MIDDLESEX EAST - He just couldn’t sleep. That’s the explanation of how a 27-year-old from Woburn managed to secure some 15,000 medical-grade and high-end fabric masks and launch a grassroots charity that donated every single one of them to area hospitals, businesses, and non-profits.
Last winter, while most public health experts were still dismissing the idea that a novel virus in China could pose a grave and present danger to the western world, Woburn’s Mark Melanson was already convinced the U.S. was about the face the greatest national crisis since World War II.
Melanson, a certified public accountant (CPA) whose familiarity with the world of finance left him familiar with statistical phenomenons like exponential growth, had read enough early COVID-19 research papers and epidemiological studies to understand what would happen once the SARS-CoV-2 virus landed on America’s shores.
Engaged to be married and only recently purchasing a house in his hometown near the city’s old Woburn Mall area, the 27-year-old soon found himself suffering from bouts of insomnia after he heard from nurses and other friends in the medical community who were scrambling to secure masks and personal protective equipment (PPE).
What would happen to his future wife? What about all of his childhood friends and neighbors and other city residents he since had come to know in Woburn, where his father enjoyed considerable success as a local developer and former City Council president?
After one particularly brutal night, where he struggled to quiet his racing mind, the Northeastern University alumnus, ignoring his complete lack of experience in the logistics industry, convinced himself that would succeed where hospital networks had failed.
“It started in the end of March, when the pandemic was really upon us. Back then, there was just so much uncertainty. I was hearing that at hospitals, there were no medical masks,” Melanson recalled of those sleepless nights.
“It was up so late one night. I couldn’t sleep and I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Alright, Mark, what are you going to do to help this situation?’ Then I thought, ‘I could probably get masks…I can do it if I put my mind to it,’” he continued.
By the time Mass. Governor Charles Baker declared a public health emergency and ordered all “non-essential” businesses in the state to close on March 23, Melanson had already sprung into action after spending the early morning hours in the days prior on the phone with Chinese suppliers.
Not only had he secured a source of medical-grade masks, but by the time of the state’s shut down, the CPA had also filled out paperwork to establish a government-recognized 501c3 charity to donate the PPE, begun work on a charity website, and launched initial fundraising efforts.
“Anyone have experience with GoFundMe, [Facebook] fundraising [or] other viral fundraising?” Melanson asked his friends on social media on March 23. “Need $4,500 to place an order [for] 10,000…N95 respirators with a two-to-three day lead time.”
“Surprised that you didn’t already set up your own 501C3 and a website. You’re slack[ing] Marko,” jokingly responded one friend, who was apparently all too familiar with Melanson’s dogged determination.
“501C is actually already pending. You’ll see a website in the next 36-hours. So…,” answered the WMHS Class of 2011 graduate.
Earlier this month, Melanson, after spending the better part of the past year donating a vast supply of PPE through the People’s Medical Supply Relief Fund he founded last March, brought to the Woburn Housing Authority (WHA) the last of his on-hand inventory.
Appearing beside WHA commissioners and State Rep. Richard Haggerty (D-Woburn) during a quiet ceremony, the newlywed donor explained the 2,000 reusable masks would be made available free-of-charge to WHA residents.
According to Haggerty, who Melanson listed as one first major donors to the Medical Supply Relief Fund, the local resident’s persistence and sense of community is nothing short of inspiring.
“Mark has done a great job supporting our community,” Haggerty said of the Woburn native. ‘When this virus hit, everyone was trying to figure out how they could stay safe, but Mark took it a step further and thought about how he could use his skills to navigate the supply chain and get PPE in the hands of the folks who needed it the most.”
In a phone-interview after the WHA event, the charity founder explained that with most municipalities and hospital providers now easily able to secure masks through a still-strained but slowly recovering supply network, he plans to back away from the charity work.
According to the Woburn native, who besides managing his own CPA firm also works full-time in the real-estate sector, he hopes to enjoy the Christmas season with his family and new wife, Mariah.
Since March 23, Melanson has donated thousands of masks to entities like Winchester Hospital, Burlington’s Lahey Hospital, MassGeneral, Market Basket, the Woburn, Burlington, and Waltham Public School system, and regional non-profits like the Mystic Valley Elder Services and the Movement Family Organization.
Though exhausted from the efforts, the young philanthropist readily admits that he’ll miss the unmistakable inner-glow and sense of fulfillment that comes from donating his time and effort to the community.
But he knows he’ll be back to lend a hand soon enough.
“I’m almost retired from [this particular effort] now. I think I was successful because I was more nimble and didn’t have any preconceived notions about how the supply-chain worked,” he said. “As bad as this whole [COVID-19 crisis] has been, it could have been a lot worse, and that’s what drove me to do this. Community and being able to bring people together is so important. I think that’s what this crisis has really showed us,” Melanson continued. “The world fundamentally changed in March, and we can't fall victim to a business-as-usual approach. We need fresh ideas to stimulate a sustainable local economy and not rely on federal or state help [to survive].”
According to Melanson, he is particularly grateful for the support of his new wife, who especially during the early days of his charitable efforts, stood by him even as he risked his own personal finances to obtain medical masks.
In fact, when launching the campaign in early March, Melanson suffered from several setbacks, including one instance where a would-be supplier ripped him off and another event where an incoming shipment of medical-grade equipment was seized by the federal government.
Ultimately, he obtained a refund from the supplier in the later incident, but not until months after the payment was made — a delay which locked up the sparse capital available to the fledgling charity.
According to Melanson, during those stressful times, his thoughts often drifted to his fiancé and his hopes and dreams for their future.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of money I had personally floated out there and I wasn’t positive I was going to get it back. That was the hardest part of all of this, finding capital,” he recalled.
“My now wife stuck with me and supported me through all the long nights and difficult times,” the accountant later said. “We got married this September in our backyard. One of the driving forces for all the work I did was to protect the community enough where we could have an event like a wedding. We had a lovely, meaningful day…It was the highlight of my 2020.”