Meet May’s CityMaker, Melissa Sanchez.

By Adrianna Cole

When it comes to CityMakers, we’ve quickly learned that so many recipients aren’t quite ready to look their many (many, many…) accomplishments and community initiatives in the face. They shy away from the spotlight, grimace when listening to lists of efforts they’re involved in, and do anything and everything to downplay the ways they’ve lifted Lakeland up.

This month’s CityMaker, Melissa Sanchez, is no different. Convinced this award is reserved for those less “boring” than her, she was nervous to be featured. But anyone who knows her (the LoveLakeland team included) knows she’s deserving, thoughtful, and anything but boring.

Melissa Sanchez moved to Lakeland in 1994 from Ohio and graduated from Lake Gibson High School in 2000. After moving away for a few years, she came back, started a family, and has been a volunteering, community-minded force in our city ever since.

One look at Melissa’s schedule, and you’ll wonder how she finds the time for it all. She is the communications and community outreach coordinator for Lakeland Realtor, works in catering, is an account executive for a mobile marketing platform, is a national ambassador for a rum company, and on top of it all, is mom to her 14 year-old son Logan, 6 year-old daughter Isabella, and “bonus mom” to 11 year-old Mason.

Did we mention she finds volunteers during the free time she has?

I’m kind of one of those people who are all over the place,” Melissa said. “If I’m not doing 10 things, I feel like I’m forgetting something or missing something. I’m a great multitasker.”

Six years ago, Melissa, who–at the time–was married to a US Army veteran, met a couple families who had family members killed an action. Shortly thereafter, Warrior Walk–one of Lakeland’s most well-attended charity events supporting local veterans–was born.

Warrior Walk

Since 2000, Melissa was drawn to supporting veterans and US troops. Having wanted to join the military herself and being married to a member of the military at the time, Melissa felt it had always been one of her callings to give back to them. Her volunteer work began with collecting and organizing care packages for troops returning from Iraq. This turned into decorating barracks and filling the refrigerators of troops who didn’t necessarily have a family to come home to, giving them the warm welcome and thank you they deserved.

I feel like maybe the beginning of my adult life I was supposed to meet these vets and let them change my life,” Melissa said. “When you start talking to these guys who are missing limbs and parts of their head, it’s life changing.

Melissa met a few families who had a loved one killed in action. At the time, Melissa was a military wife and could only imagine what they were going through. She did not want those who made the ultimate sacrifice to be forgotten. Thus, the vision for the Warrior Walk was born.

From that point, she called business after business finding donations to organize an memorial walk for fallen heroes in Lakeland and around Florida. Melissa raised enough money to make about three hundred custom shirts, each with a fallen hero’s name on the back. She also brought Ellis Majetich, a Purple Heart veteran who served in Iraq and suffered 100 percent facial and scalp burns after his vehicle was struck with an IED, as a guest speaker for the event.

The goal was for people to come to the walk, walk in honor of the person on the back of their shirts, go home, research what that person did before their life was taken, and really learn the sacrifices these people made. Since 2010, the walk has grown from 300 to 900 shirts, meaning 900 fallen warriors from around Florida being honored. Participants come from across the country to walk in honor of their loved ones. Some participants even ask for the same soldier they had in previous years because they feel connected to them. For Melissa, the true purpose of the walk is about supporting our troops.

“We have a lot of veterans in Polk County, and they need us. They need our help and services,” Melissa said. “PTSD is very real. It’s one of those things that if you’ve never been through it, you don’t know much about it, but when you’re going through it, it can be scary. It can be sad. It can be overwhelming.”

Melissa said she would love for Lakeland to bring more awareness regarding PTSD and veteran issues. She says since these selfless humans put their lives on the line for us, the least we could do is support them and let them know we’re there for them.

Next Chapter

After six years of heading the Warrior Walk, Melissa said it was time to pass on the torch and handed it to the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Marvin Shields SeaBee Battalion, a federally chartered non-profit civilian training organization, sponsored by the Navy League of the United States and supported by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. However, her generosity to the community did not end there.

Melissa was looking for a new calling and something else to invest her time. As a mom, she felt her new purpose was to help children in some way. That’s when she found an ad for Guardian ad Litem, an organization which advocates for and provides mentors to abused, abandoned, and neglected children.

As a volunteer, Melissa meets with her kids once a month and checks up on them, making sure they’re alright and serving as their constant reminder they can overcome what they’re facing.

“I helped one of my other kids in my case move along the process of getting an IEP, which he’s needed for years now,” she said. “I always can tell he’s excited I’m there because I’m very encouraging to him for his school work, and I know he did not receive that as a younger child. That’s rewarding to me. I hope one day, I stick out in his mind that I was there to encourage him.”

Melissa said she feels a connection with these kids because she didn’t have the best childhood growing up and was almost removed from home. Although she didn’t have a guardian or mentor when she was younger, she said she wished she did.

“I was that kid back in the day. I really think Guardian ad Litem makes a difference.” she said. “I make sure these kids know even if you have some rough patches in your life, you can move on from those and do great things. It’s a very hard volunteer job, but it’s very rewarding.”

Professional Volunteer

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller.

This quote is the one Melissa tries to live by, and she definitely follows it to a T. The self-proclaimed “professional volunteer” finds any way to bless another, even if it’s donating leftovers to a the Ronald McDonald House or helping the police station with anything they need. Melissa will make sure others feel loved.

“I feel they’ve all enriched my life in some way shape or form,” Melissa said. “I don’t regret any of them or wish I was less busy because I feel like they are always blessing me.”

Melissa believes everyone should give back at some point in their life and always teaches her kids that. So, when her son came home asking to do a service project for class, she was more than willing to help! They built two Little Free Libraries, one on Edgewood Drive and one near Hollis Garden, and are constantly stocking books into it.

“I really like to encourage my kids to do something for others, and I’m glad at 14 he realizes the importance of that,” she said.

We are so blessed to have such a selfless individual in our midst, who chooses to love others despite the little free time she has. It’s people like Melissa who make us want to do more for our community and show others we care.

Melissa says her desire to help others can be traced back to when she was 8-years-old. She was at an event during Christmas time, and at the time, her family didn’t have much. At the event, someone gave her a teddy bear. Melissa said the feeling that washed over her was something she could not forget…the feeling of knowing that someone that didn’t even know her cared enough to give her a gift that would brighten her day. That stranger and that small gift made the impact of a lifetime.

I guess I told myself ever since then that I’m going to try to do what I can for other people to make them feel special like I did,” she said. “ Somebody cared enough to love me, so I try to love everyone else.”

This month’s CityMaker is brought to you by:

Lakeland’s greatest resource is the citizens who champion community initiatives and who ultimately inspire others to Love Lakeland. They are passionate about Lakeland, they seek to improve the quality of life for all of our residents, and their daily actions and attitudes reflect their love for the community. Their focus is often outward, toward the world, rather than inward, and, as a result, every rock is hidden, every tree is planted, and every kindness is extended, inspiring others to be a little better and to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.