Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

Hooper: From $7 and one diaper to college graduate

Seven dollars.

One diaper.

A child struggling through the complications of premature birth.

These elements of Melanie Rojas-Silva's remarkable resurrection story actually understate how much she has overcome since hitting a homeless, penniless nadir.

Silva, 37, left the care of her grandmother in Puerto Rico and joined her parents in the United States at the age of 11, stepping into a home rife with domestic abuse. She and her younger siblings found themselves in the middle of constant tumult until one night when the battles came to a head.

"My father killed my mother in a fit of rage," Silva told more than 1,000 people at Metropolitan Ministries' Bridge Builder luncheon this week. "I was young, fresh out of high school and looking forward to college, but it wasn't meant to be.

"My brother was 15 and my sister 9, and I had to get to work if I wanted to keep our family together."

For the next 10 years, Silva held down two and three jobs to support her siblings. Her brother eventually started a culinary career and got married. Her sister earned a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida and a master's in psychology from Florida State.

Finally, Silva could focus on herself. She married, got a job with a financial company and happily awaited the birth of her first child. Complications arose, however, and she was hospitalized with pregnancy-induced hypertension. Her company, damaged by the 2008 recession, let her go.

She gave birth to a 2-pound baby girl whom doctors kept at the hospital. She returned home to find her husband gone, apparently unwilling to endure the hardships of fatherhood.

A two-year blur of medical tests on her daughter brought back challenging results — heart, liver and growth complications, cerebral palsy and possible autism — and made it impossible for Silva to hold down a steady job. Forced out of her nice apartment, she eventually landed in roach-infested living quarters, more storage unit than home.

"Aside from the fact that I was constantly worried about my daughter's health, I was increasingly unable to recognize myself in the mirror," Silva said. "The woman that existed then only asked herself questions. … Is it just a matter of time before someone says I'm unable to take care of my child and they take her away? The answers loomed over me like a guillotine waiting to fall."

Through it all, she never lost hold of the hope instilled by her grandmother during her youngest years in Puerto Rico.

"Every time I needed something, I was fortunate enough to have people put in my path," Silva said minutes before delivering her speech at the Hilton Downtown Tampa. "Little angels always helped me out."

The little angels of Metropolitan Ministries made the biggest difference. With that one diaper, those seven dollars and that precious little girl, she walked into the nonprofit's Uplift U program and gained the clean shelter, food and diapers she not only needed but had earned through years of sacrifice.

Her daughter received an official diagnosis of autism but began to thrive in MetMin's day care. Silva's dreams also began to thrive. She eventually got a job, returned to self-sufficiency in an apartment of her own and enrolled at Hillsborough Community College, graduating with honors and speaking at the college's commencement ceremony.

With stellar grades, she earned a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where she will soon graduate with a degree in English and Spanish, her sights set on working as a translator. The mascot of her non-traditional group at Mount Holyoke: the purple phoenix, naturally.

The miracle of turning seven dollars and a diaper into a degree from one of the nation's most prestigious colleges doesn't happen without Metropolitan Ministries' commitment to changing the trajectory of lives — and the support it receives from this community.

But it also serves as a reminder to those fortunate enough to take basic necessities for granted that traffic congestion and finding a good series to binge-watch on Netflix pale in comparison to the real-world problems so many endure.

If Melanie Rojas-Silva can rise above such difficulties like a jet that rises above turbulent weather, the least we can do is rise up and lend a hand.

That's all I'm saying.

Follow Ernest Hooper @hoop4you.

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