Being Benard

Bethel freshman takes medical, spiritual and literal life journey.

By Esther Jones | Royal Report

Benard Bampoh and his mother glanced at the television screen as they waited. Queen Latifah’s enthusiasm filled the already packed immigration office, emulating the emotions felt by the people who packed it. Excitement. Nervousness. Impatience. Bampoh shifted his weight in his wheelchair for maximum comfort.

They had been waiting almost an hour for their 9 a.m. appointment Dec. 2. Many of the others had appointments at 10 a.m. None were late.

They kept waiting.

The Bampohs, along with the others, came from different ethnic backgrounds, but had the same goal of becoming American citizens. This appointment would move Bampoh and his family one step closer to gaining permanent resident status: a green card.

“This process takes a long time.” said Bampoh, a Bethel University freshman. “We’ve been here seven years and have just gotten to this point.”

Bampoh’s mother brought the family over from Ghana midway through 6th grade when he was 11.

“I want a future where everything is in harmony.”

Bampoh, a freshman rhetorical communication and computer science major, is originally from Ghana. His family has moved several times — Bampoh’s mother and grandmother live with him in Arden Hills, while his father is in Maryland planting a church. The chaos of constant change combined with his family’s musical inclications has given Bampoh a high respect for harmony.

Benard — not Bernard, no “r” in the first syllable — Bampoh was born in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, as the eldest of three. Bampoh’s parents, Victoria and Bismark, met when Bismarck’s Christian band, David Dynamics, performed with Victoria’s choir in high school. The boys inherited their parents’ creativity. Enoch, the middle son, was “the artistic one,” Bampoh said. Enoch would purposely break toys just so he could put them back together. He sometimes succeeded. The youngest, Caleb, was “the musical one.” He’d wake up every morning and start singing in bed.

The three brothers were all born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2, or SMA.

“My brothers and I never took a step, or even crawled.” Bampoh said.

For Bampoh and his brothers, the muscles closer to the center of the body are more difficult to use. Graphic by Tim Evancho.

It’s genetic and affects the skeletal muscles, which degenerate, or atrophy, over time. This means the Bampoh brothers have a harder time doing anything that requires strength or energy. Walking. Holding things. Coughing. Chest colds are dangerous for that last reason. People affected with SMA can’t cough out all of the gunk in their throats, which turns a cold into an infection, and an infection into a life-threatening issue.

When Bampoh was in fourth grade, he and his brothers were given manual wheelchairs, their first. Previously, friends and family carried them in plastic chairs their father purchased. Benard’s was blue. Enoch’s was red. Caleb’s was green. The wheelchairs not only assisted with mobility, but helped them out socially as well. As young children, the Bampoh boys didn't physically appear to be much different than their classmates.

“(A wheelchair) in a sense, sends the right message. People know what to expect,” Bampoh said.

Their peers were now less likely to knock them out of their chair, risking possible injury, during bouts of roughhousing.

(L-R) Caleb, Enoch and Benard pose with their first wheelchairs. A physical therapist their father hired, whom Bampoh referred to as “Uncle Jomo”, connected the family with an organization that was giving wheelchairs away for free. (Submitted photo.)

Life in Ghana was good. Bampoh attended kindergarten in the school his grandfather built. On special occasions, his father would buy a hacked-open coconut from a roadside stand, and Bampoh would drink the sweet juice from his favorite fruit. He also remembers the first time his grandmother, a first-grade teacher, showed him how chicken became edible.

“She had a chicken coop and I always saw them around,” Bampoh said. “But it never clicked in my mind… that we would have to kill them to eat them.”

Bampoh attended a private Catholic school called Most Holy Heart. The children were taught a hymn in chapel every Wednesday. He and the other boys would learn the alto harmony to sing with the girls’ part. Bampoh also began to notice harmonies at home, especially when they weren’t perfectly balanced. He once complained to his parents when singers on a television commercial didn’t blend well. He’s now surprised he noticed anything at so young an age, but is proud of his family’s musical traditions.

“Maybe it’s in our blood or something.”

