Around Moab, Sara Melnicoff is known as the woman who volunteers her time picking up recycling and who started a movement to help house most of the homeless people who were living near Mill Creek and other areas in town. But before Melnicoff co-founded the non-profit organization Moab Solutions with her partner, David Morgan, she worked in the state and federal public defender’s offices in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
From 1989 to 1991, Melnicoff was a legal secretary in the State of Maryland Office of the Public Defender, where she typed and filed legal motions for as many as 70 to 80 open cases for each public defender to whom she was assigned. It was a very different life and a daily work environment that required the now casual Melnicoff to dress in business suits, including nylons and high heels, and mingle with high-powered and sometimes well-known attorneys.
“I just needed a job,” Melnicoff said. “And I always liked working in the non-profit sphere and something that seemed to have a deeper meaning for me… I worked for three felony division attorneys. They defended people who had no means.”
Melnicoff performed work on a wide variety of cases that ranged from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs to first-degree murder trials. The most disturbing legal document she ever held in her hands, she said, was a motion filed by the Maryland State Attorney’s Office seeking the death penalty against a defendant represented by state public defenders.
“It just gave me the creeps,” Melnicoff said, adding that many of the cases involving life and death were very sobering to work on.
After two years in the state office, Melnicoff moved to the first-ever Federal Office of the Public Defender in Washington D.C. There, she worked directly for the federal public defender, A.J. Kramer, who still holds that position today.
“I really admire him a lot. They did a lot to change the disparity in D.C. for [drug] penalties,” Melnicoff said of Kramer. “That office was really different. It was really well funded, and they could really fight.”
Her three years working for the federal agency were stressful, Melnicoff said. Most of the federal public defender’s clients were underdogs who lacked the financial means to pay for their defense. She recalled watching Kramer work 60 or more hours each week fighting for his clients’ rights and to get a “fair shake” for those without money. But, she said, the environment was dynamic and provided her with some interesting experiences.
“I filed one thing in the [U.S.] Supreme Court once, and that was a trip. I had four lawyers behind me as I was typing the motion,” Melnicoff said. “Going to file something at the Supreme Court is like stepping back in time… with white gloves and tea cups with gold rims.”
Although the work was rewarding, Melnicoff said she also realized that many people in the office worked constantly, under extremely demanding conditions. Some turned to alcohol or drugs to manage the stress, she said.
“It was almost inhuman. So I decided I would retire and put everything in my car and drive around,” Melnicoff said. “I ended up in Durango, [Colo.].”
In Durango, Melnicoff tried her hand at working in the real estate business. She lived in Durango for five years before finding her way to Moab, Melnicoff said.
Melnicoff continued working in real estate when she moved to Moab in 2000 but eventually found that office work was not a good fit for her anymore. In 2002, she decided to spend her time volunteering in the local community.
“I worked with the Friends of the [Grand County] Library for four years, and that is when I really learned about the power of getting people together to do something for the common good,” Melnicoff said. “You can have all different people with different backgrounds and belief systems working toward something together.”
During the next few years, Melnicoff and Morgan began an effort to clean up garbage dumped along Mill Creek. Picking up trash and recycling discarded by others helped Melnicoff find a reconnection with nature and the earth, she said.
Moab Solutions, a nonprofit organization that aims to “reduce and eliminate the waste of materials and human potential while nurturing the well-being of the natural world,” was founded in 2004 by Morgan and Melnicoff. The group has since grown into a sizeable cleanup effort that includes many volunteers and also provides work for the homeless in Moab as a way to help them become more self-sufficient and more connected with their environment, Melnicoff said.
For her volunteer efforts across Grand County, Melnicoff received the prestigious Silver Bowl Award in 2011 from the Utah Lt. Governor’s office. She continues her work to secure housing and treatment for the homeless in the Moab area. She said her jobs at the public defender offices all those years ago have helped prepare her for the work she is doing now.
“Seeing the dedicated lawyers who really cared made me realize you can really do something that could bring meaning to life, and I saw the creativity they could bring to help their clients,” Melnicoff said. “It was a reality check of not being in a bubble and realizing there is a lot of pain and suffering and crime in the world. For a lot of people, that is invisible.”
The Times-Independent’s “Second Lives” series celebrates the often little-known transformations that make so many of our local citizens unique and interesting. Have a friend or relative who has a compelling story of reinvention or redirection? Submit a name for our “Second Lives” column to [email protected] or by calling 435-259-7525.
ByBy Charli Engelhorn