A picture of some of the discarded waste around Mill Creek that Sara Melnicoff and her team of volunteers at Moab Solutions spent 30 hours cleaning up. [Photo courtesy of Sara Melnicoff]

Moab would be a different place if it wasn’t for Sara Melnicoff.

Her philosophy of leaving the natural world better than she found it, combined with her attitude of respect for nature and all human beings, led her to co-create the nonprofit Moab Solutions.  

Moab Solutions promotes the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle, but is perhaps more renowned for its philanthropic dedication to aid Moab’s homeless population. This month marks Moab Solutions’ 15-year anniversary and Melnicoff has many reasons to be proud of her work in the community.

Never having visited the Moab area before, Melnicoff moved to Moab from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 23, 2000.

“I happened to see a photo of Moab somewhere, some natural feature, and the words ‘this is my ancestral home’ bubbled up from somewhere in the universe, so this is where I pointed myself,” Melnicoff said.

She started volunteering at the community’s recycling center one day after she arrived in Moab. Her driving principal of cleaning natural areas was born after meeting her longtime partner and Moab Solutions co-creator, the late David Morgan, in 1994.

“When we first met, David took me on walks along the banks of the Animas River, just outside of Durango,” Melnicoff said. “He had been cleaning up natural areas for years and years.”

She was hooked after a few cleanup missions.

“It reconnected me to my lost link with nature,” she recalled. “That sense of being part of nature inspired me from then on.”

Melnicoff became president of the Friends of the Moab Library in 2000 and experienced firsthand the power of what a group of service-minded individuals can achieve.  

“I kind of got addicted to how great it was to be able to accomplish something with a group of volunteers,” she said.

She and Morgan were already collecting 40 gallons worth of recyclables weekly during their walks along the in-town parkway, so she decided to find out how much more she could pick up with a group of volunteers by her side.

Melnicoff’s team distributed flyers all over town notifying people that the volunteer group was available to clean up natural areas. John Knight, the resource specialist for SITLA at the time, asked her group to collect trash near Ken’s Lake and rewarded her with $1,000 for “Outstanding Volunteer Service.” This led to the solidification of “Solutions” on May 12, 2004, which would evolve into Moab Solutions in 2012, a 501(c)3 charitable organization.  

In the beginning, Solutions was a small group focused on recycling efforts.

“I said ‘I don’t want any red tape,’” Melnicoff remembered. “All we need is our hands and our hearts. We wanted to clean up the trails, the streams, the highways and the byways.”

In August of 2004, Moab Solutions partnered with the City of Moab and formed Friends of the Parkway. This project aimed to get all sections of Moab’s city-wide trail system adopted and maintained by various local groups. Melnicoff and her team of volunteers spent countless hours beautifying the trails and cleaning up trash produced by people living in old homeless camps.

After nearly tripping over a homeless person while picking up garbage behind the Gonzo Inn, Melnicoff spontaneously started her work in helping Moab’s homeless population.

“We really had no money, so I went up to a group of folks and asked, ‘If I can get some funding, would you be interested in helping clean up trash and recycling?’” Melnicoff recounted. “Some of them jumped up and started cleaning right away.”

This short interaction in 2008 solidified Moab Solutions’ mission to help Moab’s less fortunate people. “Gradually, things emanated from that connection that led to all the other projects,” Melnicoff said. “As The Fixx put it in their famous song, ‘one thing leads to another.’”

With Morgan, she gathered the necessary funding to pay each homeless volunteer on a weekly basis. In the beginning, Morgan was the driving force behind Moab Solutions’ humanitarian efforts.

“He hitchhiked hundreds of thousands of miles and understood the homeless population,” she said. Moab Solutions’ goal was not only to help with funds, but to make the homeless community feel more accepted. “We wanted to find out who these people were, how they got there, [and] how we could help them.”

After the homeless community became more visible in Moab, funds started rolling in.

“I could work on the environment until the cows came home, but once I started working with the homeless, people started to be interested,” Melnicoff said.

Moab Solutions received donations from individuals, businesses and organizations such as the Ruth Ann H. Brown Foundation, Colin Fryer, the Bjorkman Foundation, The Synergy Company and 100 Women Who Care.

“We were the first recipient of funds through 100 Women Who Care, even though there weren’t 100 women at the time,” Melnicoff said. Bjorkman was the first who donated and to this day continues to give. “They were instrumental in our growth.”

The winter of 2010 broadened the scope of Moab Solutions. Melnicoff recalled that temperatures for a month that winter never rose above freezing even during the day and the homeless population suffered. In December 2010, Melnicoff and Morgan held a meeting in the Moab City Council chambers and asked each person in the community to donate $5 to help put homeless people up at the former Red Rock Lodge.

