If you’ve known Tomi Melson a long time, you may know she moved to North Carolina from California to study dance at the N.C. School of the Arts. However she became interested in fine craft and studied hand weaving at the Arts & Crafts Association. You may know her as a professional weaver and teacher.
You may know her as the former Assistant Director of the Sawtooth School for Visual Art or Executive Director of Piedmont Craftsmen.
If you worked with the Department of Social Services a few years ago, you may know her as the unemployed, middle-aged white woman applying for food stamps and/or someone who got food assistance from local food pantries.
Tomi Melson has lived on both sides of the divide. She still does, but today it’s by choice. =
As Director of Development and Community Relations for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, Tomi is gainfully employed. Yet she shares a deep understanding with those across an 18-county area who struggle each day to find food for their tables.
She found herself in a difficult position just a few years ago. Her headaches would not go away, and she started passing out frequently. She couldn’t get the medical attention to diagnose the source. “I knew something was wrong,” she said.
“A friend insisted that I ask a mutual friend, Dr. Jim McCool, for help. So I called him on a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. He arranged for me to go straight to have an MRI done.
“As soon as I got home I started to pick up the phone to thank him. The phone rang in my hand and it was Jim. He had already received the MRI results via email. He told me that I had a large brain tumor. The good news was that it wasn’t cancer but the bad news was that my brain was so swollen that I was in grave danger. While Dr. McCool was finding a brain surgeon for me, another friend, neurologist Dr. Stephan Ford called to talk about the tumor, risks, possible consequences, to answer my questions and offer enormous reassurance and support. Four days later I was in surgery having the tumor removed. In addition to receiving great medical attention, the number of friends who helped my family and me, who prayed and meditated for me had a tremendous impact on my full recovery.”
While Tomi was in recovery the economy tanked, and she had a hard time getting a job. Because of her contacts she picked up a few projects, but they didn’t produce enough income.
“I was in my 50s asking to borrow money from my mother. And, I can still remember applying for food stamps . The stamps wouldn’t come through immediately so the people at Social Services helped me get through till the end of the month. They were very respectful of my situation. People who don’t understand can really be judgmental towards people receiving help.”
Tomi said a growing number of people today who need food aren’t the traditional poor. “The Food Bank helps many middle class people overcome their pride to receive the help they need.” In North Carolina, one in four children is food insecure, and one in six individuals is food insecure.
“The irony of being on the other end is with me all the time. My gratitude list wraps around the globe, and I work on it every day,” she said. The compassion she received is now returned manifold.
Justice is compassion raised to an institutional level.