It’s been more than a year since Lisa Thornton saw Gift Benwa, the African boy she brought to America in 2007 for facial reconstructive surgery and the child who’s become another member of her family.

The Oak Park resident and pediatrician has spoken to Gift by phone in the year since he returned home. On Saturday, she and her husband and their children will arrive in Africa for a three-week vacation that will include a stop to Zambia to see Gift, now 11.

This trip to Africa is Thornton’s first since 2005, when on a relief mission with a global outreach group she found a 4-year-old boy bearing facial wounds from a windstorm. Debris from the roof of a hut had hit Gift and cut from his nose to his jaw. Thornton worked to bring the boy and his father to the United States for reconstructive surgery. So far, Gift’s had six operations.

While staying with the Thorntons in Oak Park, Gift attended Holmes Elementary School. The shy and friendly child returned to his native Zambia in June 2008.

“We’re going to bring him clothes and money, of course, and little trinkets – pens and coloring markers. He loves to color,” Thornton said. They’ve also got an item for Gift that’s coveted in Africa: an Obama T-shirt.

When Gift started school in Oak Park, he was far behind academically, though he did learn to speak English and sporadically spoke in his native Bemba language. When he returned home to attend school in Zambia, he was still behind academically, but not by much, according to Thornton. He’s catching up, said Thornton, a mom of three, and he’s has been talking a lot about soccer, which he loves.

There’s one cellphone at Lechwe School in Kitwe, Zambia. So for every call, Thornton deals with the time difference and Gift’s class and activity schedule. When she does reach him, she said, it’s like having a child away at college: What he asks for most is money.

While Gift was at Holmes, his teachers established an educational fund in his name, raising more than $20,000. The money is paying for his education through high school, and maybe even college. No operations are planned for the immediate future, but more may be required as he gets older.

“Things do change. Scars soften. It depends on the tissue in his face. It could be a change for the worse or for the better. We’ll see,” Thornton said.

Thornton and her family will visit other parts of Africa before going to Zambia. A stop at Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island in Cape Town and a safari are part of the family trip, too.


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