One Kool Kid

Medical centers often reward major philanthropists by putting their name on a new hospital wing or research center.

Bethany Harper, 9, of Riverbank got her name on the chalkboard erasers at the Spina Bifida Clinic at the University of California at San Francisco Children's Hospital. Soon, the young patients at the clinic also can thank her for the stickers and coloring books that will keep them busy while waiting to see their doctors.

Bethany, who was born with spina bifida, runs a Kool-Aid stand outside her family's home to raise money for the clinic, where she is one of the 125 patients and goes for checkups every six months.

She also makes good use of her Halloween and Easter candy, peddling the sweets at soccer games and to kids in her neighborhood.

Bethany started her fund raising about two years ago and has raised about $200.

The tireless fourth-grader has raised money at a desk at her mother's workplace, displaying jewelry, candy, baked goods and a sign stating that the proceeds are for the UCSF clinic.

"She is just a sweet, thoughtful girl," said Cindy Lazzaretti, a coordinating nurse who works with patients. "Despite what she has gone through, she thinks of other people and has more compassion than most children her age."

Bethany said she wants to make the clinic more inviting, so that the young patients are not as anxious while awaiting their appointments.

"When I'm waiting, I always think about getting a shot or something," she said. "I want the playroom to take their minds off that and want them to just have fun."

Bethany has undergone seven surgeries at UCSF for complications of spina bifida. The birth defect occurs in the first month of pregnancy with an incomplete closure around the fetus' spinal column. The babies are born with the spine protruding through a hole in their backs. Surgery is done immediately to close the hole, but many of the children are unable to walk and have lifelong disabilities.

Cliff and Susanna Harper were unaware their daughter had the defect before she was born at Oak Valley Hospital in Oakdale in 1998. Because a sack had formed around the protruding spine, a prenatal test did not detect spinal residue in Susanna's amniotic fluid.

The Oakdale hospital transferred the newborn to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, and from there she was airlifted to UCSF for surgery.

Initially, doctors told the parents Bethany never would walk. But she began physical therapy at an early age and today walks with the aid of braces worn just below her knees.

Bethany got excited about raising money after a major surgery at UCSF when she was 5. She was temporarily unable to walk and was pulled in a red wagon to get from her hospital bed to a playroom. The Harpers noticed there were only two or three wagons for children on the floor, and they donated a wagon, giving Bethany the idea that she could donate, too.

The girl saw a need in the clinic rooms where the children wait with parents, as a series of specialists came through to see them. The children draw on chalkboards in the rooms to pass the time, but there were no erasers.

The first $30 she brought to the clinic about two years ago went to buy erasers. The nurses put labels on the erasers identifying Bethany as the donor. A second gift of $60 followed, and the staff is assembling packets with coloring books and other activities for the children, Lazzaretti said.

Bethany has $100 to give at her next visit to UCSF in November or December. She said she would like to raise money on a larger scale. But for now she collects 10 cents for a glass of Kool-Aid, 5 cents for Jolly Rancher candies and 10 cents for suckers.

Sometimes, she sells chocolate-chip cookies that her mother bakes. When she is not raising money for the clinic, Bethany attends Stockard Coffee Elementary School. She enjoys dancing and singing lessons, and is eager to do things that other kids can do, her mother said.

Susanna Harper said her daughter gets tired of hearing the mantra, "instead of focusing on what you can't do, focus on what you can do."

But she clearly understands the concept.

"We are very proud of her," Susanna Harper said. "She found something she can focus on in a positive way."

Donations earmarked for the spina bifida clinic can be sent to the UCSF Foundation, Box 0248, San Francisco, 94143-0248. For more information about giving, call 877-499-8273 or go to www.ucsfhealth.org/childrens/about/donation.html.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.