With every great team comes a great leader. That’s why all of us at The Transition House are grateful we have Melissa Lucas. Melissa has been with the company since 2015. Starting her career as an executive assistant, she moved to HR Director and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer.
We had the opportunity to sit down and pick her brain on what it means to be the CEO of a nonprofit seeking to inspire brighter and healthier lives. Check out what makes Melissa Lucas such a stellar CEO and human!
Q: What inspired you to work in this field? Was this something you always wanted to do?
A: I actually started my career off in nursing, and I realized the system was really broken. So, I went back to school for health care administration thinking that I could maybe fix some of the issues from the top, having worked in the field as a nurse for a couple of years.
During that process, I was working in retail. I didn’t want anything to do with management, but I had some really awesome leaders that kind of begged me to try it. To be totally honest, coming from nursing and retail, the schedule is all over the place. You never see your kids, there are no holidays, and there’s no regular time off. It was a miserable existence.
I left my job with absolutely no plan in June of 2015. I saved enough money to have eight months off. I just kept thinking that this was just not it and something better just had to be out there. I had the intention of getting into something with HR: something office, something administrative, a Monday through Friday type of position that was honestly imaginary to me.
I took the summer off with my kids. When they went back to school in August, I started looking for a job, and then I landed here in October. It was totally by chance, but everything happens for a reason.
I am one of those people that, for me, you could make 45x the money in a for-profit organization, but you work a lot, and you’re stressed. Here you work a lot and you’re fulfilled. There’s a purpose behind what we do.
I know you’re not supposed to say you “got lucky” because you work to get where you are, but I feel like I got really, really lucky landing where I did because I fully believe in what we do. For me, it was just kind of sheer luck. I’m never leaving. They’re stuck with me now.
Q: How has your role evolved at The Transition House?
A: When I first started, we were only in Florida. Our founder and former CEO, Tom, had his sights set on out-of-state programs. Shortly after that, we opened up in Tennessee, and then quickly after that, we expanded to what we are now, which is six states. We’re getting ready to open our seventh in the next couple of months. That is huge growth!
The part I love about my job, ever since the beginning, is that in nonprofit you wear so many different hats. There’s never a dull moment. It’s a challenge. I learn something new every day, and that is still true to this day.
In every role that I have had in the company, I’ve very much been supporting those that do the work: what I call “boots on the ground.” We just run around in circles in the back to make sure that everything is smooth so that our services can be provided. Initially, it was a lot of administrative support, whereas, in human resources, it was more personnel and a little bit more specialized. Now, it’s more of steering the ship as opposed to rowing like a madman in the back to make it go.
Q: Tell us a little about your family.
A: I have two kids.
It’s so crazy how fast time goes by. Their whole life, I would leave the house on a Tuesday and wouldn’t see them until Friday for an hour before they went to bed. That’s all I would have because my schedule was so crazy.
It’s amazing just to be able to be there in the morning before they go to school. We all have dinner at night and have weekends off to do things together. The quality of life is just out of this world better. You could pay me $50 million a year and I would not go back to retail.
I am also married to my wife. She is the Director of Animal Care at Gatorland. We have dogs, cats, prairie dogs, and tons of reptiles. We are straight-up animal people. There’s really never a dull moment.
Q: What is your average day at TTH?
A: A whole lot of email, that’s for sure. Everything moves at what feels like a thousand miles an hour. Nowadays, it’s a lot of Zoom meetings, of course. But, my focus right now is the big picture stuff. My comfort zone is my email because that’s what I’ve known and what I can control and fix and solve in there.
I’m trying to fix my focus to be a little bit more heads up and in the community. I’m really trying to get out and get our name out there. I meet with community partners and other providers, introduce myself, reintroduce The Transition House and what we are now.
My focus is on how we can help. What can we do to better support the community? I don’t see other providers as competition. Until there’s a day when we run out of clients to help, then we’ll worry about that. But for right now, we’re all partners trying to do the same thing: trying to solve homelessness and work with the county and the city to put those safeguards in place.
We’ve had guys come in with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and they leave us with a $25 an hour job, a career that they can support themselves with, a professional certification, a car. We can’t do that by ourselves. It takes community partners. It takes a village.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: The most rewarding part for me, for sure, is seeing our success stories. It’s the one out of one hundred that we are able to really impact. Those are the ones that inspire us to keep going and get out of bed in the morning.
There have been times where it’s so much and you’re tired and mentally exhausted from solving problems. Then I’ll get an email celebrating a veteran who one of our case managers reconnected with their family after fifty years estranged. He sent this amazing thank you for giving him that opportunity and finding him a place to stay. It’s those moments for me that you’ve got to be reminded every once in a while why we do this.
It’s very easy at this level to get stuck in the administrative piece, but it’s the people that make it worthwhile. It’s my amazing employees that do incredible things every day. It’s the clients who inspire us to keep doing it that help us put in the hard work.
Q: What is your word of advice for anyone going through a rough time with their mental health during this pandemic?
A: Talk to somebody. The most important thing is to reach out and let somebody know how you’re feeling. Too many people keep it inside. You really just have to find the person that you trust to do that. If you don’t have that within your circle, there are plenty of outlets.
That’s why we’re here. Telehealth makes it so easy to reach our services. The most important thing in any sort of mental health or even substance abuse crisis is to just ask for help. Even if it’s just a conversation to talk through, it’s amazing just to have somebody that sits there and listens to you. It takes a lot of courage, but vulnerability is a strength in my book.
Q: What are some coping mechanisms you partake in on a regular basis for your own mental health?
A: For me, it has to be anytime I can get out into nature.
If I can’t do that, definitely meditation. Meditation is absolutely key for mental health for me to check in and be at peace just in my own head. I also love to read. Now that I’m out of school, I can actually read things that I want to read now. Just quiet, reflective time.
Q: What has been your most rewarding success story since your time working at TTH?
A: I don’t mean to minimize the actual people's success stories because that’s really what gets us up in the morning and inspires us to keep doing what we are doing.
Honestly, the thing that I’m most proud of since I’ve taken over as CEO is our leadership team. I know this sounds really basic, but when you don’t have it in a company, it’s tough to function. I’m most proud of building our leadership team and watching them grow. We really developed our mission statement and I feel it encompasses everything we do as a nonprofit. We need that as our guiding beacon of light.
We’ve done so much in 11 months and amidst a pandemic in the middle of uncharted waters. I’ve seen my leadership team grow and lean on each other in difficult times where I’m able to sit back and be like, “This is working.” We’re just getting started. We have a ways to go, but I see it working. It’s taking hold so that, to me, is the most exciting.
My vision for the company is to be a place where everyone feels part of one team. Everybody feels appreciated. We may not pay the most, but I want you to know that what you do every day is appreciated and that you’re part of something that’s much bigger than just yourself and your one little program. It just makes me feel really good about the future and it makes me feel good about how the employees are treated, and therefore how they treat our clients, as we move forward.
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