When a Canadian guest at a beach hotel picked up her newspaper Friday, she was stunned to learn that the little boy she'd fed birds with a year ago had lost his battle with cancer.
She quickly called to find out how she could help his struggling family. Concern also poured in from throughout the Tampa Bay area, as well as places as far away as Georgia, Texas and Switzerland.
Avant Brown, the little boy who died Thursday of leukemia, will have a funeral, after all.
Those who called and e-mailed had read about his death and his mother's distress because she had no money to bury the 6-year-old. One woman wants to donate a suit in which the child can be buried. A man has offered to sing at the funeral. Men at a barber shop collected $140.
The family is overwhelmed.
"I am very shocked and I'm very thankful,'' said Caletha Proctor, 23, Avant's mother. "I am very happy for my son. We can have something for him. It's a blessing that people care in the community.
"The man at the funeral home said we don't have to pay for anything. We were really, really overwhelmed. That was a really great feeling to hear that.''
Her mother, Viola Walker, 43, agreed. "You can't do nothing but cry. I told her that Avant is taking care of her. His main concern was always his mama. ... The blessings are coming so fast, I can't catch them. I didn't know that there were that many people out there that cared.''
Timothy Works, 22, a customer service coordinator for T.J. Maxx, read about Avant in the St. Petersburg Times during his lunch break Friday. "I don't make a whole lot of money, so I thought I would sing at his funeral,'' Works said. "If I had the money, I would pay for his funeral, but I just can't.''
The Rev. Richard Doscher of St. Alfred's Episcopal Church in Palm Harbor called to offer help because "the dignity of life doesn't end at death,'' he said. "No parent should ever experience what this mother is experiencing.''
Proctor, a single mother who has an 8-year-old daughter, quit her $7-an-hour hotel housekeeping job to care for Avant almost three months ago. The first-grader was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow, at 3 years old. Proctor struggled financially on her wages and monthly $600 Supplemental Security Income, so when she had to leave her job, the living room furniture, television and radio she had tried to buy through a rent-to-own company were repossessed.
Those who read her story offered money, furniture, appliances, clothing and comforting words. A cousin, Carolyn Starling Cloud, who owns the Starling School and Day Care that Avant once attended, promised financial help before the boy's death. She also asked friends, her church and a funeral home to do the same. Friday, her school was deluged with calls.
"About 2 o'clock this afternoon, one man didn't call, he just walked in and left a $3,000 check,'' Cloud said. "Viola and Caletha, they are so thankful. They can't talk for the tears. A classmate of mine called and she said she had something she wanted to give. One lady told me she has furniture. We have had deliveries of furniture. It has just been tremendous.''
Cloud also got a call offering help from a guest at Best Western on Treasure Island, where Avant's mother had worked. The Canadian woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, got to know Avant a year ago. "I had to take him to work, because I didn't have a babysitter,'' Proctor recalled. The guest and Avant fed the birds while his mother cleaned her room. The last time she saw Avant was at Halloween, when she visited him at All Children's Hospital.
As Proctor left to make funeral arrangements for her son Friday afternoon, she felt a sense of peace. "I know that my son is not going to suffer anymore. I'm going to miss him. I know that he's definitely in a better place,'' she said.
Avant's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Nov. 25 at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 955 20th St. S.
How to help
Donations can be made to the Avant Brown Family Fund at any Bank of America branch. For information, call the Starling School and Day Care, (727) 327-9608.