Roanoke Area Ministries’ new leader is a 25-year veteran of the nonprofit sector with a calling to help others because of the example set by her parents.
Melissa Woodson takes over Feb. 1 from Debbie Denison, who is retiring after 35 years at RAM, which operates a Roanoke day shelter and meals program, as well as an emergency financial assistance program.
“She was super impressive,” said RAM board member Patrick Patterson, who was in charge of the interview process. “She really connected with the board. She’s a skilled fundraiser and is full of ideas, and she recognizes the good work Debbie has done.”
Woodson, 57, is from rural King George County in Virginia’s Northern Neck. Her parents grew up in large farming families and didn’t have many educational or job opportunities. Woodson described her family as “lower middle class,” but said her parents were determined to give their three children a better life.
When Woodson was 6 years old, the first public library opened in King George and her mother signed her up for a reading group. She also was among the first children in the nation to be enrolled in the federal Head Start program. At the time, it was held only for a few weeks during the summer for low-income children entering kindergarten.
From 2000 to 2002, when Woodson was program manager for Quin Rivers, a community services agency in New Kent County, she was an adviser for the local Head Start program.
Woodson said it was just assumed that she and her brothers would go college, even though they had to pay for their education themselves. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from what was then Mary Washington College and a certification in nonprofit organizational management from Virginia Commonwealth University. When she was in her 40s, she went back to school for a master’s degree in business administration and management from Averett University.
“I just wanted the extra education,” she said. Woodson was especially interested in accounting. Besides enabling her to oversee the financial workings of an agency and eliminating the need for an extra employee, “it really helps with the strategic planning,” she said.
Much of Woodson’s work has involved grant writing, she said, and like every other charity, RAM has to compete for grants to keep operating.
“Getting grants is hard,” she said. “You have to keep your story in the forefront to get them.”
Woodson first came to Roanoke in 1983. She was just visiting, she said, but she fell in love with the area. “I was raised in Tidewater, but I’m a mountain girl,” she said.
She moved here in 1990 and stayed for about 10 years, until her parents became ill and she went back to King George to care for them. Twelve years later, they died a few months apart, and she returned to Roanoke.
During her career, she has worked as a donor resources consultant for the Red Cross, a live-in administrator for Boys Home ., director of special projects for the Rappahannock United Way, manager of the state FAMIS and Medicaid programs in a five-county area and program coordinator for HCA Physician Services Group.
From August 2006 to July 2011, Woodson served as the last executive director of the Roanoke YWCA, before the facility closed due to a lack of funding.
She followed that with stints as executive director for Susan G. Komen in Roanoke, and as an assistant director for Total Action for Progress’ This Valley Works job training program. In January 2017, she became project director for Workforce Services.
In her spare time, she’s volunteered with charities such as Trust House and Choices Recovery Center. In June 2017, she decided to quit working for a salary, and became a volunteer consultant for Project Discovery of Virginia. It was time to regroup both mentally and physically, she said.
Later in life, “you start thinking about what your legacy is going to be.”
Woodson said her parents were probably the biggest influence on her decision to dedicate her life to nonprofit and social service organizations. In their community, her mother was the person people called when they were overwhelmed by caring for an ill family member. Her father would give money to anyone who was in need.
“I feel a calling to help people because of it,” she said. “No matter how little they had, they would share it with other people. My heart is always drawn to the people who are the most vulnerable.”
Of all the positions she’s held, Woodson said, directing the YWCA was her favorite.
When she first visited RAM, she said she “felt right at home” due to the similarities between the two organizations.
Like the YWCA, RAM is housed in an older historic building, she said, and serves a similar population. RAM has a day shelter that offers a free, hot meal and an Emergency Financial Assistance Program that helps people with unexpected housing and medical bills.
At the YWCA, Woodson said, she inaugurated several programs that improved the lives of the mostly indigent women who lived there, by giving them training in both job skills and life skills.
Woodson said she’s looking forward to her new job.
“It was like a miracle for me,” she said. “It’s a perfect fit.”
Woodson said she has known about RAM and The Roanoke Times’ Good Neighbors Fund — which supports the Emergency Financial Assistance Program — since she came to live in Roanoke. The grants provided by the program often keep recipients from becoming homeless.
“So many people are so close to homelessness,” Woodson said. “So much of that can be fixed. It’s important to solve these problems before they get out of hand.”
The best thing about the Good Neighbors Fund, she said, is that 100% of the donations go directly to the poor. “You know where you’re helping.”
Although Woodson said she has many new ideas for the 48-year-old charity, her first objective is to sit down with each board member and staff member and learn from them. She was especially impressed by the camaraderie of the kitchen volunteers, she said.
“When you find out what people’s passions are, you find communities.”
Woodson said she also plans to expand the charity’s marketing and find ways for it to appeal to millennials as a path to new sources of funding.
“They are very social-media driven,” she said about the millennial generation. “They don’t have a lot of money, but they have good hearts. They want to give.”