Mishaliz Melo was about to take the stage at the 2015 New England Women’s Leadership Awards event, and, as usual with large-audience performances, she was dreading it.
At times like this, when she is stricken with the fear of freezing up, a tidal wave of heat engulfs Melo’s body and her skin turns wine-red.
But when she reached the microphone to begin her song, the crowd of more than 200, which included Mayor Marty Walsh and scores of vital donors to the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, was rendered invisible to her by the blinding rays of the stage lighting.
As the music started, she caught the rhythm, and calm settled in. “With the lights shining on the stage it was hard to see the crowd, so it became a lot easier,” she said. “I started to hear the song flowing more. That helped me.”
Melo, a Roslindale resident who graduated from Matignon High School in May, is a fixture at the Dorchester Boys and Girls Club, where she has spent the afternoon nearly every weekday since she was six.
Her commitment to the organization – first as a student participant, and later as a leading volunteer – and resounding success in the classroom have earned her two scholarships, each worth $10,000 to support her four years at Franklin Pierce College, where she plans to study criminal justice.
When she was five, Melo’s mother, Naila Zayas, died suddenly at the age of 24. In the wake of that terrible loss, her aunts and grandmother wanted to surround her with a nurturing support system outside the home. They turned to Dorchester’s Boys and Girls Club.
At first, Melo was exceedingly shy, a trait that has ebbed over time but never quite disappeared. She recalls watching the other children her age interacting in the club’s game room on her first day, wondering how she’d weave herself into that fabric.
“There were lots of kids, and all of them knew each other,” she remembered. “I didn’t know anyone except my aunt, who was on the swim team. It was kind of scary at the time.”
Shortly after that, Melo caught the attention of athletics coordinator Bruce Seals, who’d known her mother, a volleyball player at the club in the early 1990s. Understanding the vulnerability that accompanies the loss of a parent, Seals took it upon himself to keep Zayas’s memory alive for Melo.
“When she was younger and needed to know her identity – Who am I? How did I get here? – I would talk about Naila, tell stories about her, say how similar they were,” Seals said. “But later on, when she started to blossom, Mishaliz didn’t need it as much anymore.”
What Melo lacked in ease around strangers she more than made up for with a willingness to step outside her comfort zone and seize every opportunity the club offered. She began playing floor hockey, albeit after some hard pushing by Seals, and excelled. A noticeably bright student with an early affinity for learning, she glommed onto the education programs.
“She was a brainiac,” said Seals, who has been working at the club on Deer Street since 1990. “She was someone that was real into her books, and I could see the confidence thing had grown in her. She became more talkative, but it was really that she would try things. She would try things for the first time not knowing she was going to be good at it or bad at it.”
When the club hired Ayeisha Mathis in June of 2010 to direct a new music program, a seventh-grade Melo jumped at the chance to take on a leadership role. “She’s what I consider one of my core kids,” said Mathis, whom Melo considers her mentor. “The group of kids really were dedicated to the program when I began and helped get it off the ground.”
With that, Melo made her pivot away from sports and dived headfirst into music, and, slowly but surely, the turtle started to poke its head out from under its shell. In the summer between middle school and high school, Melo floored Mathis when she expressed interest in performing The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” at an upcoming open-mic night.
“The lyrics spoke to me,” she said, “because of how young my mom was when she passed.” With a laugh, she added, “When I told Ayeisha I wanted to sing in front of people, she was very surprised.”
Still, shyness always puts up a fight. After hours and days of practice for the Women’s Leadership Awards night, Melo didn’t have time to wrap her head around the audacity of her decision; she was too focused on why she was there. Then, the moment she took the stage, her nerves pricked up and that heat settled in. “I got up there in front of the crowd – about 200 people,” she said, “and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I doing? I’m going to freeze.’”
But she made it through and was greeted off-stage with a hug from a beaming Mathis. “It’s amazing how far she’s come with speaking and performing in front of people, and I see that as the turning point,” she said. “Now she hosts events and is the emcee: open-mic nights and activity nights twice a week during the school-year, Karaoke night, lip sync battle night. All of it.”
In May, Melo returned to the stage at the NEWLA ceremony, this time to give a speech. She was anxious, of course, but the shakes were far from crippling. She spoke of her second family at the Boys and Girls Club. She emphasized the relationships she’d forged over nearly 13 years. And, reflecting on her unique journey, she expressed gratitude for the opportunities the club provided.
“That’s our goal,” said Mary Kinsella, the club’s vice president of education. “We want every child to be able to take advantage of every opportunity we present to them. Not every child does that, but when they do, we see the great things that can happen.”
“Mishaliz,” she added, “is the perfect example of what happens when you do that.”