Monday, July 31, 2006

A boy's bequest amazes his African village

Clothes and toys that belonged to 6-year-old sent home to Liberia by child's Island sponsor
By Judy Randall

In the short time he lived in America, 6-year-old Boimah Cooper had the great good fortune of amassing more toys and clothes than all of the children in his native Liberian village combined.

So when he died last February, days after a life-saving spinal operation proved no match for the TB that had ravaged his lungs since infancy, Patricia Lockhart, his American sponsor whom he came to love as his mother, knew she wanted to give his belongings to youngsters in his homeland.

And that's just what happened last month when two 5-foot barrels, one containing clothes and the other toys and books, arrived in the African nation torn apart by civil war.

"I was told everyone, not just the children, but everyone in the village came out to see the barrels from Staten Island," said Ms. Lockhart, reflecting on the photographs of the event that were taken to document the arrival of the donated goods.

"Everyone was thrilled. Nobody could believe that one little boy had owned all of it. All the clothing, his play clothes, the little suits he wore, his pajamas and jackets and shoes. And all of his school supplies, his books and educational toys, all of his games. What one little boy had here, in this country, has ended up benefiting hundreds of children in Liberia."

Ms. Lockhart knew she wanted to give Boimah's belongings to the children he grew up with when she accompanied the orphaned boy's body back to war-torn Liberia for burial in March and met the elderly woman who had cared for him.

"I told her I wanted to see his things," Ms. Lockhart related, "and she brought out three T-shirts. That was it; three T-shirts, no pants, nothing else. I kept asking, 'That's it?' 'That's it?' We sat and we cried together."

"When it came time to pack everything up though, I couldn't bring myself to do it," said Ms. Lockhart with a heavy sigh. "The boys from the Park Hill community did it for me."

Ms. Lockhart, an Advance Woman of Achievement and teacher at PS 57 in Concord, home to Liberia's immigrant population here, first spotted Boimah during a humanitarian mission to Liberia in the spring of last year. He was lying under a tree, malnourished, crying and gasping for air, the result of the tuberculosis that was destroying his lungs and spine and had nearly crippled him.

She knew immediately that she wanted to get him to the United States for medical treatment. After gaining custodial rights and wading through a mountain of paperwork, she got Boimah to Staten Island last June. At the time he weighed just 28 pounds and looked more like a 2- or 3-year-old than 6.

In time he gained 10 pounds, grew steadier on his feet, mastered English and enchanted just about every Islander he came in contact with. His heroes were Mayor Bloomberg, whom he met, the Staten Island Yankee's mascot Scooter and, of course, Ms. Lockhart, whom he called "Mommy."

Without the operation, Ms. Lockhart was told, the little boy she hoped to adopt would face sure paralysis and death. With it, he had a chance.

Sadly, while the outcome initially looked bright after the 12-hour operation at New York University Medical Center in February, his condition rapidly deteriorated and he succumbed within a matter of days.

"With Boimah gone, I feel like I lost part of myself," said Ms. Lockhart, her voice choked with emotion. "I feel rather lost."

In his memory, Ms. Lockhart remains focused on children in need in Liberia and continues to forge ahead with plans to raise money for a mobile medical unit, school and playground in Boimah's name. More immediately, she's begun collecting Christmas gift donations for shipment this fall.

"Santa always seems to miss Liberia," said Ms. Lockhart.

(For more information about the Boimah Cooper Memorial Fund and Pat Lockhart's humanitarian efforts, call Ms. Lockhart at 917-445-7095.)

Judy L. Randall is a columnist for the Advance. She may be reached at