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Marine veteran channels heartbreak of losing a daughter into helping hundreds of children

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-11 21:57:32-05

CINCINNATI -- How do you get up in the morning when you're facing unimaginable grief?

Mitchell Rivas had to answer that question when his beautiful daughter, Maryssa, died suddenly at 2. Maryssa was born 11 weeks early with heart defects that forced her into her first surgery when she was six hours old.

Maryssa Rivas

Her parents moved heaven and earth to keep her alive through 19 more surgeries and procedures in her short life, gaining an international following in the process. But Maryssa died from pulmonary hemorrhaging on Nov. 13, 2015.

"It's the worst thing I've ever been through. I can't compare it to anything," Mitchell Rivas said. " And whoever says time heals is a liar."

Where to go from there?

Rivas channeled his grief into helping other children and parents going through their own medical ordeals.

The path to becoming a force for good traveled through Cincinnati, which is a major recipient of his and his wife's new calling, the Maryssa's Mission Foundation.

The foundation has helped more than 250 families by filling in some gaps in the care provided by other resources, like Ronald McDonald House.

Ronald McDonald House is designed to be a home away from home for the families lucky enough to find a vacancy. Maryssa's Mission is providing temporary aid for those in impromptu living conditions in hotels or elsewhere who may have left home on a moment's notice.

"We're talking about providing pens and notebooks so that families can take notes, bags of quarters in care packages for vending machines," Rivas said. "We're grasping the niche that not too many people are aware of because they haven't been in the field as long as we were."

"The field," for the Rivas family, was a hotel room near Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

"A weekend would turn into a month," Rivas said. "We stayed for six and a half weeks once. It was almost like being in jail."

Related: Maryssa Rivas tribute video.

For Mitchell and his wife, Malinda, the way forward was clear: helping other gravely ill children and their families to cope while they were temporarily housed near children's hospitals.

Rivas, a mail carrier in Berea, Ohio, near Cleveland, wasn't equipped to create a charitable foundation before serendipity landed him at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati.

In May 2014, he accompanied Maryssa on a four-hour ambulance ride from Berea to Cincinnati, where he met Nelson Soto, Union's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Soto had heard of the Rivas' plight from his mother, who attended the same church as the Rivas family.

"He provided us with food, resources, temporary aide. He came and visited me in the hospital every single day," Rivas said.

As Soto heard more of Rivas' story, including his service as a Marine, he encouraged him to finish a bachelor's degree.

"I didn't think it was time for me to go back to school, but he showed me a very friendly flexible model," he said.

Since Union is an online school, Rivas began studying in the car commuting between Berea and Cincinnati and at home.

The studious Rivas finished his bachelor's by August of 2015, and he moved on to pursue a master's degree in business.

As Maryssa's health failed last fall, Mitchell almost quit the master's program, but he stuck it out with a lot of flexibility from the university, he said.

Maryssa had undergone a successful complete rebuilding of her heart last fall, but her heart turned out to be working too well for her fragile lungs.

Two weeks after her death, the Rivas family incorporated the foundation.

Since then, they've helped 250 families, keeping only 5 cents of every dollar raised for administrative costs. They're hoping to expand their efforts, including striking a deal with a downtown hotel to reserve rooms for families who can't get into Ronald McDonald House, with whom the foundation is working.

Most of the help has been granted to families in Cincinnati and Cleveland. 

He's grateful to Union for giving his family purpose and helping them help others.

"The degree is the framework for this foundation. Once I switched from government work to nonprofit and a tight focus on the Maryssa Foundation, all the feedback I got was amazing," Rivas said.

"This is definitely passion-driven," he said. "We won't fail."

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