Monday, February 20, 2006

Island burial for Liberian boy

His grandfather breaks with tradition, citing the boy's love of Staten Island

By Maura Yates, Advance Staff Writer

Six-year-old Boimah Cooper made such a connection with Staten Islanders before his death on Friday that his grandfather in Liberia is breaking with their homeland's tradition so he can be buried here.

"It's God's plan," Sando Cooper has told the boy's guardian, Pat Lockhart.

Nearly a year ago, Ms. Lockhart, a PS 57 teacher on a humanitarian mission in Liberia, found the boy lying under a tree on a rural road, in pain and barely able to breathe.

The boy, who had a spinal deformity brought on by tuberculosis, was left in the care of his grandfather after being orphaned during the civil war that ravaged the country.

Ms. Lockhart, an Advance Woman of Achievement, brought Boimah to her home in Dongan Hills. She had planned to adopt the boy before he died during a complex surgical procedure to reconstruct his spine.

His grandfather knew Boimah was having the time of his life in America, Ms. Lockhart said, and understood the bond the little boy formed with his "Mommy," and the Staten Island community. "He knew the love he was receiving," she said.

Funeral expenses for the boy have been secured with the help of Rep. Vito Fossella, Ms. Lockhart said.

But the high costs of the burial, and plane fare for Boimah's grandfather to come to New York for the funeral, are looming, and Ms. Lockhart is hoping the Staten Islanders who loved him in life will also support the boy in death.

The funeral plans are now contingent on Cooper's arrival. He must first secure a visa before being allowed to travel to the United States. The process is expected to take two weeks, if all goes well.

According to Liberian custom, burials are done on weekends, and Boimah will be buried on the first Saturday possible, after his grandfather arrives.

The Friday night before, the community will gather for a tribute to the boy. Tribute ceremonies traditionally last several hours, as anyone who wishes may say a few words in memory of the deceased.

Following the burial, the community will again gather, for a meal of Liberian and American food.

Explaining that the amount of money needed will vary anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, depending on what happens with Boimah's grandfather's visa, any surplus raised will go toward "Boimah's dream in Liberia," Ms. Lockhart said.

Boimah's dream, she explained, was to return to his country in two years, healthier and bringing relief supplies.

"He wanted to become president of Liberia," Ms. Lockhart said, "and help build schools, hospitals and playgrounds."

The little boy who loved watching Barney videos and playing tee-ball was also passionate about another cause -- making sure each child in his country had a toy to play with, since he discovered after experiencing his first American Christmas, that Santa apparently skipped Liberia.

Monetary donations may be sent to the Staten Island Liberian Community Association Relief Fund, PO Box 61385, Staten Island, NY 10306. For more information, call SILCA president George Curtis at (646) 996-8736, or Ms. Lockhart at (917) 445-7095.

Family friends and members of the South Beach Civic Association are planning a fund-raiser, tentatively scheduled for tomorrow evening. For more information, call Victoria Fagan at (718) 227-6504, or Rose Ann McAllister at (718) 720-5199.

"It was a story you just wanted a happy ending to," Ms. Fagan said.

Maura Yates is a news reporter for the Advance. She may be reached at