Pandemic Leads to Serendipitous Opportunity

Melissa Finds a New Path Forward

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Video Credit: United Way Suncoast. Melissa Carr discusses her experience at Campbell Park Resource Center with Ernest Hooper.

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The serendipitous story of Melissa Carr begins with a series of unrelated coincidences, but they all led to the former hospitality employee rising above the turbulent waters of 2020.

If Carr had never walked into the United Way Suncoast’s Campbell Park Resource Center, if Dr. Jeffery Johnson and his staff had never directed her, where would she be today?

If Carr had never been invited to a celebration of MacKenzie Scott’s donation to the United Way Suncoast last December, if she had never taken the podium to share her testimony, where would she be today?

If Pinellas County Urban League workforce development specialist Calvin Brown didn’t invite Urban League president Watson Haynes to that event, if he had never heard Carr’s stirring story on that fateful day or introduced Carr to Haynes, where would she be today?

Carr’s 2020 story, like so many others, begins with COVID-19. The pandemic led a St. Pete Beach hotel to furlough Carr, twice -- once in March and again in November. The second loss proved exceptionally challenging, given that the hotel said it would be closed until March.

The first step in her resilient journey began with United Way Suncoast. Through a reference, she found her way to UWS’ Campbell Park Resource Center. There, she received direction from Johnson and his staff on getting help with her utility and rental payments. Bay Area Legal Services, a United Way Suncoast strategic community partner, helped her get needed improvements on her rental home.

“They also helped me with my resume,” said Carr, a mother of three teenagers. “The youth department helped me with my kids.”

Carr’s successful rebound prompted UWS to invite her to the celebration of MacKenzie Scott’s $20 million gift at Campbell Park. Her story represents one of this agency’s core mission goals: providing financial stability. Carr came to offer a comment or two to media members, if asked. But as she began to share her story, Carr didn’t shy away.

“Once the press started with the questions, they asked that I step up to the podium so they could see and hear me a little better,” Carr said. “From there, the questions went on and on until it turned into … a testimony.”

By chance, Haynes, the Pinellas Urban League head, heard Carr’s testimony. He didn’t even plan to attend the event that morning until Brown invited him. After her comments, Carr shook hands with many well-wishers, but she never expected to hear life-changing words from Brown. He said Haynes needed an assistant and he thought she could fill the role.

Haynes was amused at Brown’s boldness, but he saw potential in Carr’s perseverance. So, he arranged for her to have a 15-minute interview between him, Carr, and Urban League vice president of operations Charlotte Anderson. After the interview extended to 90 minutes, he knew he had someone who could serve as his assistant.

“We were sold that this was a person we not only wanted to reach out to and help, but who was motivated,” Haynes said. “At the Urban League, we like to use motivated people. She said, ‘I’ll do whatever I can to keep my family together, take care of my bills and struggle with it until I find a way out.’ We decided we were going to help her find a way out. We were impressed.”

All the coincidences have landed Carr in a great position. Haynes says she’s working out well and Carr notes that the Urban League staff has proved welcoming. She counts her blessings and remains grateful to United Way Suncoast and its partner agencies.

“It means a great deal to me to come through 2020 and still be above the water,” Carr said. “To have not been consumed by the current is a blessing. My goal was to come out of the 2020 pandemic into 2021, whether there was a pandemic or not, better than I was in 2020.

“I just kept praying every day: Lord just show me and help me overcome this battle. It didn’t even feel like much of a battle, and if it is that, I feel like I’ve won.”

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