It’s both honorable and greatly appreciated whenever someone volunteers their time to make a positive outcome on their community. However, Melina Markos takes that appreciation to the next level by spending essentially all of her free time as a peer advocate in her community of Broward County, Florida. The mother of six and grandmother of four actively volunteers on ten councils within her school district or local mental health and behavioral health community. She travels to Washington to advocate to Congress on behalf of For the Children, gathers donated items for struggling parents, cooks meals to hand out to the homeless, and offers peer services and advocacy to anyone she meets who is in need.
Markos is inspired to advocate for families in need due to being a survivor of domestic violence and dealing with the court system, which at one point ordered her children into foster care temporarily. When her kids were returned to her, Markos said they dealt with mental health issues, and she herself struggled with overcoming the ordeal. It was these experiences that inspired her to try to make positive improvements to her community. With all of the areas she involves herself in, it’s no wonder Markos describes herself as a worker bee.
“I’m queen bee at home. I have six girls so someone has to be,” Markos said with a laugh. “But out in the world, that’s what I consider myself — just that worker bee trying to help move this life along and leave it better than when I found it.”
For the countless ways she volunteers her time to helping others, Melina is today’s Daily Point of Light Award honoree. Points of Light spoke with her to learn more about her various volunteer roles.
You volunteer in a few different ways — describe some of your volunteer roles.
So I do several levels of volunteering because I am a survivor of domestic violence with my second marriage. I have overcome a lot of personal struggles as well as life struggles. One thing I learned through my steps in recovery as a mom, as a human and as a woman, is that when you give back, you also receive greatly. I took two years to work on my self and rehabilitate my family to the best of my ability, get my girls and I back on track. And then after that, for the last ten years, I’ve been putting efforts back into the community. As a mom who went to through these things, I started noticing once my kids and I were resettling, there’s not a lot of opportunities for families who are in any capacity of recovery, to have the ability to be as involved in the school setting, at least in the county where we live. … So with that said, I approached the superintendent. He was new to our community and I met with him and I said, ‘Hey, I worked to rehabilitate my own life and my children, and you know, we had custody issues, and things like that, but now I am being denied access to my children through volunteering in the school day.’ And he’s like, ‘Over what?’ So I showed him my information and he was like, ‘Really? We have to change this.’ So that’s where my advocacy platform kind of started. My foundation was in the school access for family or parent members who had life upsets, things that have happened in their life, that it should not after a time period affect their ability to be a parent and be involved in the school setting.
I do have a daughter who has some mental health issues. At one point some of my children were separated from me and my husband. When they came home, that particular child had sustained some trauma. So she was getting mental health services that diagnosed her with autism as well as other issues like post traumatic stress, and so I was dealing with that. That put me in another level of wanting to look at mental health, so I started advocating in that area and I found there were a lot of levels of, again, not having places or resources for families who’ve been through our circumstances. So I joined the Consumer Advisory Council which is for Broward County. It’s part of the Behavioral Health Coalition which funds most of the mental health and behavioral health systems in our county. I started joining these councils as a volunteer to advocate for mental health and behavioral health changes as well as integrating, or building the bridge as I say, between the mental health community as well as the school system. I have really been digging my heels in the last six years, where I’ve gained the respect of the district of Broward County public schools. I sit on several levels of councils to give my input, give a fresh perspective, and again be looking out for children as a whole, not just my children.
So I moved into South Florida Wellness Network which is a peer community. One of my friends in a different type of recovery as well — because we look at recovery as all types of recovery, anything that you’re overcoming — about five years ago she came to me and she was like, ‘Listen, I know you do advocacy in this area and that area, so we’re a peer movement where you can actually become certified to be a peer advocate and volunteer in that realm.’ So of course I jumped aboard with that. I’ve been with Federations of Families. It’s another place where it’s families who come in with children who have mental health or behavioral health issues. I have six children and they all have gone through this circumstance so all of them have sustained some mental health issues with that, so this gave another platform for advocacy where I volunteer my time. I go out in the community, I go to conferences, I go to workshops. So it’s kind of connected me throughout the entire county.
