COLUMBIA — The last person Ransford Pinto hugged before leaving Ghana was his brother Kennedy Kofi Acheampong, nicknamed Ashoa.
"He was the closest of my four brothers," Pinto said. "We shed tears of joy that I was moving on to the next level."
Pinto began this week devastated by the knowledge that he may never again lay eyes on his younger brother. But by Wednesday — with the help of his fellow students, MU faculty members and the online fundraising platform GoFundMe — Pinto has re-kindled hopes of returning home for the holiday break and helping his family give one last farewell to Ashoa.
A death in the family
Pinto, 30, has lacked the means to travel back to Ghana since moving to Columbia in August 2012 and enrolling in MU's Truman School of Public Affairs. But nearly every Sunday, he and Ashoa talked on the phone. Ashoa was always interested in his older brother's progress in the master's program. Pinto wanted to keep tabs on Ashoa's son, 5-year-old Kwame.
On Nov. 12, Pinto noticed Ashoa had called him in the middle of the night, so Pinto texted Ashoa back, saying they could catch up at their usual time on Sunday.
The next call came on Sunday from Pinto's youngest brother, Michael: Ashoa had died. He was 28.
Ashoa had been battling sickle cell anemia since childhood. His last call was to let Pinto know he was having trouble breathing and was checking into the hospital. He was later diagnosed with pneumonia.
As the oldest male — his father died of a stroke 12 years ago — Pinto is expected to bear most of the financial responsibility for Ashoa's funeral and start providing for Kwame with what little money he's earned as a research assistant at MU's Institute of Public Policy.
Crowdfunding the trip
It looked unlikely that Pinto would make the trip back to Ghana before May 2014, when he expects to graduate. However, he desperately wished to see his brother one last time and say goodbye.
It apparently showed in his demeanor. Laura Thal picked up on something heading into the Monday night nonprofit budget management class she and Pinto attend. Thal is a second-year graduate student in MU's Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism and is also earning graduate certificates in public affairs and public health.
Thal asked Pinto what was happening in his life, so he told her about his loss. She couldn't believe he would have to spend the holiday break away from his grieving family.
Monday's class discussion focused on fundraising, and someone mentioned GoFundMe, a crowdfunding organization where users can ask for help funding major life events. That's when Thal got her idea.
The next day, Thal pulled Pinto aside to show him the GoFundMe campaign she had set up, with a goal of $2,500. By that point, Thal had already spoken with Charles Menifield, a professor in the school, who gave her indirect access to all of the Truman School's faculty and student email addresses. She just wanted Pinto's input and sign-off before publishing the campaign and pressing 'send.'
"She had already taken so many steps, I felt like I couldn't stop it," Pinto said.
Getting to go home
After the campaign went live around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thal said she had to step away from the computer. Otherwise she feared she would drive herself crazy watching her monitor, waiting for the dollars to roll in.
When she checked back in a few hours later, more than $1,000 had been raised. In another 24 hours, $2,630 had been raised, exceeding the campaign's initial goal.
Most of the 56 donors were other graduate students and faculty at the Truman School, but a few came from people who presumably discovered the campaign through GoFundMe.com. The donations ranged from $5 to $150, with an average donation of $38.
"I'm really glad I could get the ball rolling and other people could step up and support him," Thal said.
Pinto said his brother's funeral has been delayed until Dec. 14 and he plans to leave for Ghana by Dec. 10.
Though the initial goal was surpassed, Pinto and Thal said they are keeping the campaign going in order to fully cover Pinto's airfare and the funeral costs.
"I really appreciate it," Pinto said. "I don't know how to say thank you to my classmates."
"At the end of the day, he's just got to get home to his family," Thal said.