Jim and Jan Mellott. Good Neighbors. Compassionate Samaritans.
Interviewed by Aaron Bradford, Director of Development
I had a chance to sit down with Jan and Jim Mellott this past Monday for an enjoyable conversation over the phone. They are so fun and full of life. They are one of the main reasons there is a badly needed Safe Haven shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Elkhart County. It takes many hands and they have certainly lent a big strong one to Safe Haven. It is through their selfless acts of kindness. Their good turns daily, that many lives have been saved and transformed for the better.
In the questions that follow, you’ll get a chance to know Jim and Jan a bit more and the cause they care so much about. We are blessed because of their dependable and increasing involvement. Grateful they saw a need and filled a need. Sincerely, I hope you’ll appreciate them as much as we do. Truly heroes.
Tell me how you first got involved with Safe Haven?
It was the Summer of ’95. We moved our family business to 133 State Street in Elkhart. We were told there was a women’s shelter near the building but didn’t know much beyond that. Come to find out we shared a parking lot with them and a church.
Soon we learned more about the shelter and how it worked. We saw women and children coming and going. They would walk up with all their belongings in just a black plastic trash bag. Others would be brought by police escort, or by a taxi, and a few still had a car to get there. This was our daily observation. Including the school buses coming early and dropping off late, so no other young riders would know which kids lived in the shelter.
Around Christmas we decided to get more involved. We approached the shelter to find out how we could help. We could not imagine being away from home during the Holidays. We wanted to make the women and kids as comfortable and as we could. We talked to the director and asked how we could help with gifts. She said they were covered except for teenage girls.
So, we went to Target and started buying hair products, Sony Walkmans and other items. How did we know what to get? We were very experienced as we had a teenage daughter at the time. Then a few months later Easter was coming. We wanted to give them a real holiday as much as we could. We purchased Easter baskets and candy for them.
We got more and more involved over the years. Early on, we would also help with gift and phone cards on a required basis and sometimes help cover utilities. In 2005, we outgrew our building and moved to our current location. We still maintained our relationship with the shelter.
In 2014, we picked up the paper and read about the shelter closing. This was a surprise to us. We reached out to Pete McCown and then talked with Pam Hluchota. Eventually, the “Save our Shelter” event was formed with Kurt Janowsky being the front man in 2015. Then the following year we served as honorary chairs for the Support Our Shelter event.
We believe joining the YWCA was a good outcome. Our understanding was that services in Elkhart had dwindled. With the YWCA’s help, the services returned and more programs were added. The shelter is now better than ever.
What is something you wish everyone knew about Safe Haven?
That more people knew about it. How much it is needed. We were surprised at the level of awareness. It wasn’t as high as we thought it was. But there is more reaching out now. The Tamron Hall event last year helped too. A lot of people at that event didn’t know how much the shelter and services are needed in Elkhart, but they do now.
What memory stands out over the years about the shelter?
Often, I would cross paths with women and children in the parking lot. On one occasion there was a woman who drove a dark green Jeep Cherokee. She would park near my car and one time her windows were down and I suggested she probably would want to roll those up. When talking with her and others we learned they were there because of some really hard situations and they want a better life and to advance themselves. As it turned out this woman who drove the Jeep ended up being the client who shared her story at the SOS event in 2016 when we were honorary chairs. Kind of a full circle moment. Also, we did hire a few employees from the shelter over the years and one was with us for many years.
When your friends or family find out you volunteer and donate to Safe Haven, what do you say?
A lot of women and kids come through the doors with many issues. Helping to eliminate those problems makes the future of all of Elkhart better. Issues resolved at younger age makes our community a better place to live and may reduce the need for other services down the line.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about participating in this year’s SOS (Support our Shelter) dinner and auction on April 30?
The women and children at Safe Haven are in dire straits and need our help. There are many people in the shelter and we have to think about them in this Pandemic. They need our help now more than ever. You can find out more from this video from Jim and Jan.
What do you do when you aren’t working or volunteering?
We enjoy spending time with family and friends.
I’m curious, when did your business begin?
Started in 1983. Though it really hatched in 1979. I was working on my MBA in the evenings and working for a bank during the day. There was a couple in our neighborhood who had a van conversion business. Jan began making van draperies for them on our ping-pong table in the basement. We figured this is an entrepreneurial town and there was no reason we couldn’t start our own business. Jan’s father had space in the basement of his dental office. We set up shop there with 2 sewing machines, a cutting table and a phone with an answering machine.
About a year or so later in 1984, we moved to a space in a larger industrial building. We started doing pop-up campers in addition to vans in 1994 for what is now Forest River. In 1995, we moved to State Street. In 1997, we partnered with Keystone RV, Sunnybrook RV and Damon RV. Currently, we are located in our building near CR 17. Thor and Forest River are our biggest customers. And recently, we made even 7,000 masks for Beacon in four days to fight COVID-19.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
We had success in business, in our community. And we feel because of that we want to give back. The shelter is our number one charity and we support several groups. To us, it’s a no brainer. You see the looks on the women and children’s faces and you know. You know how hard it is for them. So much good can be done and our objective is to help them as much as we can.