Living in hope, looking to the future

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner

Think back to your junior year in high school.

Now, try to pin down the most difficult decision you had to make: Where to go for the perfect meal on prom night? How to make sure you have the time and stamina to study for finals? Where to attend college, in hopes of pursuing the degree and profession of your dreams?

William Chrisman High School graduate Ma'Lee Richardson, who will soon begin his sophomore year at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo., holds a portrait of himself and his mother, Felicia Cole, who died when he was a sophomore in high school.

Those decisions bring a smile to Ma'Lee Richardson's face, which can be both sad and soulful.

When the 2020 graduate of William Chrisman High School in Independence was a 17-year-old junior, he had to make a decision that was so mind numbing and soul crushing, he thought about taking his own life in hopes of removing the pain that had become his constant companion.

His mother, Felicia Cole, was suffering from necrosis, the death of cells in an organ or tissue due to disease, injury or failure of the blood supply.

"She had been sick, real sick for a long time," said Richardson, who lived with his mother in an apartment  filled with equal amounts of love and fear – the type of fear that comes when a loved one's death is imminent.

"I knew it was bad, real bad, but I never knew how bad it would become. On the day after my 17th birthday I came home from school and my aunt was there. She said she had to tell me something – my mother was in a coma and we had to go to see her at the hospital."

Richardson and his aunt went to KU Medical Center.

"They said she was brain dead, and they wanted me to make a decision, a decision no kid should ever have to make," he said, a tear running down his cheek. "They said she would never wake up from her coma and wanted my permission to take my mom off life support."

"I mean, a few hours ago I was a kid, having fun in school, and now, I have to make a decision like this? It was the beginning of the most emotional and depressing time of my life."

Richardson gave his permission and the most important and loving person in his life was gone.

"Anxiety, depression, you name it, I had it after I made that decision," said Richardson, who takes a deep breath and makes another confession.

"I thought about taking my own life. I knew I needed help, and I found a way to get it."

While he was then surrounded by relatives, and he now lives with his grandmother Gloria Cole, his aunt Lakeisha Cole and his aunt's children, Keiyan and Taleigha Coleman, he sought help from a man who played an active role in Richardson's path to wellness, salvation and joy.

"I called my Big Brother, John (Lopez), to come to the hospital when I had to make the decision to take my mom off life support," Richardson said, "and while I struggled with so many issues, I don't know if I would have survived without him. He is like a father to me, and he has been with me since third grade, when he was a YouthFriend while I was at Benton Elementary School." (YouthFriends is a former Independence School District program connecting adults volunteers with students, usually as mentors working with individuals.)

"Then, as I got older, we were able to work an agreement with the Boys & Girls Club, and he became my Big Brother – and one of the most important people in my life. I don't know if I could have survived that night at the hospital without John, and to this day, if I have a problem, or need someone to talk to, I call him."

Karen Lopez, John's wife, was the YouthFriends coordinator at Benton Elementary School. She told her husband she had a young man in need of a special YouthFriend.

"Really, what Karen told me was, 'You're free during the day,'" said Lopez, who then worked nights, "so get down here and be a YouthFriend for Ma'Lee. I had been a part of the YouthFriend program, so I went down and started having lunch with Ma'Lee."

He pauses for a moment.

"I'm a softie," Lopez said, "and I get very emotional talking about this stuff. As Ma'Lee got older, and went to middle school, it was not cool to have lunch with an old guy."

So Lopez and his wife made a request to Big Brothers & Sisters, asking if they could continue their friendship through a program more in tune with the needs of a middle school student.

"That seems like such a long time ago," Lopez said. "Now, Ma'Lee is a member of our family. He has attended my kids' weddings, he's the same loveable kid I had lunch with years and years ago – and he has survived an amazing journey that shows just how strong he is and how much he wants to make an impact in this world."

With Lopez's guidance, Richardson received counseling. He got more and more involved in high school, taking part in choir and theater – excelling in any path he selected.

He became a part of Music Art Institute in Independence and drew praise from the faculty and staff members.

"The kid doesn't even know how talented he is," Lopez said. "You should hear him sing! Unbelievable."

And one day, that talent might help Richardson find his own voice – a voice he hopes will have an impact on those in need.

"Especially young people," said Richardson, who hopes to one day be a counselor or possibly a doctor, "someone who can help kids who are going through what I went through. I've been there. I've been on that dark road, with no answers, looking for a solution."

"Thank the good Lord I had John and other people there for me, because I am not sure I would be here today without them. And I want to make a difference in the life of anyone who is suffering."

"I was part of darkness, and I never thought I would ever see the light – the light that comes from being happy, from being healthy, from being loved. That is my goal, my mission, and I know with the love of God, the guidance of a father-figure like John and others I have met along the way, I know I can make that goal, that dream, a reality."