Originally published in July 2020 Newsletter
Meet Melissa Diodati, who joined the team at Hope’s Door in January 2020 to lead our Residential Services Department. This is Melissa’s second turn at Hope’s Door, as she was a part-time counselor working at the shelter and answering hotline calls with us for nine years earlier in her career. In her role as Director of Residential Services, Melissa oversees five full time staff and twelve per diem staff as she works to promote a safe, trauma-informed environment for shelter residents. Per diem staff fill in overnight and other hours at the shelter, which operates 24/7/365.
In addition to her responsibilities managing the shelter, she also shares with Assistant Director Brittany Hodgins the supervision of all of the residential counselors.
A local to Westchester, Melissa grew up in Ossining and attended Sacred Heart Greenwich for most of her high school education, then ventured to Roger Williams University to pursue a degree in psychology and social work. She graduated in 1997 and took her first job out of college at The Latham School in Brewster, Massachusetts, a residential treatment center that offers “educational, vocational, residential, social, clinical and therapeutic resources” to children ages eight to 22 years.
“I learned so much about the children and about the neurobiology of trauma and how it affected them,” exclaims Diodati. “I also learned the importance of boundaries, self-care and how to assist somebody in need, without making their trauma my trauma,” she adds.
Shortly after leaving The Latham School, Melissa attended graduate school at Cambridge College in Boston and then at Mount St. Vincent in New York, to study both social work and psychology. She then made her way back to Westchester to work at the Westchester County, NY District Attorney’s Office in the Special Prosecutions Division where she interviewed victims and witnesses in domestic violence cases, assisted in obtaining evidence, and aided in the prosecution of cases.
In 2008, she decided to return to working with children, so she accepted a position at Family Services of Westchester, working as a Family Preservation Social Worker. In 2016, Melissa took on more responsibility as a Site Director for Victims Assistance Services (VAS), “a component program of Westchester Community Opportunity Program, Inc., which provides free, comprehensive and compassionate services to crime victims and their families, friends and loved ones.”
Throughout her many and varied positions, Melissa has observed and admired the courage of individuals going through trauma. “I’ve learned that survivors have tremendous resilience and strength. When you make the decision to ask for help, that’s the first of many steps toward healing.” She continues to learn in her new role at Hope’s Door, adding, “Our clients coming into shelter leave everything and everyone behind to seek safety. When I focus on that for a minute, I marvel at how strong and brave one must be to do that.”
We asked Melissa what has presented her with the greatest challenges since she returned to Hope’s Door. She was quick to answer, “Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was totally unprecedented; there was no manual for how to respond and I was new to the position, so I had to rely on my own judgement for so many things. I really learned on my toes!”
Melissa also points out that travel restrictions have really hindered our shelter residents’ progress. Typically, clients use public transportation to and from the shelter to get to work or address their children’s needs. “State mandates and our subsequent safety procedures restricted client travel fairly early on. If one person takes public transportation, it can put the house at risk,” says Diodati. “There is not much to do around the shelter and few places within walking distance, but the clients and the staff have handled it well. Hope’s Door Board members have been incredibly helpful and generous during this challenging time. They’ve given us activities and games to keep both the children and adults busy. And donors have provided so many special and delicious meals to help keep up everyone’s spirits.”
Not only have travel restrictions hindered clients’ ability to complete routine daily tasks, it has also put an extra barrier to them seeking affordable housing in Westchester. Melissa says that this is a historical problem for our clients, but with travel being restricted, the task is even more challenging. “Clients are not able to pound the pavement and even check out apartments, so we will have to be creative in the way we overcome this barrier.”
Melissa says the teamwork of the shelter staff and their desire to come together to overcome challenges has made her transition seamless. Each staff member brings unique strengths to the team; the camaraderie among them helps propel each one to accomplish their often difficult work with victims of abuse.
Barbara Turk, Director of Development and Community Relations at Hope’s Door says, “Melissa brings compassion and insight to her role at the shelter. She has good instincts when it comes to safeguarding our shelter residents, and is quick to resolve safety concerns in a thorough and systematic way.”
There have been several instances where clients needed special placement, either due to the current health crisis or their personal security issues. In her role as Director of Residential Services, Melissa oversees this important process. “We must act quickly and effectively, because the person is typically in danger. I direct someone to call ahead to an alternative residence, while making sure another staff member is providing trauma-informed counsel until they can safely transport the victim to the location. Throughout this entire process, we are always mindful of the danger our clients face, and doing safety planning with them at each stage,” explains Melissa. She adds, “I feel so supported in this role, it motivates me to do more. I have a lot to learn, but I have already learned so much and get so much positive reinforcement and assistance from the others on the senior management team.”
“Melissa has worked diligently on boosting staff morale, reinforcing our skills, and letting staff know we are appreciated,” says Brittany Hodgins, Assistant Director of Residential Services. She adds, “Melissa is always available to address staff and clients’ needs, especially when dangerous challenges arise. She is right there with us, helping us figure out what the next steps should be.”