Andy Waller is grateful.
He’s grateful to spend time with his wife, Suzie, and daughters Ava, Sydney and newborn Ryan. Grateful to teach special education children. Grateful for the ample support he has received from his community following his son Eli’s death. And every day, Waller is grateful that Eli’s legacy is not only captured in his First Day of School Foundation, but also through family conversations, marvelous galas, and jokes made at dinner time.
In 2014, 4-year-old Eli Waller died from Enterovirus D68—the first American to die from the virus—and drew national attention. Aside from a minor case of pink eye, he had shown no ill symptoms before his death. The Waller family, not wanting to talk about their painful loss, used the exposure to promote their First Day of School Foundation instead. Since Eli had speech and language delays, their goal was to support local special education departments and make classrooms a comfortable environment for these children. The public response was overwhelming. Within days, the Wallers’ mailbox was flooded with cards and donations.
Nearing its third anniversary, the organization has continued this success. The group contributed $1,000 to dancers with special needs at Dance It Up! Studios, and $20,000 to each the Hamilton and Freehold special education departments. At Freehold, part of the grant compensated aides, who stayed after school to involve their students with extracurriculars such as sports and the musical. Additionally, First Day of School Foundation has hosted school supply drives in which over 31 lunch boxes with notebooks, crayons, and pencils were donated to special needs youth in Trenton. It also has donated $15,000 to Trenton Special Advocacy Group, which helps underprivileged families receive the services they need for their child.
The charity has raised over $100,000, and has just launched its newest initiative, Classroom Sponsorship Program, a direct path to fund teachers.
“Budgets are just limited across the board, and we want to get the money out to classrooms as quickly as possible,” Waller said. “Hamilton, for instance, doesn’t have athletics in the middle school anymore. There isn’t enough [funding] to go around, and this is the best way to give a little extra to the kids who need a little extra.”
Since special needs classrooms require additional expenses, the Classroom Sponsorship Program will allocate $30,000 for teachers who must purchase resources, such as therapeutic tools, sensory devices, and standing desks. Special needs students, the organization hopes, will enjoy the additional support from these items. To apply, teachers must complete a short form describing their intended use of the $1,000 grant at firstdayofschoolfoundation.org. Recipients will be contacted throughout August to ensure their classes are stocked before the semester begins.
“We want to keep it going and build up the foundation,” Waller said, “Mostly, we want to donate the money we raise—receiving donations is essential—and we would love to expand out as well. This way, more people could participate in fundraisers such as ‘Smiles for Eli’ and ‘Hearts for Eli,’ raising awareness for this cause.”
Eli loved Halloween, and the First Day of School Foundation kicked off its existence with the very first Smiles for Eli event in October 2014. Hamilton-based photographer Erica Haller made a set in her studio, and children came to get pictures taken in their Halloween costumes. The event has evolved, and Haller now takes photos of 40 students on their first day of school, and Waller attaches a short caption with their favorite color, their age, and their grade.
‘Budgets are limited across the board, and we want the money to go to the classrooms as quickly as possible.’
“Hearts for Eli” is the major fundraiser for the foundation and the inspiration for Classroom Sponsorship Program. This year, the gala hosted more 250 attendees. Volunteers procured sponsors and collected money. Crowds of local businesses donated to the event’s raffle, with prizes such as gym memberships, a guitar autographed by rock band Weezer and even a poster signed by the cast of Black-ish. The Heartbeats, a band, covered ballads for the guests.
“It is just a fun evening, and people come out and enjoy it,” Waller said.
Regardless of the occasion, Waller relates his purpose to “what would have make Eli proud.” Eli always sought approval from others and constantly asked his parents, “Are you proud of me?” Their usual response: “Yes, of course.”
“We ask, ‘Would Eli be proud of us?” Waller said. “That guides our thinking, and we’re trying to do things that help the world, that change things for the better. These are the kinds of things Eli would be proud of.”
One thing Eli enjoyed was interacting with his teachers and aides at Yardville Elementary School, where Eli and his sisters—triplets—attended preschool. The staff was “overwhelmingly positive,” and the Wallers were “deeply impressed” by their enthusiasm. From their patient guidance, Eli flourished.
“Everyone at the school is incredibly kind, and will go out of their way to make your child’s life better,” Waller said.
Eli’s qualms were quickly erased by his teachers’ warm welcome.
Even Eli’s bus driver, whose name Waller never knew, left a lasting impression. When the bus first arrived at the Waller’s house, Eli was anxious. His parents hoped to rush him to school, to “send him on his way and not make a big scene.” Although Eli had burst into tears, the bus driver soothed him, saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I got him.” A beaming Eli came back home that day, babbling about how much he loved school. The bus driver “just gave a wink and said, ‘We got everything taken care of.’”
“His only job was to get the kids back and forth to school, but he made it a point to make sure Eli had a good, comfortable experience,” Waller said. “When you think about people like that working in the special education setting, it’s more than what you could ever ask for.”
When Eli died, the driver was one of the first to offer condolences to the Waller family.
Inspired by the dedication of Eli’s care team, the Wallers realized their mission: to ensure children with special needs would enjoy school.
“Kids with special needs will come into a classroom and be nervous,” Waller said. “It’s not easy for them.” By supplying classrooms with technology to improve communication and accessibility, “the first day of school is that much better.”
Ultimately, the foundation is beyond a tribute to Eli’s passion for school and learning. It has preserved his legacy and has enhanced the lives of other students.
“When something that bad happens in your life, you can’t just say, ‘Oh well! I can’t take it anymore,’ Waller said, “No, you have to figure out a way to move through it. So we thought this was a cool way to make something good at out of a bad situation.”
Despite the organization’s success, Waller admits it’s a hard job. When he had the idea to start the First Day of School Foundation, he didn’t understand how to run a business. He was confused by the paperwork and taxes when filing to become a nonprofit organization. He hired an accountant and an attorney from Hamilton to help.
“Thankfully, that’s another thing about the Hamilton community: our accountant and attorney both live in Hamilton, and they help a ton and are happy to do it,” Waller said.
The people of Hamilton have supported the First Day of School Foundation from its establishment and continue to donate money. Their drive and spirit fuel the foundation and spread its mission.
“Going back to how awesome this community is,” Waller said. “I’m grateful they are the ones to have my back.”