From The Ashes: Melanie Cross’ Perseverance Story
Melanie Cross was raised in a family of community activists in the Midwest in which higher education was stressed and community service was expected. Whether her family was participating in the Civil Rights Movement or pioneering educational changes such as starting an afterschool program for disadvantaged youth, there was always a sense that each person has the ability to change the lives of others for the better–especially of those who are most vulnerable. Off to university at age 17, Cross took her can-do attitude toward life to study Special Education programs. Against family advice, however, in her third year she fell in love and left school to marry and start a family.
As a stay-at-home mom with two toddlers, and pregnant with her third child, Cross planned to return to school once her kids were grown. In 1984 her younger daughter fell ill at only 20 months old, with a life-threatening infection. She would lay in a coma for several weeks. Health care professionals expressed little hope for her daughter’s recovery and raised the possibility of taking her off of life support. But Cross did not give up on her daughter, ceaselessly advocating on her daughter’s behalf. She recalls her hospital bedside promises to God–if he would only let her daughter breathe on her own… Cross’s husband, unable to cope with these traumatic life circumstances, entered a path of personal destruction through substance abuse, unemployment and violence.
While trying to save their marriage, Cross became solely responsible for the care of a severely disabled child, who, when she emerged from the coma, needed highly specialized care. At the same time, she struggled to attend to the needs of her other children, to provide the love they needed, and find the financial resources required to keep food on their table and a roof over their heads.
Cross had promised God that she would leave no stone unturned in making life better for her family, yet, there were many times when all hope felt lost. A friend recommended that in the darkest hours, it helps to look at “ground zero”–what’s the worst that could happen? Cross recalled this advice many times, recognizing that there is always a way to go forward. She was able to return to school–this time enrolling in nursing school for pediatrics, having vowed never to stand at the bed of a helpless patient riddled with illness, not knowing what to do. She helped out at the daycare center her kids attended, and did janitorial work at night to bring in much-needed money. Pleading the case of her circumstances with her professors, Cross was able to listen to lectures on tape while performing her custodial duties. Her relentless perseverance led to her earning a degree in pediatric nursing and certification in public health nursing. Cross’s work has been instrumental in the expansion of Special Olympics programs, and she has become a leader in global outreach through her participation in organizations fighting to end human trafficking.
With other single parents, Cross shares the idea that we must understand the difference between “powerless” and “helpless.” We are powerless to change another person’s actions, and powerless to change the past. However, we are not helpless. We can learn to move through shame, depression and guilt, and turn ourselves toward hope. “It’s useful,” she says, “to document your goals, make commitments with action plans and seek out all resources available until you can become a valuable resource yourself.”