By Danny Schrafel
Eli Mollineaux, an eighth-grader at J. Taylor Finley Middle School in Huntington, is a funny kid.
For the past two years, he’s commandeered the PA system, closing out the Friday morning announcements with a pun, a joke or a wisecrack of some sort.
“What do you call a duck on the Fourth of July?” his June 12 zinger went, every word enunciated very deliberately.
The answer? “A fire-quacker.”
Laughter rang out through the halls.
“The kids love it,” Finley principal John Amato said.
But on June 12, there were some tears mixed in with the belly laughs. It was Eli’s last joke at Finley – he’s graduating with his classmates June 23.
An honor roll student, he maintains his cheerful demeanor while battling the extremely rare mitochondrial condition Pearson’s Syndrome. Now, Mollineaux is looking to new horizons – Huntington High School in the fall, and hopefully, a visit to one of television’s biggest stars, Ellen DeGeneres.
“His math teacher would use the smart board sometimes and show Ellen DeGeneres,” his one-on-one teacher’s aide, Ilene Messina, said. She’s been by his side for three years. “Hearing Eli do that joke every Friday, she said, ‘you’re better than at least half the people that go on that show, and your jokes are better than most of what they tell…’ she said to me, and the rest of the class – don’t you think it’d be a great idea to put him on that show?”
Eli got his start in comedy in kindergarten, when he was a Washington Primary School student. His older brother, Josh, and a friend did a comedy routine; Eli did the rim shots on the drums.
His dedication to humor held strong as he and his family battle an incredibly rare disorder.
The first signs of a problem, his mother Ellen said, came around his first birthday. He was pale and lethargic; Ellen brought him to the pediatrician, where they had a “hard time hearing his heart beat.” The pediatrician scheduled an appointment with a cardiologist; in the meantime, Eli went to Huntington Hospital for tests.
“When they finally got his blood, it was pink,” Ellen said.
They rushed Eli to North Shore University Hospital, where he received a major blood transfusion. His blood was sent to Emory University Hospital, where he tested positive for Pearson’s.
Pearson’s and Kearns-Sayre syndrome – what Eli’s condition has transitioned into – are disorders caused by defects in mitochondria, which are structures within cells that use oxygen to convert the energy from food into a form cells can use.
“The areas where the cells do not reproduce – the brain, the muscles – those tend to become affected over time,” Ellen said, resulting in vision, hearing, cognitive and muscle issues.
The fact that North Shore University Hospital specialized in Diamond-Blackfan Anemia, likely contributed to Eli’s fairly rapid diagnosis.
His symptoms were largely at bay until fourth grade. Then, his eyesight began to deteriorate; Eli was assigned a teacher’s aide in fifth grade. Messina entered the Mollineaux family’s life in sixth grade, and quickly became one of his biggest advocates. For instance, when he was having a pacemaker put in last November at the Cleveland Clinic, Messina took out her iPhone and began recording get-well-soon videos, which she forwarded to Eli’s family as he recuperated.
Messina has transferred from building to building as Eli matriculates; she will do so again when he begins Huntington High School in September.
“I have no worries when he goes to school at all,” Ellen said. “She was sent from heaven for us.”
“I see it a little differently,” Messina replied. “I see him as a gift.”
To say Messina’s attitude is the consensus is an understatement.
At Finley, Eli receives a rock star’s reception and is greeted with high-fives, applause, hugs and, from towering 6-foot-10 security guard Dewitt McCall, a two-fist bump.
McCall jokes that Eli’s actually his security guard – Eli has a walkie-talkie strapped to the back of his wheelchair because he’s an honorary member of the school’s security staff.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air,” McCall said.
A healthy sense of humor is a family trademark, Ellen said. To bide time at doctor’s appointments, Eli and Ellen make silly faces at each other, she said.
“Eli is easily the happiest kid I know,” his older brother, Josh, said. “He’s just so happy and full of energy always.”
That positive energy is contagious. Students and staff at Finley said Friday that Eli helps others much more than they help him.
“Eli is a good soul,” Cathy Cain, his guidance counselor, said. “He brings out the best in everybody because everybody sees that goodness.”