By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
GLASSBORO – Even though she is helping lead one of South Jersey’s largest healthcare networks that runs 56 locations through 10 counties with a staff of almost 1,000, Melissa Fox said it doesn’t feel like work most days.
Fox, one of the top African-American healthcare executives in the state, has plenty to do as Acenda Integrated Health’s chief operating officer, but she unabashedly loves what she does – helping make the lives of New Jerseyans better.
“I believe that I’m in healthcare because it is the path that God had for me,” said Fox, a Louisiana native and Rowan University alumni. “It allows me to interact with wonderful people every day and to work with them to create systems to make people’s lives better. What I do truly does not feel like work (most days), and it is rewarding in a way that is such a blessing.”
Acenda is nearly a year into its big merger that combined the behavioral healthcare organizations Robin’s Nest (where Fox initially worked), Cape Counseling Services and NewPoint Behavioral Health Care.
Acenda now serves more than 27,000 clients annually through some 120 programs.
“The merger was a really great joining of three agencies that were each known for providing excellent care and for having a strong commitment to the communities they served,” Fox said. “Though there were many similarities, there were also unique attributes among each that helped to create a rich texture of competencies and service offering which have allowed us to better support those in our care.
“As an agency, we made the decision to shed our prior identities and emerge united as Acenda, which is a beautiful aspirational name and allowed us to move forward together. We believe in treating the whole individual at Acenda, so we are continually evaluating our existing competencies and services to identify ways to deliver integrated care for the individuals and families we serve,” she continued.
Family On the ‘Frontline’
How Fox ended up in healthcare was partly due to her upbringing, raised in a family of healthcare providers. Many of them are now in harm’s way on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My family is filled with some of the bravest people I know because many of them are frontline providers in healthcare,” Fox said. “During the current COVID-19 crisis, they are going out every day and working in hospitals and doctors’ offices to support those who need it the most. My mother is also a retired nurse and I remember how hard she worked as I was growing up, on her feet doing double shifts for many hours at a time.”
That family, which she lovingly refers to as a “large, loud beautiful Southern family” is part of Fox’s makeup and fabric. It is a family that “loves to laugh, cook and enjoy life.”
“Thanksgiving at my house still reflects the way I grew up, with gumbo, jambalaya and catfish served alongside a good turkey,” Fox said. “Though I’ve lived many years in New Jersey, at heart I still love the state of my birth and can’t wait to get back there to visit everyone. Spending a lot of my life growing up in the deep South, I saw some of the most beautiful things life has to offer in terms of neighbors helping neighbors, everyone being greeted with a smile, and a true feeling of ‘the village.’
‘Ugliness’ of Being a Forgotten Community
“Though there was a lot of beauty there, I saw ugliness as well,” Fox continued. “It was unfortunately the ugliness that is bred in too many communities around our country which don’t have the benefit of a solid social support system and established resources to ensure residents are able to live their best lives and to thrive.
“Too many of these communities are forgotten and don’t receive the same level of investment as others, so families are left to figure it out on their own or go without. Seeing what happens when there is a lack of services, or an unfairness in the distribution of resources, has helped to shape who I am and even the passion with which I have approached my career choices,” she said.
Fox said, though, her mother and father were both activists and taught her that one does not have to accept inequalities and there are ways to respond to such injustices.
The World We Make
“[My parents instilled] in me and my siblings a drive to make the world around us better — to think bigger than ourselves and to challenge others to do the same,” Fox said. “Throughout my career in healthcare operations, I have always sought innovations which would help improve processes for the people we serve.
“Whether that means launching new programs, applying for Federal funding to create or expand services to help others, creating more efficient processes, or simply cultivating strong leaders who are able to change the face of healthcare, I consider it an urgent mandate to create the best options possible for the people in our communities who need it the most. Nothing frustrates me more than unnecessary bureaucracy because the longer care and help is delayed, the longer people have to suffer, Fox said.
