Ghanaian woman honored in Worcester for positivityBy ALLI KNOTHE , Associated Press
Dec. 8, 2013 12:16 AM ET
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — It's warm in Elizabeth Akaab's two-bedroom apartment, on the bottom floor of a building near Grafton Hill.
On the wall of her living room is a large green rosary. Framed portraits of her children hang on the cream-colored walls and light pours in past warm brown curtains through the sliding doors of the living room.
On a cloudy Monday morning with temperatures in the low 20s, Akaab said the adjustment to New England weather since immigrating from Ghana a decade ago with her family was a minor challenge.
Akaab, a proud yet humble woman, doesn't naturally want to tell about her story.
"Every day God gives me the strength," she said. "Even though it's difficult he always helps me through."
In October, she received the 2013 Eric Rogers Memorial Award, which is given to a person "who has demonstrated courage and determination in overcoming significant barriers to achieve personal goals." The award is offered by HMEA, a nonprofit that supports 4,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities.
When Akaab and her husband, Felix, came to the United States in 2003 their children were 4 and 2 years old. She said they "won the lottery" through a program that granted them green cards. Here, they have access to the medical attention that is not available in their country.
Her oldest, now 14, has Down syndrome, which affects her mobility but is still "very sharp," Akaab said. She is an honor roll student at Holy Name Junior Senior High School.
Her son, who is now 12, has cerebral palsy. A boisterous young man, he and his older sister bring up the water, wine and host during the Sunday evening service each week at St. John's Catholic Church, said The Rev. John Madden.
Akaab's youngest child is now 5 years old and has also been diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, the most severe form of cerebral palsy, which makes it hard for her to walk on her own and requires constant attention and care.
As difficult it was to have three children with a range of developmental problems, Akaab said it was a relief to access the services needed to care for them. So when they came to the U.S., she and her husband had to navigate the health care system, get driver's licenses, and find jobs.
"We were so happy (to come to the U.S.)," she said.
In November 2010, Akaab was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, and underwent chemotherapy. He still worked extra hours to provide for his wife and children. He died less than a year later, on July 5, 2011.
"Felix was a tremendous man," said Rev. Madden, who has known the family for years. "He was so dedicated to those kids so when he died you wondered what was going to happen... (Akaab) just has risen to the challenge and it really is remarkable."
Pat Lynch has worked for the past several years as a case manager at HMEA, the nonprofit that serves people with development disabilities throughout Central Massachusetts.
"All the families I serve... have their unique story and needs," she said. "But the thing that always came through the most about Elizabeth was her attitude and her joy. She's such an uplifting spirit."
Lynch described calling Akaab, who always expressed a deep interest in how she was doing.
"She'd always have this concern for me," she said, explaining that Akaab rarely asked for help.
Not uncommon with other parents of children with developmental disabilities, Akaab works 24 hours a week taking care of elderly people suffering from dementia.
"She approaches life with a positive attitude," Ms. Lynch said. "Her spirit can't be dampened."
Last month, Akaab planned to have an early Thanksgiving meal with her family. In the afternoon she planned to be working, while a friend watches her children.
"No matter how difficult things are, she finds a way," Lynch wrote in the award nomination. She noted the hard work required to connect with schools, medical teams and therapists to provide the best care possible for her kids.
"She is a wonderful advocate for them," Lynch wrote.
Akaab also finds time to be charitable to others. Rev. Madden said that she brought a frozen turkey and other food donations to the church to help provide for those in need.
"She has regalness to her," he said. "She has a presence and serenity and strength because she's had to fight."