HAMILTON (Mercer) — In 2014, Andy and Suzie Waller's 4-year-old son Eli died suddenly from a virus Andy calls "normally innocuous." As the family worked through its grief, they tried to come up with a way to help other children who, like Eli, have special needs but who might not have access to the programs and people that made Eli's short life so much better.

Eventually, the Wallers came up with the First Day of School Foundation, named after one of Eli's favorite things.

"Eli had only a couple of first days of school, and he was in early intervention and preschool programming," Andy Waller said. "But he absolutely loved school."

The First Day of School Foundation's flagship service is its classroom sponsorship. The foundation takes applications on its website from teachers, administrators, and parents with ideas on how to improve a special needs classroom, be it new technology, student comfort, or something else. Then, First Day of School awards a $1,000 grant to make it happen.

Another recent endeavor is a mentoring program based in Freehold, to provide funding for staff to assist special needs students who want to participate in after-school activities.

Added to these programs are several yearly fundraising events for the organization, such as a 5K in Veterans Park in late spring or early summer, end-of-summer school supply drives, and coming up Feb. 1, the group's first big gathering of 2019: the annual gala at the Hamilton Manor, with kids invited to come along.

First Day of School also remains on the constant lookout for families whose children may need physical or occupational therapy, as those treatments are not always covered by insurance.

For Andy Waller, it's all about translating Eli's love of school to a young person who might be nervous about going to class due to a lack of supplies or support, and alleviating that anxiety.

"He had this little phrase that he would use. He would say, 'Mommy, Daddy, are you proud with me?' And so, thinking of something to do in Eli's memory and in honor of him, we thought he would be really proud with us," Waller said.

Waller is perpetually overwhelmed, he said, at the level of support the First Day of School Foundation has gotten from across New Jersey, and in particular the Hamilton Township community. The Wallers don't know if the good in their lives will ever outweigh the bad of Eli's passing, but Waller said sometimes it feels like "the good is catching up."

For more on Eli's story, visit firstdayofschoolfoundation.org.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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