When Mark Lombardi-Nelson, the student representative to the Board of Trustees, turned 21 this weekend, it wasn’t the “statewide shutdown,” he said he’d long imagined for the day. It wasn’t exactly the party spanning from UWF to FIU he thought it would be.
Instead, he said, it was more meaningful.
He was able to give his father $1,000 — enough money to cover the cost of rent, electricity and utilities and food for the younger of his seven siblings for a month.
“It’s kind of weird relating to a lot of college peers because their parents support them,” Lombardi-Nelson said. “They’re paying for them to be there, they’re paying for their car insurance, they’re paying for their XYZ bill. But it’s kind of the opposite for me. I kind of support my parents and my family.”
About seven years ago, Lombardi-Nelson said his father, Mark Nelson, a commercial painter in Spring Hill, stepped on a rusty nail while working.
The nail led his father to contracting a staph infection and developing MRSA, which required his leg to be amputated.
But doctors made a wrong cut, Lombardi-Nelson said, which led to his father developing osteomyelitis, a bone infection, and osteoporosis. In the years since, he’s broken bones in his back from falling, due to weakened bones, and has developed COPD, which requires him to be hooked-up to an oxygen tank.
Until then, Lombardi-Nelson said his family had not been “poor-poor.” But as his father’s health took a turn for the worse, he lost the ability to continue work as a painter and his family separated, things became more difficult for the family with eight kids, now ranging from ages six
“It’s always been a struggle. We were certainly no Brady Bunch,” Lombardi-Nelson said. “We kind of turned into this impoverished family kind of thing. Food stamps. DCF coming around the house, making sure kids are OK. “
Neither of his parents had finished high school.
But, Lombardi-Nelson said, his dad taught him to be the man he is, he said. He would not allow him to work as a commercial painter and wanted to make sure he got good grades in school.
Lombardi-Nelson said he became like a second father figure to his siblings, who split time between their mother and father’s home.
Lombardi-Nelson began working jobs and helping out with bills and rent where he could. He took his siblings to sports games, his sister to gymnastics. He cooked and cleaned for them, sometimes not eating to make sure his siblings had enough, Christa Hegedus, USF St. Pete student body vice president who first met Lombardi-Nelson two years ago, where they shared life stories with each other at a new student orientation session, said.
“His upbringing really makes him who he is,” Hegedus said. “He’s learned to take charge from such a young age. He really puts everyone else before himself.
Since, then, Hegedus said, she has met most of Lombardi-Nelson’s siblings and family, who she said, think the world of him.
Recently, Lombardi-Nelson said, he sold his car because he could no longer afford car insurance. He bought a motorcycle so he could still see his siblings and father once every two to three weeks, he said.
But as his siblings get older, he said, things are more difficult for them.
“It’s hard,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s really hard sometimes. They know what I’m doing, but they used to not, and that’s the crazy part. Now when I talk to them, every action I do or every material item I buy for them or every game I go to, they understand what it means and they say ‘thank you,’ or ‘you shouldn’t spend your money on this.’ It’s really hard because it means now they’re old enough and they know what’s going on at home.”
His dad’s health has been “like a teeter-totter” in recent years, Lombardi-Nelson said.
In August, he said, he was scared. His father, who he said always remains optimistic, began talking about life insurance and telling him and his older siblings to prepare for what to do after his time.
“There are few things in this world that would break me down,” Lombardi-Nelson said. “But losing him would.”
Lombardi-Nelson said he hopes to work for Jabil, a supply chain management firm. A job like that would give him enough financial stability to support his family, he said. But until he finishes school, he said, he worried about how he’d support his family.
A friend of his suggested creating an Indigogo website, a site used for crowd-sourced fundraising.
So a few days before his birthday, Lombardi-Nelson posted his story on a site. He aimed to raise $1,000 — $500 for one month’s rent, $200 for electricity and utility and $300 for food for the family.
“Despite any illness, our father has always stayed strong and supported his kids in any way he could,” Lombardi-Nelson wrote on the page. “Even on the brink of death he made sure he gave us the passion, understanding and love we always needed. He is a fighter and always makes sure that we have what we need. … I wanted to do something to make sure that he gets what he needs for a first.”
Within three days, Lombardi-Nelson had crossed his goal with people from across the country and world donating. Some he knew, some he didn’t. With 36 days remaining in the 45-day campaign, Lombardi-Nelson has raised $2,222.
Lombardi-Nelson said he’s grateful for what he’s raised. Hegedus said he has the names of every donor written on a whiteboard in his room.
When he told his father about what he was doing this weekend, his dad’s eyes welled with tears.
Mark Nelson said he has always been proud of his son. He said he provides a great example for his siblings. He said he was speechless when he heard about his son’s latest efforts.
“He helps so much,” Nelson said. “He’s always been such a giving kid.”
His dad chuckled, quickly correcting himself.
“Man,” he said. “I guess he’s a giving man now.”