Community Voices

Volunteer celebrates her birthdays by performing community service

Melissa Sullivan spent her September birthday month doing volunteer service, for the third year in a row. Here she is with supplies donated for the difficult times after Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys.
Melissa Sullivan spent her September birthday month doing volunteer service, for the third year in a row. Here she is with supplies donated for the difficult times after Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Thanksgiving is about being grateful, and being surrounded by friends, family and food.

Melissa Sullivan knows all about that and wants to do more.

Sullivan, who often wears a T-shirt that says “Rest Later,” decided in 2015 to celebrate her 30th birthday with 30 days of consecutive service. She just completed her third year of the project.

The volunteer extraordinaire grew up in Miami but lived in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. Now, she’s back and her birthday month of September was spent helping those struggling after Hurricane Irma.

“On my birthday, my mom and I drove to Marathon. We made and distributed 80 mini care packages. We drove throughout the Keys for 10 hours. It was an amazing and humbling experience. On Saturday, we had a gathering to celebrate my birthday. In lieu of gifts, I requested guests bring a toiletry, food, or clothing item to donate to those recovering from Irma. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of items collected,” she said.

Sullivan and her mom dropped off the supplies to a Miami distribution center for delivery to Puerto Rico as a hurricane relief effort there.

“Service to others has always been incredibly important to me. In September 2015, I turned 30. I wanted to celebrate this milestone in a meaningful and fun way. I couldn't think of a better or more ‘me’ way to mark the occasion than to volunteer consecutively for 30 days, every day in September,” Sullivan said.

Melissa Sullivan’s birthday month service included distributing food and hygiene items to those living in Stranahan Park on Sept. 16. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

“I used the #30DaysOfServiceForMy30th and shared a photo of my volunteer work on social media each day. I encouraged friends, family, and colleagues to participate. I circulated a spreadsheet of the month's volunteer activities, dates, times, and addresses with links to sign-up. I was amazed by the positive response,” she said.

Sullivan is also passionate about helping veterans and the homeless, and reforming the criminal justice system. She said she volunteers often with “Love Thy Neighbor” and “Chef” Arnold Abbott, the 94-year-old WWII Veteran who was arrested by Fort Lauderdale police in 2014 for publicly feeding the homeless. You can learn more and see videos at

Sullivan graduated from American University in December 2016 with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and Justice. She was accepted to Columbia University's Master of Social Work Program.

“Advocating for veterans has been my passion for the last 16 years. I planned to study military and veteran social work, specifically issues related to veterans and the criminal justice system,” she said.

She came home to save money before moving to New York, but decided to defer graduate school. She is currently applying to programs in pursuit of her career goal of working with veterans in the criminal justice system.

Sullivan said the most important aspects of her mission are to “make those in need feel acknowledged, assisted, and appreciated.”

“Due to the stresses and responsibilities of our daily lives, we may not always notice the suffering of those around us: individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty, neighbors impacted by the recent hurricanes, etc.,” she said. “It may feel overwhelming or impossible for us to help those in need. We may be burdened by our own struggles or unsure how we can contribute. However, if we pause and focus our energies on the small yet meaningful ways we can impact the lives of those in need, we will be better as individuals and as a society.”

“By serving a meal to someone in hunger, by assisting in the hurricane recovery effort, or recognizing the humanity of a person experiencing homelessness, we can improve a life and touch the soul of another.”

Junior Orange Bowl Parade

Time to step back in time for “A Groovy Gables Holiday” at the 69th Junior Orange Bowl Parade set for 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26. The parade route will start on Alhambra Circle and Ponce de Leon Boulevard, head south to Miracle Mile, and finish at the grandstands in front of Coral Gables City Hall on Biltmore Way.

This event is free and open to all. If you buy a grandstand ticket you can enjoy a pre-parade show.

Celebrate youth, community, and culture with floats, marching bands, equestrian groups, vintage cars, and more at this traditional event that is perfect to finish up Thanksgiving weekend.

“The Junior Orange Bowl Parade is celebrating its 69th year, and we thought it would be fun to incorporate a theme that is reminiscent of the 1960s. We’ve found that everyone involved in the parade this year has embraced the theme wholeheartedly and used it as inspiration for their costumes, décor, and musical selections in an effort to give spectators a Groovy Gables Holiday,” said Parade Chair Travis Stokes in a release.

Visit or call 305-662-1210 for more about volunteering or participating.

Villagers’ Holiday House Tour

The very popular Villagers’ annual Holiday House Tour will be 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, in Coral Gables and South Miami. The tour will feature distinctive homes from the 1920s to the present and there will be a boutique, lunch and quilt raffle venue. The price of $45 includes a box lunch prepared by Chef Richard of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and School.

Hurry and get your tickets by Nov. 22 to tour the six homes. Visitors walk and drive their own vehicles to the properties, and venues cannot accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, or high heels.

This year’s quilt, “Sea Watch,” features the colorful Art Deco lifeguard towers of South Beach. Raffle tickets are $1 each and may be purchased at the tour. For tickets, go to Proceeds support the preservation and protection of historic sites.

Volunteer loan organization

“I was taught by my grandparents that no matter how successful you become, there will always be people in need you can help,” Andrew Weinberg, the founder of Hebrew Free Loan Association of South Florida, said in email. “The purpose of the Hebrew Free Loan Association is to provide people with a hand up, not a handout.”

The group has been offering interest-free loans to Jewish individuals and families in need since 1989. It recently became a subsidiary agency of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

HFLA has provided over 600 interest-free personal loans totaling more than $2 million to those needing help through unexpected hardships, medical and dental expenses, divorce, immigration costs, car and housing repairs, small business start-ups, and even assistance with in-vitro fertilization costs and adoptions.

Michelle Ben-Aviv, the new chair of the Hebrew Free Loan Association, is a volunteer who leads a board of volunteers that oversee the loan process.

“Something that I’ve learned after many years of working with the organization is that there are many people that don’t qualify for public assistance but yet truly need help,” she said in email. “Oftentimes unexpected expenses like illness or losing a job, can throw a hardworking family into turmoil and despair at a moment’s notice. Hebrew Free Loan is there for members of our community during those unexpected hardships, offering help while maintaining the dignity of the client.”

Contact or 305-692-7555.

If you have news for this column, please send it to Christina Mayo at