Sara Melnicoff’s mission of helping those in need originated as simple earth stewardship in 1994 in Durango, Colorado, when her partner, the late David Morgan, introduced her to the idea of picking up trash along the Animas River, recycling whatever they could.
“We were zero waste advocates; recycling advocates,” Melnicoff said. “I got reconnected to the natural world,” during those walks along the river.
Ten years later, the couple, who had moved to Moab, began cleaning up the Mill Creek Parkway, an area Melnicoff said was littered with garbage – again, recycling whatever they could.
While cleaning up the parkway, Melnicoff and another volunteer would fill up 40-gallon trash bags with mostly empty alcohol containers. She stumbled upon a homeless camp, and approached a group of men and enlisted their help in cleaning up the parkway. She found funding to pay the homeless a stipend for picking up trash. They began a weekly meet-up.
“I was trying to get them to help the environment with their own two hands – transforming it from a beer-stinky place to a beautiful site – at the same time changing themselves,” she said.
“Before, the homeless were invisible,” she said. “We made them visible. We started taking the homeless to council meetings; we got one guy into rehab and he got to see his kids again.”
Melnicoff founded Moab Solutions in 2004, combining homeless advocacy with environmental stewardship. She created an emergency needs fund that provided emergency shelter, food assistance, gas vouchers, bus tickets, rent or utilities assistance for people in need.
Melnicoff struggled after the 2013 death of her longtime partner, but continued on with her work – “everything dedicated to his memory,” she said.
“We didn’t want to see people die,” Melnicoff said. “We were able to get people off the parkway, and reunited with families, or into rehab – it’s street-level case management.”
After Melnicoff learned in 2012 that The Salvation Army had a service extension unit in Moab she began volunteering full-time for the organization, believing she could raise more funds through an established, national organization, thereby helping more people.
“I wanted to make it be all it could be,” she said. “The floodgates opened. I ended up being on call 24-7 all those years.”
She’s taken 1,040 calls for The Salvation Army since 2012 – 900 of which turned out to be people needing assistance. To raise money, Melnicoff enlisted 90 volunteers to ring bells for the organization’s Red Kettle fundraising campaign, held the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. She rallied schoolteachers, Rotary Club members, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, employees of an accounting firm, and others to stand outside City Market, volunteering to ring the bell for donations.
Working in that capacity for a national organization has meant hours of paperwork for Melnicoff, diverting time away from what she enjoys most – “street-level outreach,” she said.
“I need more free time to be out on the street,” responding to the needs of the poor, stranded, homeless, or mentally ill.
For that reason, Melnicoff is stepping down from running the Moab service extension unit, although she will continue to volunteer for The Salvation Army – minus the paperwork. She plans to provide similar services via her own nonprofit, Moab Solutions, funded through donations and grants.
Sherri Costanza, who has rung the bell for The Salvation Army for the past couple of years, said the organization has “big shoes to fill” with the departure of Melnicoff.
“Sara has got one of the kindest, purest hearts of anybody I know,” she said. “Moab is really lucky to have somebody like her. She’s a champion for people with basic needs.”
For the five-and-a-half years that Melnicoff volunteered for The Salvation Army, she was always ready accept a call for help. During that time, she developed working relationships with Moab Regional Hospital, the free health clinic, Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center, and the Moab City Police – all of whom at times serve the same clientele.
Moab City Police Sgt. Tom Nixon has called Melnicoff on numerous occasions to help with what he referred to as the “homeless situation.”
During the winter months, Nixon said, he turns to Melnicoff to help find temporary lodging for homeless individuals.
“People get in jams for various reasons – there are car break-downs, or there’s a family fight and they get left here,” said Nixon, who speculates there are 40 to 50 homeless individuals in Moab at any given time.
“We (the police) know personally the majority of our homeless; we know their needs,” Nixon said.
In the summertime, he said, he might buy lunch for someone living on the street. During the winter, however, when weather conditions are harsh, “that’s when we get ahold of Sara,” he said. “She’s been really good for us. She’s just a good person.”
Andrea Lombardo said she volunteers one day a week answering the phone to help Melnicoff, who is typically glued to her phone, promptly taking calls so she can immediately attend to people who need assistance. (There is no Salvation Army office – volunteers work out of their homes.)
Last Thanksgiving, Lombardo received a call from a local hotel, which was allowing a shoeless and disoriented young man to sit in its lobby until help could come. It turned out he had brain damage, Lombardo said.
“I picked him up,” she said.
Melnicoff provided vouchers for the WabiSabi thrift store, where the man found shoes and warm clothes. She was able to locate and call his mother, who was living in Houston, Texas.
It was Thanksgiving and all the hotel rooms in Moab were booked that night. Not knowing where to take the man, Lombardo called on Melnicoff, who told her take him to the emergency room at Moab Regional Hospital where he was allowed to stay inside where it was warm and dry.
Meanwhile, Melnicoff was able to buy the man a plane ticket home to Houston using Salvation Army funds. She enlisted the help of a volunteer to drive the young man to the airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, the following day.
“Sara put it all together,” Lombardo said. Plus, “the hospital came through. It was a community effort to get this young man to Grand Junction and back to Houston.”
Dani Maldonado, the service extension director for the intermountain division of The Salvation Army, said the organization will try to recruit a committee to continue to deliver services in Moab.
“Sara’s been amazing,” Maldonado said. “It’s great to have people who want to serve their community and help others.”
Lombardo emphasized that Moab Solutions will need to raise funds so Melnicoff can continue her “street-level case management” ministering to those in need.
“She is the salvation here in Moab,” Lombardo said.