Melanie Morrison's 4- and 5-year-old daughters enjoy role playing at home, but instead of "bank" or "school," they play "chamber."
Mommy, we need some scissors to do a ribbon cutting in front of the Barbie house.
Clearly, the girls have come to appreciate what mom does as the executive director of the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce. So have a lot of other people.
In her 17 months on the job, Morrison, 31, has brought new members to the chamber while continuing the charitable efforts that helped her serve two terms as the honorary mayor of Apollo Beach.
Earlier this month, she helped coordinate a fundraiser for a teenager who was beaten and raped outside the Bloomingdale library. It raised $20,000 in less than 4 1/2 hours. Last year, she sparked a community effort to help a family of 10 who were struggling in a 980-square-foot trailer.
After Monday's chamber luncheon that featured Jairek Robbins, son of motivational speaker Tony Robbins, I spoke to Morrison about her role with the chamber and what motivates her to be so charitable.
Pull up a chair and join us. ERNEST: What drives you to be so charitable?
MELANIE: When I was a little girl, we lived with our grandparents — my mom, my sisters and I — and we have a lady who came and cleaned their house. She was very, very poor. We would go and cash cans in for money to give to her. I remember always feeling so good when we had bags and bags of cans at the end of the week. I couldn't believe families resorted to that type of thing to have money. I've always wanted to help people as much as possible. So now you help, and you give others the opportunity to help.
I realize there are so many other sources you can tap into, so many other people who want to make a financial contribution or some sort of donation but they don't know where to go. It's as if they're waiting for someone. How did you end up with the chamber?
I was just handling the marketing for my husband's business (Freedom Boat Club) in Apollo Beach, and I was a stay-at-home mom. I loved doing it, but I always had to focus on that one business and I tend to get bored just looking at one thing. Now, rather than having to focus on just marketing the boat club, I have over 330 members and I can focus on all the different ways to help their businesses. What's the biggest challenge for the chamber right now?
A challenge would be the current market, but the attitude we've taken here at the chamber is, "It is what it is." We're not going to sit back and cut our events and cut everything. Really, this is our time to increase what we do to give our members increased exposure. Do you see the chamber playing a role in bringing more businesses, more life to what we refer to as downtown Ruskin?
Absolutely. I got down here, and it seemed like a quiet place with a lot of potential. In the last year and a half, the growth has been unbelievable. We have a beautiful new high school, Lennard High, a new Hillsborough Community College campus, Saint Leo University and Webster College. South Shore Corporate Park has broken ground and it's going to be larger than Sabal Park in Tampa. There's so much undeveloped land in Ruskin and so much growth potential. What do you say to people who worry about Ruskin growing too much, too fast?
I grew up in Brandon so I know exactly what that means. I grew up when it was Carey Cattle Co. and I graduated from Bloomingdale High (Class of '95), so I know what that's like. The approach we take is to keep all of our members involved and encourage them to be involved when there are meetings. Former (Tampa) Mayor Dick Greco came and spoke at a lunch last year and he said, "Ruskin is growing whether you want it to or not. Be a part of that growth to help protect and manage it." You seem to be a natural at networking and dealing with people. Where does that come from?
I don't know, but I've never been the quiet one who's at a loss for words. In high school, I was always very involved in the leadership classes. I always thought I would be a teacher, but I've always wanted to help people. With this, I can help businesses, I can help individuals and I can help the community. DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Morrison noted that the Ruskin, Sun City Center and Riverview chambers are exploring the possibility of merging, an idea that has previously been rejected. The three chambers, along with the Apollo Beach chamber, will have a joint luncheon on Sept. 23 at the Showman's Association, 6915 Riverview Drive.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.