A Legacy of Giving

One family’s tragedy grows into a lasting legacy for their son aiding victims of war.

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“The thing that is going to mean the most in the future is the recognition, understanding and support of our troops over there, and our troops over here, because the ones over here could be deployed at any time,” says Maureen Eykelenboom. “If we believe that it will never affect us, we’re so wrong.”

August 11, 2006 was just another hot, dusty day in Afghanistan, but for one Comox Valley family, the events of that fateful day would be life changing.

Corporal Andrew James Eykelenboom (‘Boomer’), a 23-year-old medic at the tail end of a brutal seven-month tour in Afghanistan, had volunteered to run one more mission outside the wire. During that fateful mission, a 17-year old Syrian boy with a head full of idealism and a truck full of explosives rammed the transport vehicle in which Andrew was sitting. Although his comrades escaped with their lives, Andrew’s was extinguished within the flames of the burning vehicle. He had been just weeks from returning home to the Comox Valley.

While nothing can take away from the terrible tragedy of a life lost so young, a phoenix of sorts has arisen from the ashes of that burned-out transport truck. In honor of Andrew, her youngest of three boys, Maureen Eykelenboom has created an organization to assist the people of Afghanistan that her son had so desperately wanted to give a better life.

Boomer’s Legacy, a registered charity run by Eykelenboom and a handful of friends, has raised thousands of dollars for assistance to Afghanistan and has touched the lives of innumerable people around the globe. At the heart of the operation are Eykelenboom’s selflessness and her steadfast commitment to giving the children of Afghanistan, and the world, a better future.

“Andrew would phone home from Afghanistan and say, ‘Mom, these kids have nothing, send me some good stuff for the kids. Even the street people in Canada have more than the people in the village I was just in,’” Eykelenboom recalls. “‘You don’t understand the evil that there is here,’ he’d say. As a medic, he saw things that we don’t want to understand.”

Every week Eykelenboom and a few friends would pack a box full of items for Andrew to give away to the children of Afghanistan. It wasn’t until the shock of Andrew’s death, however, that the beginnings of something larger began to take shape.

While Eykelenboom was in Trenton, Ontario for Andrew’s repatriation ceremony, two of her friends crafted the idea of producing ‘Boomer caps,’ tiny toques that could be placed on a newborn baby’s head to help the infant retain its body temperature. The caps could then be shipped to troubled parts of the globe where they could help newborn babies during their most vulnerable stage.

“If you put a cap on a baby’s head you’ll help retain the heat in its body and help keep it well,” Eykelenboom explains. “They do it here in our hospitals all the time—newborn babies automatically get knitted caps. If we could get them on newborn babies’ heads over there then we could help them, and it would be honoring to Andrew to call them Boomer caps.”

The small team began sending emails out to their many contacts through the Soroptimist International Club, of which they were members, looking for people to knit the caps. Because Eykelenboom had just attended an international Soroptimist conference that summer, the contact list was extensive and spanned the globe.

Today, the first floor of Eykelenboom’s Comox home has been transformed into a veritable distribution centre with hundreds of Boomer caps piled atop a barely visible pool table waiting to be shipped off and placed caringly on tiny, needy heads. Boomer’s Legacy has collected 53,000 caps to date, mostly from Vancouver Island but also from England, New Zealand and elsewhere. The caps are shipped all over the world via mission groups, military personnel and ICROSS, the International Community for Relief of Starvation and Suffering.

“There’s a woman that lives in England who has now made almost 150 caps,” Eykelenboom says, her voice steeped in admiration. “She said that as she is sitting there crocheting she doesn’t have any troubles. Her problems, her daily issues kind of go away. When she’s knitting a cap, she’s thinking about the child whose head it’s going to go on who basically has nothing, and the soldier who may get to give that child a cap and what he’s over there doing. Her problems kind of disappear. So if that can be a side effect for Canadian people that are doing the knitting, or crocheting or whatever, then that’s a wonderful legacy all in its own.”

While the Boomer cap operation took on a life of its own, Eykelenboom still wanted to do more, and she still wanted to help the people of Afghanistan specifically. Her initial plan was to develop a charity that would support education in the war-ravaged country, and her motivation was nothing short of altruistic.

“If that 17-year-old boy had had an opportunity for a better education,” she says, referring to the suicide bomber that took her son’s life, “he may have made a better choice for his career.”

She eventually realized, however, that the Afghan people had much more basic needs to be addressed, such as health and security, before they could tackle the issue of education. That’s when she discovered the Assistance to Afghanistan Trust Fund (AATF), a fund administered by the Canadian Forces that supports material assistance programs in Afghanistan. Partly because the AATF is designed to enable Canadian soldiers on the ground to recommend how the funds are spent, Eykelenboom immediately realized that she had found the vehicle to facilitate her son’s vision.