They lost everything in a fire. Weeks later, the Indianapolis couple is still giving back

·5 min read

On an unusually warm mid-December afternoon, Derris Ross stood at the steps of his community center on 42nd Street and Post Road — greeting families with pizza and a smile.

Parents and their young children filtered in and out of the building throughout the day to pick out a new winter coat from the racks lining the walls inside. Occasionally, Ross would escort them back to their cars, holding a new coat in one hand and a bag of non-perishable food in the other.

"A month," Ross, who goes by Dee, said. "One month post-fire, and we're out here doing it again."

The coat drive, which supplied about 220 families with new winter jackets, was Ross' second big giveaway in the past few weeks. And it was the second community outreach effort since Ross and his wife, Claudia, lost everything in a house fire in early November.

More: He used to be a gang leader. Now he's trying to help his far east-side neighborhood.

Leilani Hamilton, 6, gets a big hug from Dee Ross, founder of The Ross Foundation, during a coat drive at The Ross Center near 42nd and Post Road in Indianapolis. "I like yellow," Hamilton said with a big smile. "It looks like the sun's color." Katina Roqueta, Hamilton's mother and The Ross Foundation's volunteer coordinator, says she brought her daughter to the event to show her to what it means to give back. "I have four kids and I've raised all my kids on volunteering situations," Roqueta said. "I want her to understand at a young age how to give back to your community. It's not always about receiving, it's about giving."
Leilani Hamilton, 6, gets a big hug from Dee Ross, founder of The Ross Foundation, during a coat drive at The Ross Center near 42nd and Post Road in Indianapolis. "I like yellow," Hamilton said with a big smile. "It looks like the sun's color." Katina Roqueta, Hamilton's mother and The Ross Foundation's volunteer coordinator, says she brought her daughter to the event to show her to what it means to give back. "I have four kids and I've raised all my kids on volunteering situations," Roqueta said. "I want her to understand at a young age how to give back to your community. It's not always about receiving, it's about giving."

"Smiling every day, doing what I love to do every day is healing to my soul," said Ross, founder of the Ross Foundation, a non-profit focused in part on addressing the needs of people on the far east side of Indianapolis. "It's what keeps me going."

On Nov. 5, Ross came home from a work meeting to find thick, black smoke filling the first floor of the newlywed couple's two-story home in the 3100 block of North Kenwood Avenue.

Ross said he saw flames spreading across the floor and walls and called for his dog, Prince. He tried to step deeper into the house, but the heat kept him back. The three-year-old golden doodle never came.

Ross dialed 911, he said, and ran two blocks south to a fire station and banged on the doors.

Hours later, the flames were out, but Prince had died from smoke inhalation. Fire investigators told the family an electrical issue might have sparked the flames, but an official cause has not yet been determined.

"It was the most traumatic experience I ever had in my life," Ross told IndyStar. "Just replaying that, it really hits me because the house was filled with black smoke, and it felt like I was in a dream.”

The couple lost nearly everything they owned, including gifts and photos from their wedding in May. They had to go to the mall that same day to buy new clothes, and Ross spent the next week in a hospital — he suffers from two lung diseases, which were exacerba while he was searching for his dog in the smoke.

Still, no more than a week after Ross got out of the hospital, and while they were moving from hotel to hotel, the Rosses bought Thanksgiving dinner for 1,500 people.

"It’s an unfortunate situation," Ross said, "but even in the spirit of the moment, we’re still able to rise up and still give back in ways that people will expect us to."

The couple only had two days to get everything they needed for the giveaway. The Ross Foundation had four teams drive to grocery stores in Indianapolis, Fishers, Zionsville, Southport and Avon to buy hundreds of turkeys and hams. Dee and Claudia went to three Aldi supermarkets for canned goods.

Though Ross and his foundation have hosted the Thanksgiving food drive for the past several years, they usually feed a couple hundred people. This year's situation, Ross said, called for a big response.

