The hallways were quiet Monday at University Park Elementary School as violet flowers covered the desk of a student the school community recently rallied around during a lengthy battle with brain cancer that ultimately claimed his life Sunday.
As they mourned the loss of their friend, Melvin Maldonado, 11, of Hyattsville, students and staff honored him in their final week of school.
Some students wrote essays remembering their fifth-grade classmate’s smile and optimism while others sold popsicles to raise money for his family.
Principal Nancy Schickner said she is proud of how the community came together in the last few weeks to provide financial assistance for Maldonado’s family and she said the efforts will continue.
“Now that he’s passed away, there’s just tremendous sadness and still a great desire to help the family,” Schickner said. “The family is still in great need of money.”
A few weeks ago, when parents and teachers learned that Maldonado’s brain cancer had suddenly returned after a four-year battle and that their home is in danger of foreclosure, they immediately stepped in to help. Some paid the family’s utility bills, others mowed their lawn and others did their laundry. One parent set up an account called Melvin’s Smile on the crowdfunding site gofundme.com.
After word of the family’s situation spread from the school to the wider University Park community and surrounding area, even more people reached out to help, including Prince George’s County Councilman Eric Olson of College Park (D-Dist. 3) of College Park.
“I think it’s unimaginable, the hardship that they’ve been facing,” Olson said.
He said one of his staff members is trying to connect Maldonado’s family with nonprofit organizations that could help prevent a foreclosure on their home.
The Maldonado family could not be reached for comment following Melvin Maldonado’s death.
Rene O’Dell, who set up the crowdfunding account and has been helping Maldonado’s family with funeral arrangements, said the family is doing “as well as could be expected.” Some of the money received has gone toward funeral expenses, but the bulk of it has not been used yet. By June 11, the online fundraiser had reached $35,064 of its $40,000 goal. O’Dell said the family needs assistance with basic needs such as groceries, but also caring for a teenage autistic son and another teenager son graduating from high school this year.
Fourth-grade teacher Erica Berry, who began selling popsicles with her students after school earlier this month to help Maldonado’s family, said she will keep the fundraiser going through the last day of school on Friday, when she expects to have about $200. She said the situation has touched many students, who check in with her often to see how much money she has raised.
“Some of the kids were having a hard time understanding that [Maldonado] was dying of cancer,” Berry said. “This was kind of a cathartic way for kids to help out.”
In Maldonado’s science classroom, fifth-grade science teacher Geoff Favero said students were asking questions and trying to come to terms with the loss of a classmate. Favero said he encouraged them to put their thoughts about Maldonado on paper, and he plans to give the short essays to his family.
“He was just a very gentle, sweet boy,” Favero said. “More than anything, he had this wonderful smile.”