ATLANTIC CITY — Elijah Langford turned 22 years old Tuesday, and he had a very special dinner date at the Melting Pot in Atlantic City.
The Richard Stockton College senior said he wanted to celebrate life on his birthday and give back, so he escorted nine female cancer survivors to dinner in a stretch limo.
The women have survived breast and other forms of cancer. One survived the disease only to lose her 16-year-old daughter to it. Elijah’s date was paid for by himself and area individuals who gave him support for his birthday and wanted to see the women enjoy themselves.
“I always try to do something positive and a different community initiative every month. And when October was approaching I had a conversation with my mom, who said October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do something on my birthday for cancer awareness, and it would be that much more special,” said Langford, who organized a coat and undergarment drive last month for children in the region.
Dr. Meryawilda Colon, interim director of Stockton’s Center for Community Engagement, said students such as Langford have been historically committed to giving back to the community. Colon said there are many school-connected initiatives at Stockton, but also students who give back on their own.
The message of giving back is partially driven home by Stockton faculty and their own community-engagement efforts, Colon said.
“That message is ‘I want to be involved, I want to give back.’ It takes many to make a change, and our students do,” she said.
A dining room inside the Melting Pot was decorated in pink, and gifts for the guests lined a table. Area businesses and private residents contributed, Langford said.
The women exchanged stories of battling different forms of cancer. But the one constant was survival.
Bernadine Glass, 59, said that in 17 days, she would be nine years free of esophogeal cancer. She is the wife of former Atlantic City Public Safety Director Willie Glass, a prostate cancer survivor.
“You hold your breath from test to test, but it makes you realize how good God is. I really believe in prayer. I never take a day for granted anymore. You waste your days looking back. You don’t get that time back,” Bernadine Glass said.
“Being around all these survivors makes me realize God is able,” said Dawn Bailey, 43, of Atlantic City. She has been cancer-free for 10 years and survived breast cancer twice.
Michelle Chalmers, CEO of Gilda’s Club of South Jersey, said by getting survivors together, they are able to share their experiences, learn and grow together.
Chalmers said she has never heard of anyone doing something in the area for cancer survivors like Langford’s effort.
“Studies show participation in a program with psycho-social support can extend life expectancy. This is absolutely psycho-social support, if people are gathering at a dinner and sharing their experiences, and it’s very similar to what we do at the club,” she said.
Langford, the son of former Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, said he has no political aspirations. Although he has been in his father’s shadow all of his life, he is working to blaze his own trail. Elijah graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in communication and said he hopes to work in the nonprofit sector.
He said his father is an inspiration and he is proud of his accomplishments, but he is writing his own story.
“I want to walk into a room and for people to say that’s Elijah Langford, not that’s Lorenzo Langford’s son,” Elijah said.
Langford said he didn’t want to exclude other types of cancer, so he sent out invitations to survivors of many forms of the disease.
He drew inspiration from the memory of his younger sister Mariah, who died from a rare birth defect at 4 years old on Oct. 16, 2003. He also found inspiration in the story of Andria Laryn Lopp Brooks, who died Dec. 13 after a battle with osteo sarcoma cancer.
“I went to her house to visit her before she passed away, and she died at 16, which really touched me tremendously. I knew I had to do something to give back after that experience, because she was just a kid,” he said.
Brooks was diagnosed with cancer at 13 years old, but her mother, Andrea Lopp, 50, of Pleasantville, survived breast cancer twice by the time her daughter died last year. Lopp was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, and 11 years later it returned in the same breast.
Lopp was one of the guests, and she said she was able to celebrate for the first time since her daughter’s death.
Lopp turned 50 on Jan. 15 but lost her daughter just one month before. On Tuesday evening, as the group of women waited for the limousine to take them to dinner, Lopp cried softly as she recalled the final weeks when Andria returned home before she died.
The teenager who loved basketball and performing arts lived longer than her doctors anticipated, and her last task was to text her friends for them to come and say goodbye, her mother said.
“It feels good to have other survivors around. Elijah was there for everything when Andria was sick, and he helped us so much. She’s the thing that keeps me going. She was my rock, my ace, my left rib,” she said.
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