I’m also recently in that last two years connected with … Families Against Court Travesties, because again I’m personally affected by the court system and how they handled our family. They uprooted my children and we went through a lot of trauma from 2004-2008. So those types of things we went through, I want to make sure that there’s voices that are heard. … They go to court, observe these court hearings that families are going through in the family and dependency courts, and just observe to make sure justice is being held. That things aren’t shady. And then we make recommendations for the upcoming judges or the judges when they come up for reelection. [We also have] a platform for making sure that all court hearings are recorded. Did you know that they’re not, at least in Florida state? … I mean for my children … they were involved in those court hearings back in 2004-08. They may have been minors and children, but they’re still humans and they can grow up. My 19-year-old wanted to go back and get some of the transcripts to know for herself what exactly happened, because she’s learning how to advocate. She wants to know that when she spoke to the judge she was heard, and where is that document? Well, none of that stuff is recorded, so none of it’s kept. It’s just whoever can remember what happened and their version of it. This doesn’t help our society gain momentum and move forward when there’s maybe un-left questions. She’s now become a mother herself and she wants to be the best mother, make healthy choices, but she has missing pieces of mom and dad separating. She knew what all was happening and she was old enough but nobody listened to her. These are things I advocate for, the importance of something as simple as turn on the recording. That child may grow up one day and want to know why they were removed from their parent for six months or a year or permanently.
That’s the core of where it came from. I love doing it and sometimes my girls tell me if I didn’t have to do the real job, I would just do this all the time. And I said I would, because this is rewarding. When I go home at night and I just spent two or three hours of my own time talking to a mom going through her own circumstance — and I’m not fixing her problem, I’m not making the law change itself for her, but I’m just there for her. And then I watch that person grow and become able to do what they need to do to remedy and fix their own world. So that to me is an honor.
I also go to Washington. This year will be my third year that I go and volunteer a week’s worth of time to go up there and advocate for For the Children. I go up there and give my time for that week to meet with congress people to make changes in the system as one of the advocates for Florida. We’re trying to make legislative changes. In 1997, a bill [Adoption and Safe Families Act] was put in place by President Clinton at that time. The [bill’s] incentive was, when a family went into crisis, to remove the children from both parents, foster the children. If they adopted the children out, there was an actual incentive that was paid to that entity, the child welfare system. So for that last 21 years, nobody has touched that bill. When my children and I went through the system, they quickly tried to put my children up for the adoption and I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I have since learned that the system were going to make several hundreds thousands of dollars off of adopting my children out, not giving them back to me or my husband, but actually severing those ties. I didn’t know that at the time, I thought they were just pointing fingers at me, but it had nothing to do with me at all. … I wanted to make sure I went up there on countless occasions to advocate to make sure that this system didn’t take the children away from both of the parents.
With our advocacy for For the Children, last year the president signed a bill for the Families First Prevention Services Act … to try to make sure there is money to not always remove children when a crisis happens, whatever that crisis may be. So it’s a step, but for 21 years for it to be one way, for us to make a step, that’s huge. So that was pretty big, to be a part of that, and hopefully you’ll see more changes in that area in the future as well.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
Wellness Day is coming up on May 11. Wellness Day is a huge day in our county with South Florida Wellness Network and the Federation of Families [councils] that I sit on. I’ll be volunteering an entire Saturday to just being there and welcoming new people and families in who are looking for their own wellness, whatever that may mean. We don’t narrow down that topic down, whether it’s behavioral, whether it’s substance. Recovery is recovery of any kind of hurt, habit, hang up, or physical circumstance that you may be overcoming. When you’re having a Wellness Day, you have activities of all kinds going on, things for the kids, things for the adults, and it is a way for having people come who don’t really know what it is.
And then with the Families Against Court Travesties, because it’s in Palm Beach County and I’m in Broward County and it’s been a smaller group for Broward County, they kind of made me the Vice President of Advocacy for Broward. At first I was a member, and then I was doing court watches, attending meetings, doing what I can do, so now they’ve stepped my role up. In the last couple of months, I’ve encouraged other people who have either been through something or want to join what that group is doing. So to see it growing and thriving and more awareness coming to what’s happening in the court system, that is real exciting. Especially the ladies [who] that’s been their passion and niche for eight to ten years. For them to say it’s really growing in the last year or two, that makes me feel good, that they helped me and now I can give back to them. Things are moving in the right direction so that’s a big honor.
How much time are you donating to volunteering on average?
