By LOIS KINDLE
The Apollo Beach Woman’s Club awarded its 2023 Inspirational Woman’s Award to Melanie Davis, executive director of the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce. She was recognized by the club for her longtime commitment to serving the South Shore area and its people through both her work and charitable endeavors.
Davis has a deep sense of compassion for the impoverished and downtrodden. As a child, she and her sister, Carrie, used to collect cans and redeem them for cash to help support their nanny, Miss Maebell Smith, who lived on the poor side of town and had 11 children of her own.
Always smiling, Miss Maebell was a woman who appreciated even the smallest things in life and was always kind. She was considered a member of the family.
That was perhaps Davis’ first foray into fundraising and supporting the cause of a person in need.
Anyone who knows Davis today is aware of her drive to ease the pain of folks suffering from tragedy, poverty or abuse. Her life is filled with examples of her ability to connect people who have with the needs of those who don’t.
She initiated the formation of the chamber’s Homeless Outreach Committee, Veterans Affairs Committee and Educational Partnership, all of which primarily support larger requests for help from nonprofit groups. In 2015, she founded the Helping Hands in SouthShore Facebook page to address smaller requests for individuals and families in immediate need of assistance. The idea behind it was to cut through red tape, directly appeal to the public and get its members quickly involved in helping their neighbors.
While its impossible to list all the charitable efforts Davis has undertaken, below is just a sampling. She’s quick to point out she couldn’t fulfill any requests without the support of chamber businesses and/or members of the community.
In 2005, after Hurricane Catrina, Davis envisioned and coordinated Calm and Comfort after the storm, collected donations of toys, blankets, diapers, baby food and other items for children and filled a semi-truck, which was sent to Louisiana to aid the recovery.
She helped raise $10,000 for the family of Baby William, a child born with the genetic disorder, Pfeiffer Syndrome, to cover his ongoing medical expenses.
In 2009 she assisted Audrey Mabrey – the Apollo Beach woman whose then-husband struck her four times on the head with a hammer, and then set her on fire. She was in a coma for five months. Davis helped arrange social services for Mabry’s two little boys and collected diapers and baby formula to support them.
In 2010, Davis organized the final Christmas celebration for a migrant farmworker and mother of five school-age kids, who was dying of pancreatic cancer and in hospice. The moving celebration included a Christmas tree, gifts for the family and professional photos taken of them together for the family to cherish.
Since that time, Davis has promoted and helped raise tens of thousands of dollars in support for the family Queena Phu, the Bloomingdale Library attack survivor; the Children’s Home of Tampa Bay; Haitian earthquake victims; and many other causes.
In 2014, she helped coordinate the ABC Fun Run for the Make A Wish Foundation on behalf of Austin Riley Coats, a 4-year-old Apollo Beach resident who died tragically. Her children, his siblings and a few other friends planned and organized two annual runs, raising roughly $15,000.
In 2020, Davis helpedfulfill a dying teenager’s wish to graduate from high school, cutting through much red tape to arrange a graduation ceremony, including cap, gown and diploma, with the Hillsborough County School District. The superintendent, Lennard High School principal, family members and other notables were present, while outside the hospice room window, Davis’ daughters, friends and others held balloons and banners congratulating Richard Canales Calles on his big day. He passed away less than 24 hours later.
The following year, Davis was asked by a distraught family member for help to get Jasmin Cervantes-Garcia out of a Mexican hospital. The Sumner High School student had gone with her parents to visit her grandparents there and, while returning with all of them, was involved in a head-on collision with a tour bus going the wrong way. Everyone died except Jasmin, who was hospitalized in a coma for three weeks. She could not be released to her family in Wimauma until a $42,000 bill was paid.
Davis helped the family start a GoFundMe page on Facebook, alerted the media and publicized the effort, getting others involved in raising nearly $75,000. An aunt and one of her brothers went to Mexico to get Jasmin released and arrangements were made to fly her to Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. She was later sent to a rehab center in Jacksonville. Now home, she continues to recover.
In January, Davis held a celebration of life for a homeless man, Adam Richie, who was struck by a car while walking along 19th Avenue in Ruskin. Known to many in the area as the guy on a bike with his little dog who hung out at the local Circle K, he regularly slept there, did odd jobs and was well-liked.
Determined Adam would not be forgotten, she organized an event to commemorate him and help pay for his cremation costs. Hundreds of community members attended.
Over the years, she’s organized tons of food drives for local pantries, started fundraisers for victims of house fires and domestic abuse, and posted calls on Helping Hands in SouthShore for things like mattresses, laptops, children’s shoes and other items to help people in need. Davis initiated and led the making of numerous care packages for military members serving in war zones, organized an annual banquet for graduating seniors of migrant farmworkers, supported collections for people evacuating Ukraine and going to Poland, and arranged a catered BBQ lunch to support devastated District 4 deputies when their brother, Deputy Chris Former, suddenly died.
During her acceptance speech, Davis thanked the Apollo Beach Woman’s Club for the award and acknowledged her fiancée, Josh Ricard and her daughters, Kate, 20, Roxy, 19 and Ginger, 15, for their involvement and ongoing support and the South Shore community at large for their help in her ongoing efforts.
She paraphrased a Lily Tomlin quote that has always inspired her to get involved: “I often used to say, ‘Somebody should do something about that, but then I realized I was somebody.’
“I tell the story. That’s what reaches people’s hearts,” she said. “I could not do any of this without the community’s support. I’m sure there will be more to tell, so stay tuned.”