- Luke Awtry
- Mellisa Cain, Community organizer, Burlington
When Mellisa Cain started distributing cloth face masks in May of last year, she thought she'd buy and give away a few hundred in Burlington's Old North End; she had funding with a small grant from her Neighborhood Planning Assembly. Recalling it in a recent interview, she laughed at the contrast between that initial plan and what actually happened: In the first year of the pandemic, Cain led an effort to obtain and distribute some 40,000 masks.
They filled up her one-bedroom apartment and took over her life. She bought and cut fabric for volunteers to sew 7,000 masks. She tie-dyed a few thousand and screen-printed the Black Lives Matter logo on others. She walked through the streets, stopped in businesses and hung out in parking lots, giving masks away. Before long, she was being recognized as the neighborhood's "mask lady."
"Enough people know me at this point," Cain, 39, said of her connections to the community. "I used to live two doors down from the Shopping Bag for six years, and a lot of kids know me. So I have no problem just going, 'Hey, you need something?'"
Cain, an educator, consultant and community organizer, has lived in Burlington for nine years. Her business, Iceburg Consulting, was steadily growing at the beginning of 2020, and she'd hoped to take it full time by the end of the year. But 2020, of course, had other plans. Cain managed to fill her time — and then some — taking on volunteer projects.
Beyond the mask initiative, she cofounded a website offering translations of coronavirus information and guidance, ran a clothing drive, founded a pop-up mutual aid program, and launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the moving expenses of Mawuhi African Market, a North Winooski Avenue staple.
This is how Cain operates: She sees a need, and she starts working to fill it. "I'm able to get people things," she said. "People come to me, and they're like, 'I have this, do you have someplace that needs it?' And then another group would be like, 'I need 50 water bottles.' I've always been that network."
Cain was frustrated by the gaps she saw in state and city government's distribution of masks and coronavirus information, especially when it came to New American communities. For the translation site she created with Mohamed Jafar, a service coordinator at the Burlington Community Justice Center, Cain searched the internet for resources that were already translated. She also asked her own connections from years of living abroad to translate some of Gov. Phil Scott's mandates and infographics.
She worked on this project some 80 hours a week for three months, unpaid — that is, until a friend launched a crowdsourcing campaign to compensate Cain for her efforts. Between that and a few grants, Cain estimated she made "like $3 an hour" for the project.
Jafar said it was vital that Cain built and maintained the site, and he noted that the translations expanded to include information about food resources and how to navigate online schooling. "There's a lot of crucial information that I think a lot of people would have missed otherwise," he said.
Will Clavelle, a business projects and policy specialist at Burlington's Community Economic Development Office, said Cain is able to work with and serve New American communities because she's spent a lot of time with them, shopping at Old North End businesses, volunteering and just chatting with people.
"It takes a commitment to going to them just to check in and see how they're doing, and not going to them because you need something from them," Clavelle said. "She's spent years building up that trust and doing this, which is hard to do."
Correction, June 9, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated Mellisa Cain's age. She is 39.