Community Helps Devastated Coney Island Family Bury Children

By Thomas Tracy

The pain still lingers. But, as they make their way through the grief and deal with the loss of their little angels, Hilda Clarke and Stephanie Sheffer find comfort and solace from the support of a cadre of Coney Island angels who helped them through this trying time. Funeral director Bill Lombardo was one of the many good Samaritans who miraculously appeared in Clarke and Sheffer’s time of need, providing funeral services for the three children pro bono. The two women once again thanked him for his generosity on Monday at the corner of Mermaid Avenue and West 20th Street, at the site of the future Coney Island Memorial Chapels. Along with family, friends and neighbors, an entire community came out for the families of 16-year-old Ricardo Clarke and his two nieces, Jahyiria Sheffer, 9, and Jahnae O’Pharrow, age 3. All three perished in a horrifying high-rise blaze that erupted inside the Ocean Towers at 2960 West 24th Street on January 12. Upon hearing about the tragedy, City Councilmember Domenic Recchia contacted Lombardo, who has been planning to bring a chapel to Coney Island for the last six years. Lombardo agreed to give the three children a proper service free of charge. “[Lombardo] is a blessing from heaven,” said Minerva Lastra, the godmother of one of the three children who perished. “He worked very closely with the family…no matter what time of the day it was, he was there to help us.” Lombardo, Lastra said, made sure that the three children had a dignified service, and gave the family some much needed closure. “The family is taking [the loss] one day at a time,” said Lastra. “It’s still a very hard and touchy situation. No words can say what these two mothers are feeling, but the support of Mr. Lombardo and everyone in the community has been so wonderful.” Lombardo said that when he received the call from Recchia, he told the councilman that he would do “whatever they needed.” “There are people who don’t have the finances to hold a funeral when a tragedy like this strikes,” said Lombardo. “When we heard what happened, we wanted to help. We could not refuse any family. Everyone deserves a funeral or a dignified service, no matter what has transpired.” By this June, Lombardo will have opened the Coney Island Memorial Chapels, answering a long call from over a dozen Coney Island churches who said that wakes and other funeral services had to be held out of the neighborhood because of a lack of funeral homes in the area. Currently, there is only one funeral home in all of Community Board 13, which makes up Coney Island and Brighton Beach. His move to Coney Island wasn’t an easy one. When he decided to touch down on Mermaid Avenue, his intentions to build a chapel in an underserved neighborhood were blocked by some members of the Asian community living nearby, who demanded that the site be moved because, according to their traditions, they can’t live near the dead. Other community members claimed that Coney Island needed more retail stores, not a funeral chapel. The fight continued until, ultimately, a Supreme Court judge allowed Lombardo to build on the property, according to officials. But to the Clarke and Sheffer families, none of that matters. All that does matter is that he was there for them in a time of need. As were members of Lincoln High School, where Ricardo played JV basketball, as well as PS 288, where a fourth-grade class invited Stephanie Sheffer to come and join them as they celebrated Jahyiria’s birthday a day after the funeral at Our Lady of Solace Church. While they will always be in the hearts of the Clarke and Sheffer families forever, Ricardo, Jahyiria and little Jahnae are still being remembered in the neighborhood they grew up. As of this writing, Lincoln High School was planning a special game in honor of Ricardo, tentatively scheduled for February 16. Residents are also still chipping into the fund that is helping the two families get by in this trying fund. Recchia and State Senator Diane Savino set up the fund to help the Sheffers deal with the destruction of their home and belongings. Officials at Ocean Towers recently gave the Sheffer family temporary housing in their building until they figure out their long term plans. Contributions to the fund could be made to the Clark & Sheffer Children’s Fund, c/o Met Council, 80 Maiden Lane, 21st Floor, New York, NY 10038.

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