt with, and it blows them away.”
Elias fought osteosarcoma – bone cancer – for 2 ½ years. Along the way he survived a month-long medically induced coma from which doctors said he never should have awakened. The disease stripped him of his right hip, femur and knee. But he cried and sweated through physical therapy sessions in an effort to walk, this time on plastic and metal parts that replaced his bones and joints.
During the last six months of his life the Home News Tribune chronicled his battle with cancer in a series of articles.
He faced cancer with a smile that hugged his eyes and with an uncompromising belief that he would beat the disease. A month before he died, his doctor told him the disease had spread and there was a hole in his right lung. The end was unavoidable. His parents wept. But Elias went home and played board games with his younger brother and sister. “If you just crawl under your covers, it won’t make you feel better. You just have to live with it, no matter what circumstances,” he said.
Today, there is a mural and garden memorializing Elias at Fords Middle School. The amphitheater at Port Reading School No. 9, where he attended elementary school, is named after him. Two high school seniors – one from Woodbridge High School and one from John F. Kennedy – will receive a scholarship in his name.
Last month, a charity basketball game between the students and faculty at Fords Middle School benefitting the scholarship fund was played at Woodbridge High School, a tradition that started a month before Elias died.
In the bleachers during the game, a constant flow of Elias’ classmates flocked to his mother, Teresa Stevens-Hamilton. They told her how much her son influenced their lives. One girl pulled out the prayer card from Elias’ wake and told his mother she carries it with her everywhere she goes.
Henriques wrote her college essay about Elias. The 17-year-old will study physical therapy at Kean University as a tribute to him. “He talked a lot about his physical therapy. He taught me something and I want to pay it forward.”
She learned to be understanding and caring of others from Elias. “You know how girls can be catty. I don’t really have drama. I shrug it off. And I don’t judge them, you never know what’s going on in their world,” she said.
“I’m in awe like everybody else. It’s just amazing. I’m happy that my son made such a positive difference with the time he had,” Stevens-Hamilton said. “I’m just grateful to be his mommy. As amazing as he is and will always be, he’s just my little boy.”
Elias’ principal at Fords, Cynthia Lagunovich, now the principal at Colonia Middle School, keeps two pictures of Elias in her office. One of a smiling Elias rests in a paperweight frame on Lagunovich’s credenza where the only other object of note is a photo of the principal hugging her son.
“I think about him all the time,” Lagunovich said, choking up. “He had such courage to never let anyone know he was suffering. It kind of makes you put your own life in perspective.”
Woodbridge High School senior Bashir Griffin was one of two boys who ate lunch with Elias everyday in middle school. Like many of the students, when Elias died, it was the first time Griffin faced such a loss. “He was too much of a good person to die. I don’t think it makes sense. I didn’t think it happened to kids,” said the track sprinter who is headed to Rutgers University.
Griffin still relies on his friend. “Every time I run the 400 meters I pray to him. When I’m at home before the meet. On the way to meet and when I’m in the blocks, I’m asking him for strength.”
Julian Garcia was Elias’ best friend, the other boy at the lunch table. Together the duo played video games, sketched Dragon Ball Z anime characters and talked about girls.
“There is no one who will ever be like him again. That was my best friend and he’ll always be my best friend,” said Garcia, who now lives in Cherry Hill and will study marine biology and performing arts at Rider University.
Garcia said school hasn’t been his niche, but the example left by Elias helped him find his way.
“He taught me that no matter what the circumstances are you can persevere as long as you believe. That sounds really cliché, but it’s completely true. That’s what helped me through,” he said. “I’m living my dream. I wish he were here, but hopefully he’s watching over me.”
This article originally appeared in the Home News Tribune in June 2011.