With son dying of cancer, a Prince George’s family found the neighbors were there to help

A school photo of Melvin Maldonado, who died recently of cancer at age 11, adorns the mantel of his family’s home in Hyattsville. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Around 2 on Sunday morning Melvin Maldonado died in his father’s arms. The cancer the 11-year-old had been fighting for so long — four surgeries in five years — had moved from his brain to his spine, and the boy could fight it no longer.

“My heart is broken down,” Melvin’s father, Francisco Moran, said Tuesday. “Devastated.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Melvin’s mother, Martha Maldonado, seemed in a daze as she paced the living room in the family’s tidy brick home in Hyattsville. Occasionally, she sat on the couch and pulled a blanket up to her neck. That her son’s death was not sudden or unexpected seemed no consolation.

The mantel was covered with photos and drawings of airplanes, which Melvin loved, and photographs of the family: Melvin, his father and mother, his older brothers, Gerardo and Andy. One image showed a tiny figure nestled in blankets. It was the stillborn baby Martha lost in March, six months into her pregnancy.

Martha is convinced that hearing Melvin’s cancer was incurable prompted the miscarriage.

“It’s an extremely tragic case,” Prince George’s County Council member Eric Olson had said when I’d talked to him earlier. “The family’s gone through hardship after hardship after hardship.”

Melvin’s brother Andy has autism. His mother lost her baby. And as Melvin got sicker and sicker, the tumor robbing him of the use of his limbs, his father left his job doing drywall, plastering and painting to care for him. The family fell behind on their mortgage payments and has been in danger of losing their home.

At times, Francisco said, it has seemed like too much.

But the community has mobilized to help.

Melvin had always been a favorite around University Park Elementary. Even when he was feeling poorly — his gait slowed, his carriage leaning slightly to the side — he wanted to be there, among his friends in the fifth grade. Once, Principal Nancy Schickner remembered, a poetry slam was scheduled for Melvin’s class. Melvin was excused — he hadn’t prepared — but he made up a poem on the spot.

“He was always happy to be here,” Nancy said.

About a week before he died, two teachers Melvin had in third grade — Cindy Nell and Michele Rowland — visited him at home. “They told me they thought the family was in severe danger of being kicked out of the house,” Nancy said.

The school leapt into action. PTA President Becky Widman sent a letter to the school’s message group, as well as to the message group of the University Park neighborhood.

Another parent, Rene Beesley O’Dell, set up a Web site for donations: www.gofundme.com/
. So far, $33,500 has been raised toward a goal of $40,000.

Eric Olson, the council member, looked into what support services the county could offer, including mortgage assistance. Tim Hunt, a Hyattsville City Council member, reached out to his community networks. Maritza Gonzalez, the Prince George’s public school system’s Latino affairs officer, visited the family.

“People wanted to help,” said Becky. “Families were bringing dinners and food. There were offers of massages for the family from a massage therapist. There were just so many things. Anything that anyone could offer, they did.”

Said Becky: “I like to think other communities would handle this the same way and that we’re not unique. I do feel in a lot of ways that University Park is very special.”

On Monday, grief counselors were at Melvin’s school. His funeral service will be at Iglesia Bautista in Bowie.

“I’m very thankful for everybody that’s been helping me in my son’s memory,” Francisco said, a relative translating his Spanish.

As I sat with Francisco and Martha and the family members who had come to console them — none of us really able to penetrate the penumbra of grief that hung around them — there was a knock at the door. It was Betty Sonneveldt, a Prince George’s home and hospital teacher. She’d been teaching Melvin since first grade, tutoring him during his hospitalizations and home stays.

“This child was an angel on Earth,” she said. “I’m not kidding you. He was just always smiling. It didn’t matter what happened to him. I never saw a sad face on that child, not until a week before he died.”

Betty had stopped by, she said, just to see if there was anything she could do to help.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.


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