Most all of these advocacy areas I go to — the Consumer Advisor Council, FACTS, School Advisory Forum, School Advisory Council, District Area Advisory Council, Central Area Advisory Council, Title 1 Advisory, Exceptional Parent Advisory Council — each one of those meets roughly once a month. There’s roughly 10 or 12 of those areas that I’m involved in. But then once I meet one of these people at the court watches or I meet them through one of these systems that I go to, then I tend to reach out to that person to help encourage them to continue to come and get themselves involved in these wellness days, in the free trainings they have here. They offer a lot of these free services now, so if they ask me to continue to be like a mentor to them, then I do that out of my own abilities, just to do that as a certified peer. I could work for an agency that would pay me to do that, but then that limits me to the different areas that I can advocate in. I stay as a volunteer so I can clearly move between the school system, the mental health system and the behavioral health. So out of the hours that I spend just at the meetings, if you’re averaging, that itself is 20 hours a month.
And then there’s every week. For Easter, in the evening I went for two hours to visit with a lady because she doesn’t have any kids with her, there’s a lot going on, she lost a set of twins a year ago. So I just went to be with her for her Easter, talk to her, take her a few little things. Everyone tells me I should do a nonprofit because people will give me stuff and I’ll know a mom or a dad, a single parent or somebody going through something, and I’ll gather up a box of whatever they may need. I always have something for someone coming out of treatment, someone coming out of domestic shelters, those types of things. So I give another probably 10-20 hours just depending on the month, of just advocacy and peer support in the community.
Can you describe what being a certified peer means?
A certified peer is a person who has lived experience in either behavioral, mental and/or substance [issues]. So having some PTSD qualifies me, and having some lived experience through my circumstances with my family. What happens is in the state of Florida, it’s a 40 hour training, and you have to have a certain amount of [volunteer] hours … of working in those settings, mental health, behavioral health, recovery systems. I volunteer in all these areas, and I do on occasion contract out to do peer groups for intensive outpatient, people who are coming out of treatment. To become certified, you have to do those hours, those credentials, they do a background check, and then you have to take a Florida board certified exam. When you pass the exam, then you have a certification in being a certified peer. So it’s essentially, you’re going through trainings, and I’ve done countless hours. That 40 hours, that was just the cusp of the iceberg. You have to do ten hours a year of return credit trainings, mental health, first aid, there’s so many trainings you have to keep up with, and those are all me volunteering my time to go and stay above with what’s happening in the community. Most all of our mental health organizations here that are provided by the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, who funds our systems of care, require that a certified peer works at the office.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Watching my children grow and become advocates and become promising volunteers in our community. Because at first it was my mission and I drug them around to everything. When they were smaller, I took them here and took them there. To watch my own children, even my older ones who went through some of the stuff, now [become] better advocates in their communities. It’s helped them to become more promising parents themselves. I think that’s the most rewarding, is when I say, ‘Ok, we have this thing to do,’ that it’s not, ‘Oh, mom, you’re going to another thing,’ but ‘Oh, mom, what are we doing now?’ So to see me help another generation of children to become empowered, to see them volunteer and be excited about giving back, that’s priceless.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Because it’s part of humanity. It’s part of what we are designed to do. … I think we all, as humans, can find the most rewards when we just help another person. When we find a healthy place for us to be in, then we help bring someone else up just by donating a little bit of our time. It’s a different reward than when you earn a paycheck. I don’t know how to really verbalize the feeling that I get. I guess it’s a feeling of peaceful satisfaction that I get from when I give selflessly. It’s a really cool feeling. … That refresher that you get from doing something for someone else, it’s rejuvenating, internally. It rejuvenates your soul. Sometimes people don’t thank you. I’ve given food to a homeless person, my kids and I go out in the community during Christmas time, and we try to go every three months. I make a big pot of either chili or something and then we go out. To feed someone else’s soul, whether it be with food or your time or your care, internally feeds mine as well. I don’t seek to get that reward. I’ve had people who grabbed the box of food and walked away. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t about me getting some kind of praise, it was that fact that I fed someone. Whether you fed them with a kind word, a smile or food or tangible item — it was for them, it wasn’t for me. But still, I do receive from it. It’s a great feeling for my soul.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
That everyone has the ability to persevere through their circumstances and has the ability through that to give back to another person. Even if it’s one other person in their lifetime. That knowledge and that experience has value. It is valuable to go through something and to come out on the other side.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Melina? Click here to find local volunteer opportunities.