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Salem’s Melanie McKinnon extends a helping hand

Melanie McKinnon of Salem with her infant son, Payton. McKinnon raises about $8,000 to $10,000 each year to help people in need. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With help from an army of volunteers, Melanie McKinnon delivered 140 food baskets — filled with a turkey and all the trimmings — to North Shore families who could not afford to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

“Melanie’s feeling is, at least one day a year, a child should have that experience of making a holiday dinner,” said her mother, Liz McKinnon, a steady volunteer.

Her daughter’s good deeds aren’t just wrapped with a holiday bow.

All year, McKinnon donates to people in need through It Starts With ME!, a nonprofit she started 16 years ago while a student at Salem State University.


“I always said, ‘It has to start with me, if I want to help change the world,’” McKinnon said, explaining her charity’s name.

McKinnon raises about $8,000 to $10,000 each year to help people. Requests come from school districts, human service agencies, and word of mouth. She uses her Facebook page to solicit donations and volunteers.

A recent post:

Girl, age 8

Shirt 9/10

Pants 9/10

Shoes 2½

Needs winter jacket, size 10

“My biggest focus is on kids,” said McKinnon, 39, who works full time as an accountant at Cambridge Associates, an investment firm in Boston. “I know that no kid asks to be brought into a world struggling.”

McKinnon runs the charity from her Salem condo, which she shares with her infant son, Payton, and up until recently her yellow Labrador retriever, Kobe, who died Dec. 16.

She has raised money to help fight cancer, neurological diseases, and multiple sclerosis, a disease that afflicts her sister, Katie Nieves. In 2012, McKinnon ran the Boston Marathon, raising $8,000 for MS research.

McKinnon does most of her fund-raising through old-fashioned fun: basketball, bean bag, bowling, and horseshoe tournaments.

“I’ve always liked to show people that raising money and doing well by others can be fun,” she said. “Everyone has something to give.”

McKinnon has inspired her friends and family to embrace her philosophy.

“Melanie leads by example,” said Kevin Carr, a childhood friend who serves on It Starts With Me!’s board of directors. “She motivates others to contribute. . . . A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’d love to help.’ If you say that around Melanie, be careful. She’ll take you up on it.”


Her generous heart was shaped growing up in a working-class Salem neighborhood. Many kids had only one parent at home, and could not afford to play sports or buy new school clothes. Her parents, Liz and Thomas, always helped a neighbor in need.

“Our home was always open to people,” said McKinnon, who also has a brother, Eric. “My parents never judged anyone. They just helped people.”

McKinnon has donated money to North Shore Recovery High School in Beverly and collected nearly 200 prom dresses to give girls from low-income families at Salem High School.

A furniture drive netted two beds, a couch, a kitchen table, and pots and pans for a once-homeless grandmother who was moving into an apartment with her granddaughter. “In one weekend, we basically delivered a whole house,” McKinnon said with a smile.

McKinnon took her first charitable steps while in college. She persuaded her mother and two friends to join her in the Avon Walk For Breast Cancer, a two-day trek from Leominster to Boston.

“I knew cancer affected a lot of people,” she said. “I thought the walk was a good chance for me to contribute.”

Years later, the McKinnon family would be comforted by generous friends. Her sister, a mother of five then living in Nevada, was diagnosed with MS in 2006. While she was in the hospital, her family home was destroyed by fire. In Salem, Melanie’s friends organized a party that raised $10,000 for Katie’s family.


“When I saw how incredible my friends were, coming out to help my family, I got an extra push,” McKinnon said. “I said, ‘You know what? I want to keep helping people.’ ”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.