You’re Not Alone: Eli’s Project

Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 8:29 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - A boy with a big smile and a big personality who loved life.

“He was just this big ball of light that you could just hug and talk to,” said Rayna. “He was just a joy.”

“Very outgoing,” said Aly. “He would always want to be outside no matter what.”

“Loved to be outdoors, loved to hike and be out on the water,” said Dr. Zach Goldstein.

A boy who seemed to have it all. A loving family and friends. From the outside, Eli Fleetwood looked like a healthy, happy boy. Inside, he struggled. That private pain led to him taking his own life.

“He had been doing really well and had a night where he made some bad choices, and unfortunately, I think that’s kind of the thing that pushed him over the edge,” said Dr. Goldstein. “I think he never wanted to disappoint me and his mom.”

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Rayna. “It was awful.”

“I didn’t think it was real,” said Aly.

For Eli’s sister Aly and friend Rayna, it’s hard to understand. A lively, lovable boy—gone without a goodbye.

“I don’t think he realized how many people loved him,” said Aly.

“Everybody loved him,” said Rayna.

Love couldn’t heal the pain. As a young child, Eli dealt with uncertainty and loss.

He and his two sisters went into foster care when he was three.

They were all adopted by their foster parents, who later divorced. As Eli got older, his mental health issues became more challenging. Then, a pediatric doctor came into the family.

“I knew him and his family and had worked with his mom on some of his injuries and talking about some of his struggles with mental health, and after Eli needed a bit more care, it was kind of a partnership that his mom and I struck up to kind of co-parent him and give him the best possible options for what he was dealing with,” said Dr. Goldstein.

Dr. Goldstein tapped into every resource he could find to help Eli.

The pair shared a lot of the same interests. Among them hiking and the great outdoors.

Goldstein was in the process of becoming Eli’s legal guardian. They were just about to move into a new home when Eli died.

His bedroom, all set up for a new start, remains untouched.

Eli Fleetwood may be gone, but his legacy is very much alive in Eli’s Project.

The new foundation that bears his name is bringing people together with family-friendly events to start a tough conversation and connect families with help.

“I think it’s a very tough landscape to navigate,” said Dr. Goldstien. “I’m excited for the landscape to change, where parents can feel really supported in their children’s mental health struggles.”

Dr. Goldstein founded the non-profit, which meets families where they are and gets kids talking about suicide.

“It’s something I think we can’t glaze over anymore and that we have to address, and we need to pour funding into and find out really what the root cause is as to why these kids are getting to the point where they think this is the only option.”

Eli’s Project has hit the ground running, raising money and getting grants to train both adults and kids in “youth mental health first aid.” Like CPR, it can be lifesaving.

“This course really gives people ownership and making that step and intervening, and sometimes that’s what helps to mitigate these really terrible situations from happening.”

Another resource, peer-centered groups for kids, called “Group 988s,” named after the three digit suicide hotline.

“A lot of the research is telling us now that teenagers are more likely to go to teenagers if they’re having a crisis. We’re going to bring these kids in a group setting and train them to identify crises in their friends and who to talk to.”

The groups are already going in Capac schools and will soon get started in Okemos.

The pain from Dr. Goldstein’s loss fueled the passion behind the project he says Eli would have embraced.

“For every Eli out there, there’s ten more that haven’t been identified. So, finding those kids that are struggling and giving the resources to help themselves.”

Dr. Goldstein and Eli’s beloved dog take comfort in the wooded backyard Eli treasured.

A garden and in the center, a peace pole with the lyrics to Billy Joel’s song “only the good die young,” one of Eli’s favorites.

“It was an absolutely horrific, terrible thing to lose him. But in the 15 years he lived, I mean, he really lived them up.”

“I have a cat for him because he always wanted a cat. So, I have a cat for him. He has Eli’s personality. He’s outgoing. He loves to go outside.”

Eli’s hiking boots still sit on the front porch, a symbol that he’s still present, manifested through the heart he drew for his dad on the logo for his project.

“I really think that if he would have made it to his adult life, he would have been a great therapist.”

For more, you can visit the Eli’s Project website and the race signup page.

Subscribe to our News 10 newsletter and receive the latest local news and weather straight to your email every morning.