Thursday, March 23, 2006

Child's legacy: Clothes, toys for Africans

Island woman who cared for late Liberian boy packs his things for shipment to his homeland

Villagers carry the coffin of Boimah Cooper for burial on a hill in the village of St. Vincent, Liberia
By Judy Randall

It was the one thing Pat Lockhart couldn't bring herself to do on behalf of the little boy from Africa who called her Mommy.

"I couldn't pack up his things," said Pat, her voice breaking at the thought of 6-year-old Boimah Cooper, who died last month. A 12-hour operation to repair his tuberculosis-ravaged spine -- he had difficulty walking and breathing -- had failed to keep him alive.

speaker after speaker -- including those from the Liberian community, local politicians, Island leaders and others -- came forward from the group of about 100 to describe the little boy, it was clear how much of an impact he had on others in his short time here.

Somehow, with the inner strength that only a mother can know, she had managed everything else: After Boimah's grandfather turned over custodial care to her, knowing she wanted to adopt him, Pat attended to all of the boy's medical needs and got him the best surgeons she could find. When the outcome turned tragic, she coped with the incalculable loss, then arranged for him to be buried in his native Liberia, accompanying his body back home.

But packing up the toys Boimah had played with, and the clothes he had worn during the eight months he lived with her in Dongan Hills, was too much to bear for the PS 57 teacher, who had come upon the malnourished boy last year, during a humanitarian mission to the war-torn country, lying under a tree because he was unable to walk and crying out in pain.

"The day after he was buried, I wanted to return to his village," Pat told me. "I wanted to take pictures of the hut he had been living in. The only things there that he owned were three shirts. That's all he had. When I returned home I knew I wanted to pack his things so I could send them back to Liberia, but I couldn't do it. I had a very hard time with it. So the kids from Park Hill helped me pack it all up. It amounted to a barrel of toys and a barrel of clothes. I'm sure 100 children will benefit from what this one little boy had here."

Which is the way Boimah would have wanted it, said Pat.

She is also determined to accomplish another thing Boimah would have wanted: A partnership between public and private entities here and in Liberia to establish a clinic, school and playground in his name.

"It was Boimah's dream," she explained. "I have already gotten a hospital there to agree to test kids for TB until I get the clinic built."

But returning to Boimah's village without him walking beside her was, and always will be, difficult, said Pat.

"Everyone there was very kind and very appreciative of all that was done for Boimah," she said. "They were very appreciative that such good care was taken of him and very happy for the life he had here. They felt bad for me, because they knew I was heartbroken. After the worship service, people from the village carried his body to the burial site, up on a hill. It was very, very difficult. I cried a lot."

Boimah's grave maker reads "Mommy's Little Angel," said Pat.

Mindful of Pat's loss, Vienna Profeta, founder of Staten Island Friends for Hospice Care, along with her board and committee members, have donated a memorial to Boimah in the form of a walkway paver stone to be dedicated next month on the grounds of Eger Health Care and Rehabilitation Center.

"It is very beautiful here, and quiet, and Pat can visit the area and feel some comfort," explained Ms. Profeta.

The dedication of Boimah's paver -- with the inscription "Boimah Cooper, Little Angel, 2006" -- will be held on April 6 at Eger at 6 p.m. Guests are welcome but are asked to R.S.V.P. to Ms. Profeta at 718-989-3087.

Additionally, donations earmarked "Boimah's Dream" may be made to the Staten Island Liberian Community Association Relief Fund, P.O. Box 61385, Staten Island, N.Y. 10306.

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