Melissa Wolowicz is up with the chickens every morning, working to make Memphis a better place.
The new vice president of development for BRIDGES has been raising chickens in her backyard since she, husband Shawn and son Grayson moved into Midtown and a house shaded by a canopy of trees.
Before the chickens and BRIDGES, however, Wolowicz was vice president of grants and initiatives for The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.
The Frayser native and White Station High School graduate attended the University of Memphis for a bachelor’s degree in social work and the University of Tennessee College of Social Work for her master’s degree. As part of her master’s curriculum, she became an intern for The Community Foundation.
“I knew I wanted to help people,” said Wolowicz, who originally began in the psychology program at the U of M. “I quickly figured out that working one-on-one with people was too heavy for me.”
Jenny Koltnow, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, has worked with Wolowicz over the years and attests to her commitment to the city and the nonprofit community, saying she is “persistent, professional and widely admired.”
Wolowicz’s foray into social work came with an internship for Traveler’s Aid, an organization that assists individuals and families who are in transition, or crisis, and disconnected from their support systems.
“I just wanted to have a bigger impact, and I had a hard time not bringing that home with me,” she said of her work there. “Instead of helping one homeless person at a time, I’d much rather look at policy issues around how to end homelessness.”
This need led her to The Community Foundation where she stayed for 13 years. The Foundation develops and manages charitable funds and endowments, as well as encouraging philanthropy. It has awarded nearly $500 million in grants since its founding in 1969.
“We were first on the scene with a lot of interesting initiatives,” Wolowicz said, pointing to the Earned Benefits Program, an online system that is a resource where people can visit one place to realize what benefits they’re eligible for. It’s the necessary sort of back-office infrastructure that needs to be in place for area philanthropies and foundations to more efficiently do their jobs. “The Foundation was one of the first in Memphis to fund that.”
A project begun by Wolowicz that continues to resonate throughout the community, and one which she will continue to play a role in, is the GiVE 365 campaign, allowing members to donate only a dollar a day and have a say in where that money goes by voting on causes. The low point of entry is meant to spur the next generation of philanthropists.
“I see how important an organization like this is,
especially in Memphis.”
Vice president of development, BRIDGES
“Melissa is an incredibly talented, dedicated philanthropist who sees the big picture while managing the details,” Koltnow said. “She has been critical to the growth of the Memphis Grantmakers Forum and the development of GiVE 365, among many other initiatives, cultivating participation among hundreds of individuals and organizations in the interest of strengthening our community.”
It is the sum of her experiences in the nonprofit world, and her personal passion for helping people, that Wolowicz has brought to her new position at BRIDGES.
The organization brings young people from throughout the city together to mentor and mold them into community leaders. It’s a mission Wolowicz says she has always admired, and one that strikes close to home as the mother of a 15-year-old son.
“I see how important an organization like this is, especially in Memphis,” she said.
Her role with BRIDGES is reversed from what it was at The Community Foundation. Working in development means raising money, whereas her background has been in giving it away. It’s a challenge she relishes, however, and looks eagerly to an expansion within BRIDGES as it moves to serve rising seventh through 12th graders, instead of only 11th and 12th, as has been the case.
“We’re still trying to get the word out that younger students can apply to be part of the program,” Wolowicz said.
The experience with BRIDGES broadens a young person’s outlook and worldview, and connects them with a diversity of people from throughout the community. The workshops and team building instill a confidence Wolowicz said she gained from playing sports such as basketball, volleyball and softball throughout school.
Teamwork has been a large component of her work over the years and, while the notion came with those early extracurricular activities, she says, “I only wish I had known about BRIDGES then because I would have been very interested in it.”