CHELMSFORD — Jennifer Melanson wasn’t looking for a new job when she learned of the new community services coordinator position created in town.
The Townsend resident, who worked in health care for two decades before transitioning to social work, said she was happy as a case manager in the state-funded Behavioral Health Community Partner program at Community Healthlink in Leominster, a position she’s held for the past year or so.
When her husband, Todd — who works as the environmental compliance manager at the Chelmsford Water District — first told her of the opportunity, she shrugged it off.
It took her a couple days to read the job description. When she finally did, Melanson said she knew it was the job for her.
“It sounded like everything I love about the job I currently do, but on a much larger scale, with the potential to impact a larger group of people,” she said.
Melanson was selected by a hiring panel that included representatives from some of the town departments she’ll work most closely with, and will start on the job July 8.
She’ll be charged with connecting community members with a variety of services they need, including behavioral health, addiction treatment, financial and housing assistance, and beyond.
Melanson’s starting salary is about $71,000, and she will report directly to Town Manager Paul Cohen.
Cohen said it has become clear in recent years that there are many societal challenges that residents need help with, such as substance abuse and medical and mental health crises.
“There’s a need, and we’re very fortunate to have found someone with Jen’s capabilities to step forward and help us out,” he said.
Cohen pointed to the Police Department, which experiences repetitive calls of service for the same people and addresses, and has struggled to connect them with the help they need with only a part-time, grant-paid psychologist shared with other communities.
Melanson will work closely with the police to follow up with people in need of mental health, substance use treatment and other services. She’ll also work in conjunction with the School Department, Board of Health, Fire Department and Senior Center in identifying people in need of assistance and connecting them with the appropriate resources.
She will eventually have her own office space on the lower level of the town offices on the side close to the Center Fire Station, where she can meet with residents by appointment and during drop-in hours. Melanson will have a hand in how the office is designed, to ensure the privacy of those she meets with.
“A lot of these issues that people will come in looking for assistance with are very delicate, private issues, so privacy is definitely important,” she said.
Melanson said she looks forward to getting to know the needs and available resources in the area, and will be looking to meet with organizations and providers throughout Greater Lowell so that she can better assist those who need her help.
“I hope that I can convey an air of approachability so that people can feel that they can approach me with issues,” she said. “If I don’t know the answer to something, I’m not afraid to tell people that I don’t know the answer, but I am also going to go out and find the answer.”
Melanson spent the first 20 years of her career as an emergency room technician, first at Winchester Hospital and then at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
She said she loved working with the patients, but felt she needed to do more than tend to just their physical health needs. Wanting to address what she felt was a gap in “taking care of the rest of the person,” she made the leap to human services.
Following an extended hiatus from higher education, Melanson earned her bachelor degree in human services from Fitchburg State University, and is currently working toward her master of social work at Regis College.
At Community Healthlink, she worked as part of a statewide, MassHealth-funded initiative to take an integrated approach to address the complex needs of the most vulnerable populations.
“It really takes into account that somebody who’s diabetic who can’t afford to put food on the table is maybe not always going to take their medication, or get to the doctor if they don’t even know how to feed their family,” Melanson said as an example.
Now, her caseload will grow from about 55 to 60 people to thousands, but that doesn’t faze her one bit, being a person who “thrives on challenge,” she said.
Melanson also has a background in rare disease advocacy that has led her to testify for legislation at the state and national levels. Much of her advocacy has centered around reforming “step therapy,” an insurance protocol requiring patients fail at treatment with cheaper drugs before being allowed to have more expensive drugs their physicians recommend.
She and two of her three children have a rare disorder called CTLA4 haploinsufficiency, a dominant genetic mutation that causes the body to not produce the associated protein. The condition can cause a host of lymphatic and autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis.
The disease is so rare, there are only about 200 known cases worldwide, Melanson said, but she suspects many more go undiagnosed.
She was not aware of the disorder until her youngest son had recurring issues with enlarged lymph nodes that required surgery. Genetic testing and research at Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital led to the diagnosis, and they now receive protein infusions to stave off the effects of the disorder — but it wasn’t without an insurance fight, she said.
Melanson said she hopes to combine her personal and professional passions to effect change.
“I am not shy about going to the State House, and even to (Washington) D.C. when need to, and talking to legislators and advocating for legislative change that needs to happen,” she said. Jennifer and Todd Melanson have no relation to the reporter.
Follow Alana Melanson: @AlanaMelanson on Twitter