Authenticity and contagious enthusiasm are just two of the many reasons it’s an absolute pleasure to be in the company of Melissa Mackey. Pay her a compliment, and she’ll reciprocate tenfold. Invite her out for coffee, and she’ll try to pick up the tab. Simply put: To meet Melissa is to find good fortune.
Affectionately known as Ms. Melissa (pictured on right in lead photo) to staff and residents at UMFS Leland House in Centreville — a short-term crisis intervention and stabilization facility in partnership with Fairfax County — this kind-hearted Northern Virginia volunteer is a ray of light to young people enduring cloudy days. Everything Ms. Melissa does, she does with a smile, whether it’s bringing her certified therapy dog, Lieuy, by for a visit with the residents (whose ages range from 12-17) or cooking one of her signature dishes.
“Oh, the mac and cheese!” a Leland House resident exclaimed when asked about the once-monthly home-cooked Sunday dinners that Ms. Melissa helps prepare. The resident then incited hunger pangs from everyone within earshot by illustrating in dreamy detail Ms. Melissa’s legendary mac and cheese.
It’s not just Ms. Melissa’s culinary skills that resonate, said Leland House Program Director Marie Thomas (pictured on left in lead photo), it’s also her generosity. “She is genuinely supportive and caring,” Marie said. “The kids just love her. They always ask, ‘Ms. Melissa, why don’t you come work here? You’re so great!’ ” A sentiment to which Ms. Melissa responded with a smile: “Are you kidding me? I feel like I should be paying them just to volunteer!”
And if Ms. Melissa’s selflessness isn’t already abundantly evident, consider this: When approached to be featured in this story, she quickly turned the spotlight to Brian Woodworth, a young and well-liked Leland House Youth Counselor who passed away in 2013. “We had so much grief when Brian passed,” Ms. Melissa said. “We wanted to do something. We asked Leland House if we could bring dinner. That’s how I got started.”
“Brian’s Brigade, that’s who we are,” Melissa continued as she gleefully listed the names of fellow volunteers Elaine Tomaseski, Jill Lee, and Patty DelRiego, all of whom have contributed to the success of Sunday dinners at Leland House.
“Melissa has a heart of gold,” said Jean Marshall, Brian’s mother. Jean, her husband Mike Woodworth, and Brian’s brother, Matthew Woodworth, say it means the world to know that Brian inspired someone to help others. “She’s my family’s angel in that she celebrates Brian’s spirit of giving and caring for others.” And it’s exactly that spirit that Ms. Melissa said she wants to keep illuminated. “Brian just had such a light about him,” Ms. Melissa said.
But it’s certainly not just Brian’s spirit that Ms. Melissa is lifting up. Her relationship with Leland House staff and its eight residents is dynamic, and she has an instinctive way about her that makes it hard to believe she doesn’t have children of her own. “Ms. Melissa is ensuring youth and staff have a home atmosphere,” Marie said. “That sort of normalcy is crucial and can save the healing process.”
Fighting back tears of joy, Ms. Melissa said if she can make a difference in just one child’s life, then she’s done her job. Rest easy, Ms. Melissa. You’ve achieved your goal at least 100 times over and have helped make a house a home.
You can join Ms. Melissa in her quest to brighten the lives of young people. Click here to learn more about volunteering.