High school student starts peer-to-peer support group after losing his mom

‘What was a boy of 14 supposed to do?’

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published June 4, 2023

 Alec Dorf started a peer-to-peer support group following the death of his mom, Lisa. Dorf is pictured with his younger brother, Zachary.

Alec Dorf started a peer-to-peer support group following the death of his mom, Lisa. Dorf is pictured with his younger brother, Zachary.

Photo provided by Sari Cicurel


WEST BLOOMFIELD — Not many people would fault West Bloomfield resident Alec Dorf if he held the opinion that the world doesn’t always seem fair.

Life started to take a dramatic turn for him on a December day in 2019, when he was a 14-year-old student at West Hills Middle School, which is part of the Bloomfield Hills School District.

He was excited about the prospect of taking a trip with his dad to Louisville, Kentucky, to watch the University of Michigan men’s basketball team take on the University of Louisville Cardinals.

However, on that Tuesday morning, he was greeted by some unwelcome news from his dad.

His mom could not stop stuttering, and his dad informed him that he was going to take her to the hospital.

After returning home later that evening, his dad sat him down to break the news that his mom, Lisa, had a malignant brain tumor.

Dorf shared what he was going through at that moment on a website he started.

“What was a boy of 14 supposed to do? I decided to let my emotions out and broke down in tears,” Dorf states on the website. “The subsequent days and weeks became a blur.”

Shortly after her diagnosis, Lisa had emergency craniotomy surgery to try to remove some of the 13 tumors that were bleeding and causing swelling in her brain.

In February, 2020, Lisa’s cancer had spread to her spine, which led to an operation for a partial spine replacement.

The following month, like most of the world, Dorf had another big change in his life.

“In the weeks that followed, things appeared to be going well until March 15th hit, when the world suddenly stopped with the onset of the Coronavirus,” Dorf states on the website. “On top of the new normal I just started to get used to (the abundance of my mom’s medical appointments and the absence of my father who was her 100% caretaker), a second new normal was thrust upon me as the world literally shuttered out of extreme caution and need. I watched as my mother’s health deteriorated noticeably over the course of two, four and six months. Things were really trying for me as I was forced to stay at home and see my mother in pain without the ability to escape or be distracted by school as the world was in quarantine.”

Dorf’s dad, Stuart, helped put what his son was dealing with during that time period in perspective in an interview with the Beacon.

“Everybody you thought you could rely upon isn’t knocking on the door because everyone couldn’t — they’re quarantined,” Stuart said.

Alec Dorf reflected on Sept. 23, 2020, which is when it became clear to him that his mom was not going to win her battle with cancer.

“Knowing that death was knocking on her door, all I wanted was to be near her,” he states on the website. “During that day, I waited on her bed for an hour before my father left the room to take a phone call when I told my mother I was going to be ok and she could let go … she passed away seconds later. It was a wonderful time between her and I, so they say. And I’m glad I was able to be with her in her final moments.”

After Lisa’s death, Stuart became a single parent to both Alec and his younger brother, Zachary, who is in third grade.

“I wasn’t gonna let this experience, no matter how (tragic) it is, stunt one iota of both my children’s ability to have a full, robust, successful, giving, altruistic, philanthropic, way of living towards fellow man,” Stuart said. “I wasn’t gonna let any of that color the sunshine in their hearts — wasn’t gonna happen. So that’s the approach I took with them.”

Alec and Stuart are both sports fans, and following Lisa’s death, Stuart tapped into that shared interest when communicating with Alec.

“(I) said, ‘Listen, a lot of athletes have something that motivates them. They had an experience, good, bad or indifferent, that shaped their focus on how they execute on things, how they train, their motivation, how to get to that next level,’” Stuart said. “I said, ‘You have yours too. Nothing happens to you; it happens for you, even in the darkest of circumstances. So, let’s learn from our shared love of sports, let’s take the motivation, and let’s take a tragedy and turn it into triumph.’”

Not having people his age who could relate to what he was going through wasn’t easy for Alec, and that turned out to be the catalyst for an idea he had to use his experiences to try to help make the world a better place.

Last October, he helped launch The Lisa Project, which is a nonprofit peer-to-peer mentoring and counseling program for high school children who have lost or are in the process of losing a parent to an illness.

“I did not have a peer to help me navigate the journey of my mother’s sickness and dying process, so I decided to ‘pay it forward’ … to take the experience given to me and leverage that to help others in a similar situation,” Alec stated via TheLisaProject.net, which is the website that was created following her death. “We offer peer-to-peer support and group sessions for high school students who are losing or have just lost a parent to an illness. Our program consists of a series of individual and group sessions where we offer a listening ear and share our personal experience and tips, insights and validations of actions and mindsets that can be helpful.”

The aim of The Lisa Project is to work exclusively with Michigan school districts and bring the program to “students in need.”

As a first step, the program was introduced at Bloomfield Hills High School, where Alec is a junior, with the hope of expanding it to other school districts as well.

Stuart shared more details about The Lisa Project.

“On the website there’s a format that we follow that we kinda created to be able to create an ability to talk with somebody and get them to open up,” he said. “We have talked with people on Zoom, which is how we offer it. We don’t do it in person because he’s 17, so he’s not a clinical psychologist. It’s more about being able to be out there in a casual environment.”

There is potential for The Lisa Project to eventually expand its efforts.

“It’s (a) rocket that’s launching right now. It’s upward,” Stuart said. “We’re focusing on the awareness, (and) at the same time working with licensed social workers to expand the offering and be able to introduce more stuff. So, we’re at the building on top of the foundation level right now, but I am extremely pleased and proud of Alec on the awareness and the growth of how it’s going. So with consistent, clear action, this will continue to evolve and grow.”

Alec acknowledged that The Lisa Project has helped him through his own grieving process.

“It helped me to feel like there’s some people I can relate to, as well as that I’m helping others,” he said in an interview with the Beacon. “It has helped me tremendously.”

Stuart, Alec, Zachary and two others recently represented Michigan’s delegation for the National Brain Tumor Society’s annual day of advocacy in Washington, D.C.

Stuart, who is a licensed attorney and works as a public adjuster, said he believes that “you’re never given more than you can handle.”

“You’re always able to elevate with consistent, clear action, positivity (and) humility,” he said. “If I had to say one thing I would say love never ends. It just transfers. It just looks a little different.”