Published February 17, 2023
By Catherine Donnelly
Mel LeMay, MSW ’20, considered several career paths before attending the UB School of Social Work, but all were focused on helping LGBTQ+ youth thrive.
LeMay completed their undergraduate studies at a conservative university where LGBTQ+ students were not generally acknowledged. After graduation, they worked in education, first volunteering with Teach for America, then accepting a position at Wake Forest University where they helped found the university's LGBTQ+ Center.
“I enjoyed academia, but I knew that I wanted to work more in the community. I found an opportunity with an LGBTQ+ youth center in Binghamton, N.Y.,” says LeMay. “While I was there, I worked with a lot of social workers and was even a task supervisor for a few MSW students completing their field placements. It really helped solidify the idea of that as a possible career for me.”
LeMay admits that even with that familiarity, it still took almost seven years to consider social work as a career path for themself.
“I consider myself to be a lifelong learner, but a mentor of mine, Dr. AJ Mazaris, helped me not only find my passion but also understand how well social work aligned with my values and goals,” LeMay continues. “I'm nonbinary and queer, so the LGBTQ+ community has always been personal for me. Thanks to AJ, I realized that working with and for the LGBTQ+ community was my vocation, and social work felt like it opened up the most possibilities for professional growth to do this work as well as I could.”
A native Texan, LeMay considered schools all over the country for their return to higher education, but UB stood out. “I considered the online program, but after visiting Buffalo, I liked the city and really wanted to have an in-person experience. I'm glad I did—I've loved being a part of this community since I moved here. Buffalo feels like home.” (And for those wondering if this Texan enjoys wintery weather, the answer is yes.)
LeMay believes that being an older student who had already been working professionally for many years was an asset because they had real-world experiences to link to the theories they discussed in the classroom. Favorite classes included Restorative Justice with Dina Thompson, Gender Issues with Jay Nixon, and Trauma and Human Rights with Lisa Butler.
“I would say one of the classes that stuck with me the most since graduating—professionally but also personally—is Loss and Grief Across the Lifespan with Deborah Waldrop.”
Their field experiences included helping to resettle newly arrived refugee families at the International Institute of Buffalo and working on Evergreen Health’s behavioral health and specialty medical care teams. Beyond UB's social work program, LeMay took on additional positions facilitating support groups for trans and nonbinary youth at GLYS of WNY and working in Evergreen’s Harm Reduction Center.
“At Evergreen, I had the opportunity to learn more about working with LGBTQ+ folks in a clinical setting,” LeMay says. “I split my time between clinical mental health and specialty medical care, focusing primarily on trans and nonbinary patients in each program, and as result, I was able to create and present training materials to local mental health professionals."
LeMay also spent a summer as a UB Social Impact Fellow, working on a voter education project with the Partnership for the Public Good. “My experience really showed me that my social work skills are translatable and transferable across subjects and audiences, even into areas that are outside of my expertise,” LeMay says.
After graduation, LeMay completed the process to become a licensed master social worker (LMSW) and worked as a mental health counselor with Evergreen, but missed more mezzo and macro social work. So, they moved to the Pride Center of WNY as the director of health education and outreach, where they managed three LGBTQ+ grants, including two focused on the trans community.
“I was able to help build intersectional programs that focused on LGBTQ+ folks from communities of color, as well as programming for folks engaging in active substance use and sex work, and to write for grants designed to address the social determinants of health that create health disparities for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities.”
LeMay was uniquely positioned to join the new Erie County Office of Health Equity (ECOHE) that was established in 2021. In their role, LeMay works to increase equity for minority and marginalized communities in Erie County, both by writing grants that address inequities in health outcomes and by providing grant-related technical assistance for community organizations already doing amazing work in this space.
“It was a natural next step for me to step into a truly macro role with the ECOHE, to help change systems on a policy level and strive for equity for the LGBTQ+ community, so close to my heart, and for all minority and marginalized communities.”
When asked about something that motivates them, LeMay shared that while making a positive change in the world has always been their focus, it is important to find joy in just existing. “Yes, we have to do, but we also have to be.”