In 2007, Victoria Bampoh applied for and was granted a scholarship to pursue a Ph.d. in Chemistry at Syracuse University in New York State. After visiting, she realized the advanced medical technology and research in the states would make a great place to raise her sons; SMA gets worse over time, not better.

Then Enoch, the middle son, contracted a lung infection and died. This only increased the parents’ effort to get Benard and Caleb to the states. Three weeks after they arrived on their mother’s student visa, Caleb developed a similar infection and died.

Victoria Bampoh with her children (L-R): Enoch, Caleb, and Benard, sit in the plastic chairs their father bought for them. Bampoh refers to Enoch as “the artistic one”, Caleb as “the musical one”, and himself as “the one smiling all the time.” (Submitted photo.)

He was going to feed the goldfish to the class turtle. Their science teacher was going to leave the innocent goldfish in a tank with a carnivorous beast. Did the goldfish do anything wrong? Did the goldfish deserve to die? Bampoh and his lab partner Sean Meyer didn't think so.

Their class had been examining live fish under a microscope to get a close look at flowing blood. Bampoh and Meyer wanted to keep theirs but the teacher nixed the idea.

At the end of the day, Bampoh and Meyer returned. They managed to get their instructor to leave the room for a few minutes, stowed the goldfish in a baggy on the back of Bampoh’s wheelchair and left.

The next morning, the science instructor noticed that a fish was missing, but had no inkling of who took it or when it left or how it did so.

“Teachers always assume that Benard never misbehaves,” Meyer said.

Bampoh enrolled in a private Christian school in Syracuse called Living Word Academy. He joined the school’s chapel worship team, playing both keyboard and bass guitar.

“It was a great sense of belonging, because for one of the first times, I could fill a position where there was a need and others could depend on me.”

Bampoh also practiced sketching; superheroes, hands, faces of loved ones. He picked up art and music after his brothers died, but doesn't consider them his “real talents;” he considers them passed on, bequeathed, to him. Prior to their deaths, he was more carefree.

Benard Bampoh practices piano exercises in the apartment he shares with his mother and grandmother just minutes away from Bethel. Music is a big part of their family. Bampoh is a fan of uplifting and positive music, with a special affinity for the song This Little Child by Scott Wesley Brown. “If we’re ever called to do a performance as a family, that’s what we’ll do almost always,” Bampoh said.

“I was oblivious to my surroundings… I was just living life peacefully and without much care, so I hadn't really developed any talents,” Bampoh said.

Bampoh quickly developed an American accent and new friends at Living Word, but the 11-year-old did have to learn some cultural differences. Ghana’s culture had promoted hospitality and helping others, while the United States focused more on independence and being able to help oneself.

“I noticed that my friends were eager to help…at first…but as time went on, they expected me to do more for myself,” he said. “Since I wasn't used to that, I took it harshly.”

In ninth grade, one of his best friends, Micah Keach, talked to Bampoh about the amount of time Keach was spending helping him with school. Keach took books out of Bampoh’s backpack, carried food for him in the lunch line, helped him in the bathroom — anything he needed throughout the day. Keach said his grades were beginning to take a tumble. He encouraged Bampoh instead to do as much by himself as possible.

“I felt betrayed,” Bampoh said. “It felt like my only source of support was being taken from me and that he didn't want to be involved anymore, but as time went on I realized that what he was thinking of wasn't impossible for me to do, that he hadn't neglected my limitations. He just wanted me to be more involved and more proactive.”

Through further conversation and interaction Bampoh realized it was Keach’s way of communicating he considered Bampoh just like any of their other friends, and was trying to treat him as such.

Bampoh and his parents pose for a photo with two members of Living Word Academy’s graduating class of 2014. Forrest Thompson (in blue on the left) and Sean Meyer (on the right) are two of Bampoh’s friends from his time in Syracuse, New York — he went back for a visit in May to see them graduate. “It was seriously my favorite part of graduation.” Le Moyne College freshman Sean Meyer said. (Submitted photo.)