Fox, a board member with the Gloucester County NAACP, has been married for more than 20 years to Gantry Fox, a fellow Rowan alum who is the police accountability organizer for Salvation and Social Justice, a leading civil rights nonprofit in Woodbury.
“I’m married to my wonderful husband of 21 years and we have three beautiful children who fill my life with laughter and joy,” said Fox, who calls herself a “proud” member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
She earned her undergraduate degree when Rowan was still Glassboro State and her master’s degree in healthcare administration from Louisiana State University. Fox also is a fellow with the American College of Medical Practice Executives.
Fox has been called upon as an expert presenter for national organizations throughout the years, including the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, Independence Blue Cross Foundation, National Nurse-led Care Consortium, Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the Health Center and Public Housing Symposium.
She was a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar, a 2014 LEADERSHIP Philadelphia alum and recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “People on the Move” in 2011. She has also received a certificate from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health for a course on “Leading in Health Systems.”
Fox touched on numerous other subjects in her Front Runner New Jersey interview.
FRNJ: How has the Acenda merger worked for you and the community?
Melissa Fox: Our teams understand that everyone, every family is complex, so the supports we provide should be person-centered and respectful of their dynamic needs. We provide approximately 120 programs across 10 counties in the state, and we are constantly using data, technology, market trends, community feedback and even changing reimbursement models, to assess how we can continue to evolve to meet the needs of a changing market. The teams at Acenda are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, and every day they make me proud to be part of the amazing work they do.
FRNJ: What led you to get involved with the NAACP and that chapter? What does the work it does mean to you?
Melissa Fox: The Gloucester County NAACP is a powerhouse chapter! I became involved with them almost as soon as I came back into New Jersey. I met Loretta Winters, President of the Gloucester County NAACP at an MLK event and was blown away by her passion for the community and commitment to service. She invited me to a meeting and I’ve been involved ever since. Being part of the NAACP is a natural fit for me because I grew up in a household where I learned about the importance of civil rights, equality and activism from a very young age. The rights of all people to have equal access to quality care and supports is extremely important to me, and I’m humbled to know that the work we do is part of changing not only the lives of people today, but for generations to come.
FRNJ: What other community organizations you are involved with?
Melissa Fox: I’m a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. I’m also on the Planning/Zoning Board for Clayton Borough, a Board member of the Edelman College of Communications and Creative Arts at Rowan, member of the Peirce College Human Services Leadership Advisory Board and an Adjunct Faculty at Wilmington University.
FRNJ: How seriously do you take your role as a role model? Why?
Melissa Fox: I’m completely humbled whenever anyone honors me with the recognition of being a role model. This is not something I take lightly at all because I believe that for the time we are blessed to be here on earth, we should do our best to make someone else’s life better, more fulfilling, or easier in some way. It doesn’t always take much. Sometimes it can be a conversation, a kind word, some guidance, or even just the “permission” to be the absolute best they can be. I am not at all vain enough to think that I have all of the answers for anyone, but if God places it on someone’s heart to reach out to me for advice, mentorship or support, then it is my duty to provide whatever I can for that season.
FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?
Melissa Fox: There are so many people who have inspired me over the years and so many people from whom I’ve been able to absorb knowledge and wisdom. But most notably, all of the women in my family are warriors. My mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins. They have faced adversity, pain and barriers which could’ve brought many others to their knees. And they may have bent at times, but they never broke. I’m inspired by their strength, and the strength of so many other beautiful strong women like them who work hard every day, carry the pain of the world and their families on their shoulders, and still kick down walls and doors to make sure mouths are fed, babies are clothed and houses still stand. My beautiful, wonderful, fierce daughters have this same strength, and they inspire me every day. The women I know and love, and even those who I don’t know personally, continue to inspire me with their fortitude, and I’m grateful for all of their sacrifices. They are my inspiration.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Melissa Fox: In five years, I hope to be continuing to support the community and building effective and efficient models of care for those who need it the most. Our time on earth is limited, so we have to make the most of every moment!
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