Big smiles and cheerful greetings always meet Melissa Ross when she walks the halls of her son’s middle school.
She and her boy, 14-year-old Clifton, are well-loved among the community at José De Diego Middle School in Wynwood. Students, teachers and administrators love the mother for her sunny personality and ever-present willingness to help out as a daily volunteer. She scoots around the among the art-covered walls helping out as a parent liaison known for offering an extra set of hands in the classroom and providing families with useful information about local community programs.
The community cherishes Clifton, a soft-spoken seventh-grader who loves robotics, art and sports, for his leadership and athletic talents.
“All around, he’s a great student that any principal would be please to have at their school,” said Principal April Thompson-Williams.
But the Rosses fight to keep their heads up despite many struggles through the years. When Clifton was 2, his father passed away from complications with epilepsy. As a young boy, Clifton was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His mother has thrown herself into her son’s school life to make sure he stays on track, manages his behavior and taps into his potential.
With so much of her time dedicated to raising Clifton, Melissa Ross has had trouble finding regular employment. She patches together the work she can find, like a recent stint as a cook for Art Basel events in Miami Beach. Sometimes, she deals with bouts of depression that can leave her unable to leave home.
“It’s been a ride,” said Melissa on a recent afternoon while volunteering at her son’s school. It has been difficult for her to raise Clifton alone, she said. “I’m not cut from a single-parent cloth.”
Still, the Rosses keep on keeping on. They find strength in their love for each other and their communities at school and church. Their resilience and can-do attitude is why Natalie Presaud, a case manager at the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, nominated them for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book.
“She definitely struggles to make ends meet. As a mother, I’d say she is very dedicated to her child,” said Presaud, who has worked with the family. “I know she is actively seeking employment, but finding the job has been difficult. Therefore, it was difficult to get necessary items for him.”
Both Rosses need new bedroom furniture, especially Clifton, who stands a slim and sturdy 6-foot-4. The football and basketball player is outgrowing his twin-sized bed.
Clifton spends hours in the library, sometimes into the evening, completing his schoolwork. A tablet computer would help him work more at home. For his time on the basketball court and football field — he’s a wide receiver and free safety who aspires to play college ball for the University of Oregon — he could use new size-14 sneakers and rib protector pads.
Melissa Ross wishes she could gift her son with something he’s always wanted: a video game console.
A strong advocate for her son, she praises her boy’s achievements while keeping him focused and pushing him to work hard. And it pays off. Where Clifton has had trouble with grades and behavior before, he has improved in both areas with encouragement from his mom, his teachers and friends.
Cyd Heyliger-Browne, robotics teacher and head of José de Diego’s science department, noted Clifton’s leadership during a recent robotics competition where, after being elected team captain by his peers, he kept a level head and guided the team to solve problems on the spot.
“He has passion and drive to always do his very best,” Heyliger-Browne said.
On a recent afternoon, Melissa Ross surprised her son by taking him to a new apartment to which they’ve been transferred. They live in public housing in Wynwood, not far from Clifton’s school. Their previous place has a mold problem that necessitated a move, but Clifton was worried they might have to move away from his family at José de Diego.
“I thought we were moving down south. That’s why I was mad,” he said. “I want to keep going to my school.”
His eyes lit up when he realized they were only walking around the corner to another unit not even a full block away. It’s in better condition, and both are eager to move in.
“This is great, Mom,” he said, grinning.
They hugged in front of their new front door. Through good times and bad, mother and child stick together and tough it out.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.