Rosenblum: North Siders rally neighbors to ease family's broken heart

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 - 9:14 PM

Michael Sullivan

If there is a tiny dose of comfort to be drawn after the death of 9-year-old Michael Sullivan, it is this. He was buried Monday in Chicago, surrounded by his family.

This was possible largely because of the quick and kind efforts of three longtime north Minneapolis residents with big hearts and a singular goal.

“He needed to go home,” said Connie Beckers, one of the three.

The recent death of little “Mikey,” as many called him, was scarcely reported in the Twin Cities, perhaps because his immediate family is not from here. Details, too, are sketchy, and patience is being urged by community leaders and the Minneapolis Police Department as the investigation continues.

On June 27, Michael, who was visiting a great-aunt, was found by a neighbor hanging unconscious from an outside clothesline cord. The neighbor cut him down, called 911 and began CPR, said Minneapolis Police Department spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington. It is not known how long Michael had been tangled in the clothesline.

Emergency responders got a pulse back and Michael was taken to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, then later to Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, where he died July 1.

Michael had been seen earlier in the day playing with some younger children in the lot where the clothesline hung, Barrington said. Many in the community believe that his death was likely an accident or the result of a game gone horribly wrong, but the imagery of how he was found added an understandably heightened sense of anxiety for many.

“Based on all the information and statements, there is no sign of criminal activity in this case,” Barrington said. The case remains open and investigators continue to talk to children and their families in hopes that someone will speak up.

“If it was my child, I’d want to know, for closure,” said Beckers, a stained-glass artist who grew up in north Minneapolis. But for Beckers and neighbors Nancy Athanasselis and Lisa Clemons, another kind of closure was more urgent.

How could they raise enough money — fast — to pay Washburn-McReavy funeral home so that Michael’s body could be released to his family? His struggling parents had no way to pay for the casket, burial clothes and embalming, which cost about $3,700.

Athanasselis began a Facebook campaign, urging friends to chip in $5, and directing them to Beckers’ gift shop, the Goddess of Glass, where money was being collected.

Beckers put a big jar on the shop’s counter with a clipboard to keep track of donations. People flocked in, she said, most of them leaving $20 bills. One woman came in and asked how much had been raised so far. “I told her $117,” Beckers said. The woman doubled it. “I got all goose-fleshy and wet-eyed,” Beckers said. “She said, ‘My kids are still alive.’ ”

Clemons, a former Minneapolis police officer, moved many others to donate through her own Facebook page where she posted Michael’s picture. “This is Michael Sullivan,” she wrote. “Dig into your pockets so he can get home.”

Michael, she said, “came into our lives too late for us to get to know him.” She turned to his great-aunt to learn more about him: Michael played chess and the piano. He could sing “Love on Top” a cappella. He had a purple belt in karate and was learning Spanish. He ate his Chinese food only with chopsticks. He was left-handed. He earned money raking leaves and scored a prized skateboard at a garage sale. He could break dance and spin on his head and he knew how to swim.

Within two days, the three women had raised $1,000. The Urban League kicked in $1,000, Summit Academy and Emerge, $500 each. A few people took donations directly to Washburn-McReavy. Community leaders, including the Rev. Jerry McAfee, V.J. Smith and Don Allen, also rallied community support.

The funeral home was paid and Michael’s body was flown home. A funeral home in Illinois received him and donated funeral services. Michaels’ great-aunt called Clemons to tell her that the grieving family “was filled with tears of joy.”

Athanasselis said it’s difficult to feel good about herself in a sad situation like this, but she does feel relieved. In the end, the trio raised an additional $55, she said, “to give to the family when we see them next. My hope is that they … treat themselves to something that will help them relax after all they’ve been through. A movie, some ice cream, whatever they want.”

Beckers is proud of her community, “filled with great people.” Clemons wrote happily on her Facebook page that she had to “come home and take a nap after we reached our goal.

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