Classmate and partner in mischief Sean Meyer, now a freshman nursing major at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, agreed. “He needs help with stuff that other people don’t need help with, but we shouldn’t treat him differently.” he said. According to Meyer, Bampoh is vastly underestimated when it comes to video games. Given Bampoh’s physical disability, others often go easy on him during the first round…until he brutally creams them. “He always, always beats me at video games,” Meyer said. “Every. Single. Time.”

After four years in New York, Victoria Bampoh got a job as a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota Rochester. The family relocated. Bismark Bampoh started a church, with the Bampohs acting as worship team, playing music and harmonizing together. Benard transferred into Rochester’s Century High School as a junior. He soon got involved with an organization dedicated to introducing computer programming to minority youth. The Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA) held classes on Saturdays, when they taught students programming languages; from the basics of HTML to more advanced languages like PHP. BPDA also sent him to a national conference in both his junior and senior years. Although it was eventually rewarding, the first day of class was rough.

“I had never been so intellectually challenged,” Bampoh said. “I felt the need to overcome that challenge.”By the class’s final project, Bampoh was able to design websites from scratch. He said the program taught him perseverance and “to accept challenges as just a normal part of life.” He also decided to pursue it as a possible career path.

Finally. It’s their turn.

The friendly white ladies at the desk guide the Bampoh and his mother through the form. Height. Weight. Eye color.

Fingerprints, unique swirls of black ink on an official piece of paper.

The office took official headshots, and then the meeting was over.

Owners of green cards:

  • receive a social security number, which will allow Bampoh to apply for Medicaid and the FAFSA
  • can legally hold jobs
  • can apply for a personal care assistant, which would help Bampoh with college, making it possible for him to live on campus

Bampoh is a first-year rhetorical communication and computer science double major at Bethel. His mother and grandmother live with him in a student apartment complex in Arden Hills, a short drive from campus. A typical day starts at 5 a.m. His mother helps him get ready in about an hour — 30 minutes if they’re in a hurry. She then drops off him and his grandmother at campus before driving to the university in Rochester. Bampoh works slowly and is unable to get everything done before bedtime, so he uses these morning hours to finish the rest of his assignments. He has to plan ahead, ignoring a natural tendency to go with the flow.

With all that homework and five classes to attend, Bampoh still manages to connect with people throughout the day.

“(Benard) always takes time to say hi, even outside of class.”communication professor Nancy Brule said.

Bampoh likes to hang out in the vicinity of Brushaber Commons, studying with friends. He is often seen in the 3900 Grill area with notebooks and his computer or eating lunch, greeting passersby with a friendly wave.

“He has time for everybody,” sophomore secondary English education major Will Kah said. “He draws people to him.” Even though Kah is Bampoh’s mentor through a program at Bethel called P.E.P (Peer Empowerment Program), Kah says that Bampoh teaches him just as much. “It’s just two people sitting and talking.”

“He’s a very peaceful person — good at listening.” senior social work and reconciliation studies major Gorpu Sumo said. “A lot of people listen to respond, but he listens to understand.”

Bampoh plans on becoming a lawyer; to contribute to society, to be independent, to give back to his parents. He wants to balance his career with his own family, which he hopes to have one day. A 13-year-old Bampoh once asked his parents if he could have a girlfriend.

Victoria and Bismark Bampoh were friends for seven years before they married. “I realize the more I live my life,” Bampoh said, “that not all my friends have had the same upbringing, the same privilege to be among supportive family members who are willing to sacrifice so much for the benefit of each other.” (Submitted photo.)

“They said no, with the strongest zeal,” said Bampoh, but they’ve been giving him tips ever since. “They get along very well — if I hear them together, they’re usually talking or laughing… That’s what I want my future family to be like someday: a home filled with laughter and joy. I am mindful of reality, but I do think this is quite possible.”

Bampoh’s focusing on academic for now, however. He had a realization in high school, he said.

“My future comfort depends on (how well I do in school).”

He wants his life to be peaceful and stable, and is willing to do what it takes to get himself there.

“I believe there’s still a better version of me. I can still evolve. I’m still growing, I’m still maturing. God isn't done molding me yet. ”

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