This is the 47th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.
Melissa Gaherty ‘12 has worked for food banks since graduating from M-A. Gaherty majored in Political Science at UC Davis but ultimately found her passion in her minor, Communications. She worked for Feeding San Diego before eventually finding the perfect fit working in Food Sourcing at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley.
On staying local, Gaherty said, “Having grown up in Menlo Park, it’s very full circle to now serve the San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. It feels like I’m serving the community that I grew up in, and that’s really validating for me. I didn’t even mean for food banking to happen, but I’m glad it did because I really love what I do.”
In high school, Gaherty had a passion for journalism that would later culminate in her double-minoring in Writing and Communications. “I loved Journalism with [John] McBlair. I remember writing breaking news and news stories when I was at the paper and going around videoing students and asking them about their lives. The skills I learned through journalism and my minors definitely stuck with me and have been useful for everyday work that I do,” she said.
Gaherty still holds her high school relationships dear to her, most importantly those with her best friend and her high school sweetheart and now-husband, Alex Youngberg. “When we met, we didn’t really know that we were going to date for so long or get married. We sort of figured, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go off to different colleges, so we’re probably not going to stay together.’ As we grew up, our values aligned even though we were so young when we met. I also have my best friend from when I was three years old, and we were there for each other through everything. We have built a community with our friends that has lasted over a decade.”
Gaherty went into college majoring in Political Science, hoping to eventually go into news. However, she said, “[Political Science] was a lot of people preparing for law school and the political track. I think what I minored in was actually what helped me in my career because in the communications field, I did a lot of public speaking, which I have to do in my job now. I also have to build connections with the retail stores when doing food sourcing, and I learned how to build them in Communications.”
Gaherty found that, “It wasn’t really so much what I studied that made me do nonprofit work. It was more of the stuff that I did outside of that. My job is more about the skills that I have for communicating with people like writing emails, documents, and grants. The things I learned in Political Science don’t have a lot that translates, but it’s more about all the skills you develop with other people and the connections you make.”
In college, Gaherty was first exposed to food banking, where she worked at a cafe on campus and was part of a student-run nonprofit called Challah for Hunger. She said, “At the time, I didn’t know I had a passion for nonprofit work or food banking, I just knew I wanted to do something that impacted the community. For the cafe job, I had to get food safety certifications, which is important to what I do now. But what was really important was Challah for Hunger, where we baked challah bread and sold it to people in the community, and then the funds would go to the Yolo County Food Bank. We also volunteered at that food bank.”
With her work in food safety, nonprofits, and writing background, Gaherty considered working for Teach for America, a program to build relationships between students and teachers. She explained, “I got really nervous to lead a bunch of students, and I didn’t feel ready. I wanted to gain more professional skills before I tried to be a teacher. I didn’t know where I wanted to live, so I randomly applied to a food bank position down in San Diego, and I didn’t know for sure if that’s what I wanted. But at the time, that was the job that I got, and so I relocated to San Diego. I was there for about a year before I quit so that I could move back to the Bay Area.”
Now, Gaherty has worked at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley for the past six years and has worked her way up to a managing position. She explained, “I had a strong female manager that supported me and formed me into the employee that I am. I had to advocate for myself a lot. Especially as women, society tells us to be nice and stick to what we are told to do, so it’s really hard to learn to advocate for yourself. Now as a manager, I work to uplift my team members and encourage them to keep moving up the field. It took a while, but I’m really happy about where I am.”
“When I was applying for jobs, I worked my way up. At the beginning it was really challenging because I was making $15 an hour, and I was just getting by. But, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am in the food bank world,” she added.
Gaherty’s advice to current M-A students: “Try and be your authentic self, because when you’re younger, you may feel like you have to fit in or do things that other people want you to do. Follow your heart more than the status quo, and that’s where you will find the most happiness.”
Gaherty’s advice for students looking to go into nonprofit work: “You have to make sacrifices upfront, and some people are in a better position to sacrifice than others. My manager told me a long time ago that if you are in it for the money, then you should be somewhere else. Just keep at it, and it will be something that serves you well over time. It is very rewarding work.”