At the school, teacher Tasha Rachel noticed how the boy’s clothes, usually pressed and neat, were rumpled. She saw the stress on Smith’s face, took her aside and asked what was wrong. “You could see she wanted more for her child, but she was just getting beaten down,” Rachel said. “But she still got him to school every day. She is a dedicated mom.”
Smith said she was afraid to tell the teacher they didn’t have a place to stay. “I asked her ‘Please don’t tell the authorities, or they will take my child,’ ” she said.
Smith was referred to HOPE South Florida, which helps the homeless with emergency crisis housing. Smith and her son were not a good fit for a traditional shelter because Ellijah couldn’t tolerate sleeping in a room with strangers, so the organization put them in a studio apartment.
Then the family qualified for HOPE South Florida’s transitional housing and moved to an efficiency apartment in Fort Lauderdale. An interior designer from the nonprofit researched calming paint colors, covering the walls in a baby blue and the floor in a sea-blue tile, Smith said. Volunteers brought in new sheets, towels, pots and pans, even stuffed animals for Ellijah. “It was unbelievable,” Smith said. They lived there from September 2011 to May 2012.
In December 2011, Smith got a job as a front desk receptionist at an accounting firm, after the head of the firm saw a video about HOPE South Florida helping Smith — its first special-needs family.
“People like Mellissa and Ellijah are vulnerable because of their circumstances,” said Robin Martin, executive director of HOPE South Florida, which houses 200 homeless families a year. “They need the community there to support them.”
In May 2012, Smith and Ellijah moved into their own apartment in Oakland Park and retrieved items they had stored in Pensacola. “The staff at Wingate helped Ellijah cope with all of the moving,” Smith said. “It’s hard for an average child to go through [life] not having a place to live — think of an autistic child.”
A new school
When Ellijah began school at Wingate Oaks, he was 11 and still wearing pull-up diapers. Smith said she had tried every potty-training method imaginable, but it wouldn’t take. Two months after starting Wingate, Ellijah was using the bathroom on his own.
The school uses iPads with special apps to teach students how to express emotions and wants. In September 2012, an outside donor gave Ellijah an iPad with an “Augmentative and Alternate Communication” app to help him communicate. Using the app, Ellijah can press buttons with a variety of emoticons to verbalize his wants and needs.
Because Ellijah is learning to express himself, he has fewer tantrums, Smith said. “He is more comfortable with himself, and is getting used to making mistakes,” she said. “That’s what he and I both need. I want him to grow.”
And because of training at Wingate, Ellijah now feeds and dresses himself. He brings his plate to the kitchen after dinner, and he has learned to put his jeans in the washing machine and dump in a cup of detergent.
At the after-school program at the YMCA, housed in his school building and staffed by school staff, Ellijah is learning to make microwave popcorn, his favorite snack. Because the boy doesn’t know how or cannot express physical pain, Wingate staff members examine him daily for scrapes or bruises.