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Raising Five Sons Alone, Three With Autism, Takes a Toll on a Mother’s Body

Posted on December 20, 2016 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

The Story Behind The Story of This New York Times Neediest Case

For more than a century The New York Times has spotlighted “Neediest Cases,” folks facing extreme hardships, and welcomed help for them from readers. And for more than a decade I’ve had the honor as liaison between Catholic Charities New York and The New York Times to meet some of these brave folks and the dedicated case managers that help them. So this year, I’d like to share with you the stories behind The New York Times Neediest Cases stories, the courage of the people we are honored to serve and caseworkers who plow through roadblocks to get them the services they need.

Many of us have children. And some of us have children with special needs. But, if we’re lucky, we have supportive families and friends along with jobs that cover our expenses and offer diversions from stress.

Melissa Ferrer, a single mom of five sons, three with significant autism, has none of this.  Instead, impoverished and alone, she struggles to provide a family for her children that she, abandoned by drug addicted parents, never had.

Complicating these challenges, Ms. Ferrer lived inside what she describes as a “hell hole” in a tenement’s top floor when she first came to Catholic Charities for help.  Water leaked from the roof, paint chipped off the walls and there was no heat in the winter.  The entire family caught walking pneumonia.

Catholic Charities helped the family move to a safe home in the Bronx. They bought the family blankets, clothes, school supplies and more.

Now, despite her three boys’ predilection to throw nearly all they touch, their new home brags of order and cleanliness.  Its wooden floors shine. Framed certificates of her children’s achievement decorate the walls along with Dollar Store pastel painting proclaiming “Love” and “Family.”  A cinnamon candle’s scent fills the air.

But significant challenges remain.  Similar to many with autism, her boys prefer jumping to sleeping at night.  Her new landlord who lives below says he is fed up.

On a recent afternoon at the family’s apartment, her sons’ mercurial temperaments were on display, writes New York Times Neediest Cases reporter John Otis. They slammed doors and shouted and wailed in constant fits. Glass trinkets were removed from a coffee table and placed in a less precarious spot. One of her sons repeatedly threw a water bottle around the living room. Another snatched a tablet from his brother as he was watching a video.

Ms. Ferrer hugged them each, never losing her patience.  Instead, stress manifests itself through large clumps of hair that fall from her head and heart palpitations unusual for someone just 33 years old.

Each morning, she races to get her four school-age children ready, John Otis writes. They all attend different schools, riding different buses that arrive at different times. She does it all alone.

“I can’t go to anyone’s house because they’ll mess things up,” Ms. Ferrer says.  “We can’t go for walks because strangers stare.  So my only friends are my kids.  I’m a 24-7 mom.”

Read the Ferrer’s powerful Neediest Cases story