The Mele family is best-known for establishing Mele & Co.—the premier provider of jewelry boxes and accessory organizers in the nation. Founded in 1912 in New York, the company has been committed to offering innovative and timeless designs while also instilling the community with the familial heritage and values upon which it was founded. A skilled craftsman at heart, Italian immigrant Emidio Mele built the jewelry box business out of a vision to create a better life for his family and others by providing secure jobs. Emidio’s sons Edward, who died in 2003, and Joseph, joined the family business in the 1940s, moving the company’s operations to Utica shortly thereafter. Many of its current employees have been with the company for more than 20 years, a direct result of its promise to treat employees with trust, respect and always maintain a “family” atmosphere in the workplace.
In the late 1950s, the Mele family, known for their stewardship and community involvement, established a foundation that they hoped would help grow their philanthropic impact. In 2009, they honored that commitment by transferring their foundation’s assets to The Community Foundation, creating a donor-advised fund. Since then, the Mele Family Fund has awarded more than $2.7 million in grants to community organizations across the region. With a focus on education and the elderly, the Mele family believes it is their corporate responsibility to help create a brighter future through the fund’s continuing community investments.
“With the help of The Community Foundation, we’ve been able to be better partners and stewards for the community,” said Raymond Mele, fund adviser and Mele & Co.’s current president. “We’re able to make proactive investments that make significant impact in the community where we live and work—a community that we are loyal to. Through these investments, we’ve been given the opportunity to enhance the quality of the community’s most crucial assets: the health and education of its residents.”
The Mele family’s investments in education cover the entire spectrum of lifelong learning from daycare and kindergarten readiness through higher education and career training—touching every corner of both Herkimer and Oneida counties—rural and urban areas alike.
The fund has made significant grants to organizations like Johnson Park Center and Thea Bowman House that serve our youngest community members in underserved neighborhoods and has also supported after-school programs at Dodge Pratt Northam Art and Community Center. Other grants have supported literacy programs like the Duffy Books in Homes program at Mt. Markham Elementary School as well as high school enrichment though programs like the Mohawk Valley Latino Association’s participation in the United Nations Youth Assembly.
Through Utica Dollars for Scholars, the fund has also awarded more than $725,000 to provide college scholarships to local students pursuing higher education.
The fund’s education investments also extend to careers in trades with grants to support the Rescue Mission of Utica’s Skills for Success building trades program.
“The Skills for Success program helps individuals move forward in their lives, gaining a skillset in trades and construction that allows them to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” said Ernie Talerico, director of operations at Rescue Mission of Utica. “The Mele Family Fund helped us get the program started up—we couldn’t do this without people like them. The support they’ve given is not only for us, but it extends to the community, because that’s what we do. We’re here to give back to the needs of the community.”
Healthcare is another investment area the Mele family chooses to focus its grantmaking efforts in. Over the years, the fund has made a variety of grants to support the health and well-being of individuals and families in the community, providing funding ranging from lifesaving medical equipment to cutting-edge programs based on new and on-going research to improve the lives of patients with chronic diseases like Parkinson’s. The Mele Family Fund awarded more than $100,000 to Presbyterian Homes Foundation to assist with the organization’s Parkinson’s Unit renovation project.
“We really appreciate what the Mele family has done for us in the past,” said Bridget Reilly, director of donor engagement at Presbyterian Homes Foundation. “They donated a substantial amount of money to renovate one of our skilled nursing units that is dedicated for Parkinson’s. This investment benefits the future of our Parkinson’s patients, making the facility more accessible for patients, especially as they age and progress in their symptoms. We are very grateful—the Mele family’s generosity has shown that they’ve had our mission and our vision at the heart of their benevolence. I think it’s amazing.”
This year, the Mele family continued their support with a $64,000 matching grant for the Pedaling for Parkinson’s program. The group stationary bicycling program is based on new patient research shown to reduce and improve the physical and psychological symptoms of Parkinson’s, as well as slow disease progression over time.
Gerrie LaPlant researched the program extensively on behalf of her husband, Dave, who is living with Parkinson’s, before proposing her findings to Presbyterian Homes Foundation in hopes that the program could benefit patients in our region, like it has in other communities throughout the nation.
“The Community Foundation found a donor, the Mele Family, who were willing to do a matching grant, and that brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “When you have a partner that has a chronic disease that you know will progress, you want to do everything you can. It’s just a joyful, exciting time because the program will benefit so many people.”
“The Mele Family Fund’s generosity and support means the world to us,” said Dave LaPlant. “Without community support, programs like this just wouldn’t happen.”
Another way in which the family’s generosity is helping to create a healthier community is through its support of The Community Foundation’s Community Choice Awards. In 2018, the fund sponsored the contest, providing the $10,000 prize for the winner of the Health & Wellness category. This year, the fund sponsored the Seniors category.
“Our family strives to make proactive investments that strengthen local nonprofit organizations so that they can continue working to create significant impact. The Community Choice Awards is another way for us to do just that,” said Mele. “In partnership with The Community Foundation, our fund is able to invest in programs we’re passionate about, and we’re excited to share that opportunity with the entire community.”
In August, the community got a chance to thank the Mele family for its charitable commitments. The Community Foundation honored its partners at its Celebration of Philanthropy event, with more than 150 area residents in attendance. In recognition of the Mele Family Fund’s investments in the community over the last decade, the family was presented The Community Foundation’s highest honor—the Rosamond Childs Award for Community Philanthropy.
“I’ve had the honor of working with the Mele family fund for many years,” said Lindsey Costello, donor relations manager at The Community Foundation. “The members of this family care deeply about this community, and it shows. We’re inspired by the stories of people whose lives have been changed for the better thanks to their generosity.”
Raymond Mele accepted the award for Community Philanthropy. During his acceptance speech, he told a story about his father, Joseph Mele:
He became a great businessman, was involved in the community in many ways, but his big “thing” was about improvement. If he was here today, he’d say to you, “Can you do what you’re doing any better?” My dad is down in Florida. I said, “Dad, they’re having this great award, what message do you want me to give the people?” And he said, “Well, you’ll come up with something for me.” That day, he barely walked. He’s mostly in a wheelchair. The physical therapist came in and said, “I want you to walk 10 steps.” My dad got out of that chair with his walker and, grunting and groaning, he did 10 steps and fell back, exhausted. He didn’t do that for himself, he did that for me. His message was, “don’t quit.” I tell you all: Don’t quit doing good.
Sadly, just a few hours after that acceptance speech Joseph Mele died at age 98.
“Our community experienced a great loss with the passing of Joe Mele,” said Alicia Dicks, president/CEO of The Community Foundation. “Our entire community has benefited from his dedication and the Mele family’s commitments, both as a steadfast and valued employer and as a generous contributor to programs that support education and health care.”
Joseph Mele’s simple yet poignant message to never quite humbly reminds us that the separation between those in need and those striving to help isn’t so great a distance after all.