Melanie Gray: The act of giving makes volunteers feel human

By Laura Tolley

Houston Chronicle - March 23, 2016

Melanie Gray's dedication to charitable work once prompted her to jump off a roof.

OK, so she actually rappelled down a building, but it was a nervy undertaking for someone afraid of heights. It was for a good cause - and that's what matters to Gray. 

An accomplished and respected lawyer, Gray is a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. She oversaw the bankruptcy of Enron Corp. and currently is involved in her firm's representation of the court-appointed examiner in the contentious Caesars Entertainment bankruptcy.

Outside the courtroom, Gray is a contagiously dedicated volunteer and impressive fundraiser who helps a number of Houston-based programs benefiting women, children, health, education and the arts. A mother of three, she jokes that her many charitable activities keep her out of trouble.

"Melanie Gray is the epitome of a hero," said Anna Babin, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston. Among her charitable achievements, Gray was co-leader of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society's fundraising campaign for the United Way of Greater Houston when the society raised an all-time high of $16.6 million.

"Melanie has helped so many in our community - from children and families, to seniors, to those in crisis and more. We are so very fortunate to have such a dedicated volunteer giving so freely of herself to help others," Babin said.

Gray, 59, grew up in Parish, a town of about 800 people in upstate New York. She enjoyed a privileged upbringing until her father, the town's former mayor, died suddenly of an aneurysm at age 46.

"All you have is the moment, you never know what the next one is going to bring," Gray said. "Our lives became a complete reversal of what they had been. We had no money for anything."

Still, Gray followed the path her beloved father intended for her. She got a good education, flourished in her career and pursued leadership roles in her profession and community. She was practicing law in Chicago when she met her future husband, Houston attorney Mark Wawro, on a case. She moved here in 1985.

"I truly believe that for those much is given, much is expected," Gray said. "I couldn't live without using all of my talents and resources to try to have a positive impact on those areas I care about."

Over the years, Gray has come to focus on women's advancement in the law profession, women's reproductive health, health care in general and the arts.

One of the first programs she got involved in was Change Happens!, a Houston charity founded in the Third Ward and originally known as Families Under Urban and Social Attack. It is now a year-round program that helps youths from challenged neighborhoods through a variety of programs.

"I saw the transformational change this fledging nonprofit brought to crime-ridden neighborhoods and helped it obtain early financial support from The Children's Fund. I like giving to smaller, startup nonprofits because you can really see the change occur," Gray said.

She also is dedicated to helping Teen and Family Services (TAFS), a nonprofit that serves adolescents engaged in high-risk, addictive behavior and their families.

Her connection to TAFS is deeply personal. Gray came to the group as the mother of a son struggling with drugs and alcohol in high school.

"It saved his life," she said of TAFS. "It's now something I want to make certain is available to as many in Houston as possible."

 Last fall Gray agreed to participate in the TAFS fundraiser, "Over the Edge," which meant rappelling down 23 stories of the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

"I have a fear of heights," she said. "I'm very proud of myself that I pushed that limit. There's a sense of satisfaction having done something you didn't want to do, but it was such a good cause."

In April, Gray and her husband will be honored with the 2016 Joseph Jaworski Leadership Award from the American Leadership Forum. They also are the 2015 recipients of the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region Karen H. Susman Jurisprudence Award.

Her advice to aspiring volunteers is simple:   "Don't be afraid of it, embrace it. You get more in return than you give when you engage. It's all in the act of giving, that's what makes you feel human."

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