Dee Ross makes his way back inside Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, to help more families pick up coats during a coat drive at The Ross Foundation's second location near the intersection of 42nd and Post Road. The foundation's second location, The Ross Center, is still under construction and set to open soon.
Dee Ross makes his way back inside Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, to help more families pick up coats during a coat drive at The Ross Foundation's second location near the intersection of 42nd and Post Road. The foundation's second location, The Ross Center, is still under construction and set to open soon.

"We just went over and beyond to make sure that everyone had a blessing," he said. "I just felt like this could be an example of what it means to serve your community despite your circumstances, despite the challenges and how to overcome adversity."

"It wasn’t like a no-brainer thing because this was very traumatic for us and we were going through it," Claudia added. "We just basically stuck to our faith and was like, you know, this is what we’re called to do. So we’re going to do it anyway, regardless of how we’re feeling, regardless if we’re wearing the same clothes we’ve been wearing."

The community support efforts are part of Ross' larger mission to help end what he calls generational trauma, poverty and hopelessness in the east-side community. The far east side, he said, is "on an island" when it comes to having access resources, and crime is prevalent in parts of the area.

Ross, a former Post Road gang leader, started his foundation in 2014, after watching two of his friends kill each other the previous year. He has lost scores of friends to gun violence, he said, and decided he wanted to become "a part of beautifying my neighborhood... instead of destroying my neighborhood."

And the Thanksgiving food drive, he noted, isn't meant to be a temporary fix for those who need help. It supplies families with food to last until the new year while also helping the Ross Foundation identify those who need help. Once the foundation makes contact with someone, they point them toward longer-term, wraparound services.

"Ultimately, we don’t want to feel that need next year. We don’t want to see them returning for more food," Ross said. "We want them to be sustainable. That goes to our mission — to take the community out of survival mode into thriving.”

As Dee Ross surveys the damage a fire brought about on his Indianapolis home, he talks about the immediate struggle, post-fire, of having to find housing clothes, food, and other goods. He and his wife Claudia say the damage and loss are unfortunate but, "even in the spirit of the moment, we still were able to rise up and be a blessing to our community." The Ross', two weeks after losing their home and belongings, fed 1,500 people for Thanksgiving. "It's not about us," Dee said. "I just felt like this could be an example of what it means to serve your community, despite your circumstances, despite the challenges. You have to overcome adversity. And, just to show how a young married couple, who are dedicated to serving, can rise up to the challenge even in a season of grief but still be able to bless others."
As Dee Ross surveys the damage a fire brought about on his Indianapolis home, he talks about the immediate struggle, post-fire, of having to find housing clothes, food, and other goods. He and his wife Claudia say the damage and loss are unfortunate but, "even in the spirit of the moment, we still were able to rise up and be a blessing to our community." The Ross', two weeks after losing their home and belongings, fed 1,500 people for Thanksgiving. "It's not about us," Dee said. "I just felt like this could be an example of what it means to serve your community, despite your circumstances, despite the challenges. You have to overcome adversity. And, just to show how a young married couple, who are dedicated to serving, can rise up to the challenge even in a season of grief but still be able to bless others."

The past few weeks brought a range of emotions for Dee and Claudia Ross. Some days are stressful. Others feel overwhelming. And there are, of course, moments when the couple grieves for Prince.

They get through the difficult times by having what they call "crazy faith," and a friend set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to help the Rosses get back on their feet.

Despite their situation, the couple has no plans to stop giving back. They're getting ready to host a "Making Every Kid Smile" toy giveaway, set for Saturday.

“It’s not about us. It has never been about us, what we do in our community," Ross said. "It has always been about meeting that need."

"We wanted to set the example," he added. "That blueprint for other people who may go through other challenges in life or hurdles in life... I want them to look at our story and get inspired."

Contact Lawrence Andrea at 317-775-4313 or landrea@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @lawrencegandrea.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indianapolis couple keeps giving, even after fire destroys their home

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