First-grader Avant Brown didn't like to dress up, so for his funeral Saturday, his mother chose SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas. The yellow cartoon character was one of his favorites.
Avant, 6, died of leukemia a little over a week ago. His mother, Caletha Proctor, a single parent who had given up her housekeeping job to be with him as his condition worsened, had no money to bury him.
Times readers responded with donations of money, services and even furniture for the struggling family. One woman, who said she knew what it was like not to have money for a family member's funeral, wanted to give Proctor a suit in which to bury her son.
Saturday morning, about 250 people gathered to say farewell to Avant at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Loud sobs filled the church as the child's small white casket was closed and draped with a colorful SpongeBob blanket. The service was one of comforting words, Bible songs sung by children, fiery preaching and even an altar call.
"I'm just grateful for the love and support I've been getting from everyone," Proctor, 23, said during a brief interview. "I'm just overwhelmed. I'm just thankful for everybody. I'm blessed. I know he's in heaven. It's a going-away celebration. He's in no more pain. He's in excellent hands."
At the service, his godmother sang a song. His cousin, Jimontae Davis, 11, talked about how much he loved having another boy in the family. He sobbed and couldn't speak at one point. "Now," he said, "there will always be a hole in my heart that can never be replaced."
Carolyn Fraze became Avant's homebound teacher in August. She said after the service that she was present when Avant's wish was fulfilled by the Marty Lyons Foundation. The charity took the child to Chuck E. Cheese's a week before he died, Fraze said.
"He wanted to walk down the steps of the apartment," she recalled during an interview after the service.
Others who had known the little boy also wanted to talk about him. Queen Harris said she helped to potty-train him when he was in her class at Starling School and Day Care. "He was such a handsome little boy," she said.
Avant was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow, at 3 years old. For 2-1/2 years, the cancer appeared to be in remission, his mother said, but Avant became ill again this summer and was admitted to All Children's Hospital.
Proctor, who had been making a two-hour round trip by bus from south Pinellas to her job at the Best Western on Treasure Island, decided to limit her work hours to weekends so she could spend time with her son. When doctors said they could do no more, Proctor, who also has an 8-year-old daughter, quit work and took Avant home, where he died Nov. 16 under hospice care.
The Rev. Clyde Williams of Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church had prayed for Avant during his illness. Williams, who also led Saturday's service, told the congregation he couldn't answer why bad things happen to good people, or why some people die young.
Lakewood Elementary School teacher Jeannie Robinson said Avant had been in her first-grade class for just one week before he was hospitalized in August. Students wrote to him regularly and she and Margaret Garcia, Avant's kindergarten teacher, visited him every week.
"Everyone fell in love with him," Robinson said. During hospital visits, she said, "He would say, 'I'm a tough guy. I'm the bravest one here.' He was a wonderful child. He completely changed my life."
Robinson said that when her students thought she was going to take Avant's name off the classroom word wall last week, they begged her not to. They said he'll always be their classmate, she said.