“Every other year someone died of exposure [living outdoors],” Melnicoff said. “I said ‘Listen, we cannot allow this to happen.’”

Grand County residents answered their call to action by raising $11,537 in funds for those in need of emergency shelter.

In January 2011, Moab Solutions started to allocate funds toward a cornucopia of causes. In emergency situations, the organization will dispense money to those in need of health services, food, diapers, medicine, clothing, gas to get to work, car repairs and other various items.

Melnicoff will help people in need pay their rent, security deposits, utility bills and other out-of-reach necessities. She will even help people stranded in Moab get back home or to get people where they need to be in order receive mental or physical health treatment.  

“I help with basically anything,” she said. “If someone calls and it’s an emergency they can explain, I help.”

Moab Solutions will not provide funds if another entity is able to assist the individual asking for money. However, Melnicoff does work closely with numerous agencies in Moab who share her mission to help residents in need.

“Moab Solutions is one of the multicultural center’s most important partner agencies,” said Rhiana Medina, executive director of the Moab Valley Multicultural Center (MVMC). “Sara’s experience with Grand County’s homeless and transient population is crucial for finding solutions for housing and housing-related emergencies.”

Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center regularly partners with Moab Solutions to provide help for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“We call upon Sara’s assistance almost weekly,” said Seekhaven victims’ advocate Tess Barger. “I believe that her willingness to offer help more than once demonstrates her understanding that life has its ups and downs and that regardless of this, everyone in our community deserves to feel seen and supported.”

She is on-call 24/7 to help those in need.  

Every year, Melnicoff helps complete a Point In Time (PIT) count to identify how many homeless people live in Grand County. In 2019, the count is approximately 12.  

“At least three-times that number are people living in their cars that we can’t access,” Melnicoff said.

The PIT count does not include those people who are in jail or in the hospital. Part of her mission is to help these individuals tell their stories.

“Homeless people are our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers,” Melnicoff said. Low wages and rising living costs are partly to blame, but a multitude of issues contribute to Moab’s increasing homeless population. “Many people are one health crisis or broken-down vehicle away from disaster.”

Homelessness has many faces. Drug and alcohol addictions and mental health are known to be primary causes, but in Moab there are families living on the street or in tents.

“There are single moms, families that have a hard time making it through winter, people getting out of jail who are stranded and need to get home, people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Melnicoff said. “There are lots of [homeless] families in the community you wouldn’t think of.”

Since 2011, Moab Solutions has received $369,554.35 in donations to be used to make direct impacts in the community.

In addition to contributions from individuals and local organizations like WabiSabi, Melnicoff raises money with volunteer bell-ringers who gather donations in front of City Market each holiday season. Out of 1,500 calls for help, Moab Solutions has been able to assist in 1,300 situations.

Each year, Melnicoff’s goal is to reach $25,000 in donations for emergency funds. Some years require more funds due to accidents and natural disasters. Out of its 15 years, 2018 brought in the most donations to Moab Solutions — $90,766.57. The community came together to raise $12,976.68 to pay back taxes and house payments so that a resident would not become homeless. Generous Grand County locals also raised approximately $16,325 for a family whose trailer was destroyed in a fire.

“We worked with a large group of people to try to raise enough money so we could put this family in their own trailer in Grand Oasis,” Melnicoff said. “It takes a lot of work to do a major assist, and it is always good to partner with others.”

There are countless organizations and individuals that have helped Melnicoff and Moab Solutions over the years. She listed benefactors and selfless volunteers such as Carol Hoggard, Mallory Nassau, Tammy Chapman, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and The Community Church of Moab, among others.

Looking back over the past 15 years, Melnicoff said, “The best part was being able to give myself to something bigger than myself.”

She has even created a new word for trash collection: “Earth-ercizing,” a joy she has been happy to share with many others. She said she enjoys “the freedom to roam the Earth and remove trash and recycling while experiencing nature up close.”  

All of the programs that she organizes are woven together to help the natural world and its inhabitants that are often times overlooked.

“I want to see the organization continue beyond my time with it, so I am looking toward succession,” Melnicoff said. “I would love to hire someone now, who I can train, who may want to take over all or most of the work eventually.”

She also hopes to refine and improve on existing projects and will continue to help those in need.

For a small, isolated community in the middle of the desert in southeastern Utah, Moab has demonstrated its altruism over the past decade and a half through Moab Solutions, with Melnicoff at the helm.

“We should all aspire to be the same committed, passionate community activist and all-around tremendous person that Sara is,” Barger said.

As Melnicoff believes, “When we help those with the least among us it strengthens the entire community.”

Sara Melnicoff recalls the past and looks toward the future of her nonprofit

“When we help those with the least among us it strengthens the entire community.”