Melissa Phillips – a philanthropic powerhouse whose DNA is built on giving back – devotes her life to bettering humanity in her most unapologetic way.
Directed & Edited By: Tamara Boxx for LUXYMOM® | Photographer: Tim Gibbons | Stylist: Ruthia Fuller | Videographer and 1st Camera Assistant: Ursula Gibbons | Model & Featurette: Melissa Phillips | Model: Vizcaya Phillips
We’ve all heard the saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” But what if you met someone who is the actual embodiment of the saying? Tall, elegant, and sharp as a tack; she commands attention when she walks into a room. I am talking about the incomparable Melissa Phillips – a mentor, community advocate, and devoted warrior to the betterment of humanity.
She floats into a room with all the grace of a Duchess, yet there is a powerhouse under all that lace. Long-time friend and podcast host, Randall Kenneth Jones, remarked that “Melissa is equal parts mother, spouse, friend, and advocate. The ultimate strategic thinker, she is also the most creative person I have ever met. Melissa doesn’t have time to run around claiming that she ‘does it all,’ because she’s too busy DOING it all.”
An irrefutable statement indeed.
This incredible woman has built herself a platform on hard work and perseverance, where she has used her philanthropic brilliance to raise an estimated $150 million in secured donations. She is the ultimate mentor and businesswoman whose philanthropic fundraising has become legendary, and her style even more so.
Fun fact: Melissa is a true blue native to the Sunshine State. She was born in Tampa where early memories are her 1970’s banana bike and visiting Busch Gardens with her father.
It was a short-lived endless summer, as she and her father moved to West Virginia when she was four to be closer to family. Upon moving to West Virginia, Melissa found herself inheriting ten new mothers, as her Aunts quickly took charge and kept her under their watchful gaze.
“They were strict, and very conservative – always in my business. They are still in my business to this day,” she laughed.
Tucked away in the country, Melissa was raised in a town where country roads were explored, weekend bonfires ruled, moonshine was the fine wine of the town, and sewing your clothes was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Looking back on it, it was very relaxed. Everybody knew everybody, and I went to the same school with the same kids from Kindergarten to graduation. It was a little Mayberry with a Dukes of Hazard twist.”
Melissa and her father lived a very simple life, where being frugal was an absolute necessity. Most of the families, including her own, lived below the poverty level, and walking miles at a young age to get basic needs from the church was normal; yet she didn’t complain, she just knew it was what needed to be done.
“I think one of the takeaways is that we didn’t know we were poor. When everyone around you lives under the poverty mark, for the most part, you don’t think about it as out of place. There’s just differing degrees of poverty.”
“I knew from about sixth grade I wanted to leave. I was always thinking about what am I going to do, what is my next step? Because of this, I read ferociously and about travel, fashion, etiquette, and even dictionaries, so when it was time to leave, I would be ready.”
She took a long sip of her favorite beverage, Dr. Pepper, and smiled, “I had this dictionary in my home, and every time I looked up a new word, I would highlight it. It is pretty much full.”
This focus would guide Melissa in a direction that led her out of the country and into the sky, literally.
When Melissa was about to step out of her high school years, fate would step in. A flyer arrived in the mail advertising enrollment for the Wilma Boyd Career School for young women in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This institution was a travel and industry school, where you learned how to be a flight attendant and gate agent.
It was fate that this particular occupation would find its way to her home. A gentleman from the golden age of air travel, where flying was an occasion and flight attendants were essentially the movie stars of the sky, Melissa’s father thought they were the epitome of womanly elegance. She and her father saved and saved so she could attend.
The same weekend she graduated high school, she packed up and headed to Pennsylvania to begin her life. The culture shock was welcomed, but the same need for frugality was present.
“I left West Virginia and the next thing I knew I was in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Pittsburgh. I had never even seen a high-rise at that time in my life, let alone live in one!” she said excitedly.
She and her father saved for an entire year just so she could afford the bare basics. Money was super tight – almost non-existent – and Melissa became schooled in the ways of extending a buck.
“I would go down to McDonald’s on Mondays and buy the 29-cent hamburgers and cram my refrigerator, so I had food to eat through the week.” It didn’t take very long for her to realize that this was not going to work, so she went and found a job as a bartender and began making her own money while she was in school – a first for her.
“Once you start making your own money and see what hard work will do, there is no going back,” she smiled triumphantly.
The school would prove to be a game-changer in her life and set her up to be a well-read and articulate woman with impeccable style, who could sit at the table with the best.
