New at the helm

Melara named new executive director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County

by luke eggleston
sun staff writer

   Mike Melara picked an interesting time to seek out the position of executive director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County.

   With Wall Street lurching each morning with the movement of the market, the impact will likely be felt most severely at the street level.

   While many envision the impact of the current economic crisis as something on the horizon, albeit the near horizon, Melara said Catholic Charities is already beginning to feel the tremors.

   “I think we’re already beginning to see the impact of the economy on some of the most vulnerable members of our community,” Melara said. “The request for support out of our emergency service office is increasing. The number of [vulnerable people in need of housing] in this community is increasing. There is no wait and see. It’s already happening for the folks who are struggling the most. Their struggles become that much greater in this particular economy.”

   And yet, Melara feels that Catholic Charities has an obligation to not only continue to serve the community in spite of cuts to funding, but to expand those services.

   “Quite honestly, we have no choice. There are 20,000 people in this community counting on us so we have no choice but to figure this out,” he said.

   Melara believes that the impending challenges can be dealt with if the staffs at Catholic Charities and other social service agencies approach each problem creatively. In the case of Catholic Charities itself, he would like to see a better integrated agency, in which the resources available at the main building on Onondaga Street in Syracuse are at the disposal of the satellite community centers. In addition, Melara believes Catholic Charities may even link with other agencies in an effort to meet demanding need.

   “The challenge for Catholic Charities and for every not-for-profit is how do we respond to an emerging demand for support while at the same time, the resources available, the fund sources, are going to decline,” Melara said. “We’re seeing funding cuts and we’re going to continue to see funding cuts. That challenge is not unique to Catholic Charities. I think for us, it’s going to require us to step back and really analyze our core services that we need to provide. How do we make sure that we’re providing the most efficiently and effectively. Where through integration or perhaps partnerships with other agencies can we continue to provide services at a reduced cost. The business challenges are going to be very real for us and all agencies through the next couple of years.”

   Melara was appointed executive director on Nov. 3, but Catholic Charities represents a kind of homecoming for him. He is replacing Brian Walton, who is retiring in December.

   A Watertown native who grew up attending St. Anthony’s Church, Melara volunteered with the agency’s Vincent House in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His experience was so profound that he decided to alter his career path altogether, switching majors from business administration to psychology.

   “I think my volunteer position at Vincent House was to work with a small group of youth. I think I had seven or eight of them assigned to me, all young boys who were 11 to 12 years old,” he said. “Part of my job was to see them at the center and then on occasion to walk them back to their homes. When you witnessed the incredible and abject poverty that these youngsters were living in and the struggle for their families, I knew right then that I wanted to impact that situation and that this was where I wanted to spend time and figure out how we can make it easier for these youngsters and a little bit easier on these families. It was just a very clear moment for me that I want to dedicate my life to figuring out how to make the situation better for others.”

   After graduation from Le Moyne College, Melara accepted a position at Catholic Charities.

   Before arriving at Catholic Charities, Melara was employed as the Huntington Family Center’s executive director. He holds a master’s degree in human resource management and development from Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He was the Director of Child and Family Services at Liberty Resources prior to his time at Huntington and previously worked at Catholic Charities of Onondaga County upon graduation from college.

   Despite the unusual challenges presented to Catholic Charities, Melara is very confident in the agency’s personnel.

   “The good news though is that we have a very talented work force. They’re devoted to service, they’re devoted to the mission. We have a very talented board of directors. There’s stewardship there that with all us of working together will help navigate the tough waters,” he said.

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