“Fast forward twenty years and I’m sitting at a black-tie event in Naples and I see this beautiful older woman with bright red hair – just striking. She introduced herself and said, “Hello, I’m Wilma Boyd.” I asked if was the same Wilma Boyd that started the Boyd School. She said yes!” she beamed.
It was fate once again showing up in her life, a seemingly frequent event. Wilma Boyd now lives in Naples and founded a very successful travel agency named Preferred Travel of Naples – right here in our backyard. The universe works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?
From the moment she took command of her situation, Melissa began a fast-track career in the travel industry, starting out loading luggage onto planes, graduating to Gate Agent, Flight Attendant, Lead Flight Attendant, and finally, Union Steward for the Teamsters.
Over the years, she grew mentally, emotionally, and professionally. She became a mother after giving birth to her first child, her beloved son, and decided that it was time to put down roots. As a flight attendant, she never really lived anywhere, so the decision was made to move to Marco Island, Florida.
It was at this time that she began exploring her college career once more. She thought she was going to be a teacher, but as she started her student teaching, she realized that it didn’t fit. It didn’t light the fire within.
When she spoke to her guidance counselor, she suggested she look more into sociology, due to her expressed interests. She began taking more and more classes about different people and cultures, and discovered her absolute love for social work.
Social work: so·cial work (n.): “the practice-based profession that promotes social change, development, cohesion and the empowerment of people and communities” – Webster’s Dictionary.
“I learned about what we call “social work” from my dad when I was young, only – I didn’t know that it had an official name. Growing up, helping people was just a way of being. If we had extra food, my dad or I would take it to older folks in the community. To us, it is just living and being a good neighbor. We all took care of one another. Here, it is an entire industry.”
This realization triggered her inner philanthropic warrior to arise, and she began her charge for community impact and change. She would be the voice for those that were not heard and an ally for those in need.
Melissa began working her way up the corporate philanthropic ladder, and she was building a name for herself. And now she was about to find love in familiar places.
She and her now-husband Jon had moved within the same circles on Marco Island for years, but both parties were in a relationship or it just wasn’t the right time. As it happens, Jon and Melissa became colleagues at the Marco Island Yacht Club, and as he puts it, “I knew I was in trouble when I saw her.” The two look straight out of a movie. Jon, with his British accent and dashing persona. Mel, with her delicate frame and high cheekbones. The two were married and shortly after had a beautiful baby girl together.
Professionally, Melissa began to establish a reputation for high standards and outstanding results – and personally, as the various philanthropic positions she held over the years earned her the attention of one, Sharon MacDonald, the former VP of Oncology Services and Chief Foundation Officer at Lee Memorial Health System.
“She told me she had been given my name by someone and would I like to come and speak with her. I went and it was poetic, really everything just fell into place.” Little did Melissa know that this woman would become her mentor, cheerleader, fearless leader, and a major influence on how she would grow professionally and as a leader herself.
She began working with Sharon as Senior Director of Major Gifts for Lee Health Memorial on a brand new project that would go on to be one of her favorite projects – The Golisano Children’s Hospital. “This is truly one of my favorite projects, raising funds for this hospital with Sharon. To be part of that makes me so proud.”
This amazing period of professional and personal growth had a lot to do with Melissa having Sharon as a mentor. Melissa developed a confidence in her work that earned her positions as Vice President of the Avow Foundation, Executive Fundraiser of the Erin Brockovich Foundation, and her current position as VP of Philanthropy at The Immokalee Foundation.
“To say she is a “Girl Boss,” only hits the surface of what makes Melissa great. She carries herself with high standards of excellence, elegance, and earnestness! As a mentor and community leader, her advice and energy have inspired many to make an impact and stand up for what we believe in, pushing back on “the standard” and exceeding our own expectations! Love her!” said Brittni Brown, Community Resource Director, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast.
Today, Melissa is working with The Immokalee Foundation, whose mission is to build pathways to success for the children of Immokalee, a low-income migrant community overlooked by many. Melissa glows when she is working with these students, and her passion for this foundation is contagious. She is 100% invested in the children of Immokalee’s future. For her, no child is left behind.
“As a society, we have the responsibility to take care of each other’s children. It doesn’t matter their ethnicity, skin color, what country they come from. It is our job.”
Melissa is unapologetically dedicated to her cause, which is to impact lives and make a difference. “I’m not afraid of failure. I don’t like failure, but I’m not afraid of it. If I fail at something I will keep working at it until I surpass it.”
Her fearless attitude and sheer will to succeed will continue to inspire her legacy as Naples’s own poetic disruptor.