Robert Treat Academy Graduate Heading to Ecuador to Volunteer in Impoverished Community

After graduating from Clark University with a degree in economics in May 2014, Melissa Picon moved back to her native Newark.

Picon, who graduated from Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark in 2006, said she was excited to return to her hometown after being away for eight years, first at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Conn., where she attended high school and college in Worcester, Mass.

Though she studied economics, she had no interest in getting a job on Wall Street or the financial sector.

"I wanted something different," the 23-year old Picon said. "Something that involved my passion for improving lives, for helping others."

Not sure what to do, Picon spent the last year working as a secretary in the Bogota school district, trying to figure out her next move.

"My coworkers are lovely and I have learned a lot but that is not my dream," Picon said. "I knew the only way I would be happy is if I followed my heart."

Picon always wanted a career that combined her passion for helping others with her background in economics. During a summer internship before her senior year of college, Picon did an internship with Manna Project International.

"I had an amazing time during the summer of 2013 but felt it was too short," Picon said. "I promised myself that eventually I would go back, but this time for a year. I admired what the program directors did and always envisioned myself doing the same."

In July, Picon is leaving for Sangolqui, Ecuador, where she will work alongside local community members as a program director to respond to the community's needs and build upon its strengths.

"Some of our main areas of focus include health, education, leadership development, and economic empowerment," Picon said. "Our goal is to build programs that are holistic, community-inspired and owned, and are ultimately sustainable without outside support."

Founded by a group of students from Vanderbilt University, MPI is a volunteer-driven non-profit organization that serves the impoverished communities of Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Picon said she chose to work in Ecuador because her father is from the South American country.

"It's an awesome country that I have grown to love," Picon said. "I see myself in a lot of the children I worked with there and cannot wait to go back to that community and aid them, and hopefully be that one person that believes in them."

Picon will live and work in the Chillos Valley in Ecuador, about 40 minutes outside of Quito, Ecuador's capital city. Before she leaves, she needs to raise $8,500 to cover the cost of living expenses, programmatic funds, and insurance.

"I am fundraising to make my dream come true of engaging in this type of work. Coming from a family of hard working parents who have always put my brother and me first, it is hard to ask them for this large amount of money," Picon said.

After spending a year in Ecuador, Picon plans to return to Newark, continue her education and get involved in education.

"I want to get to work and to give back to the community that has given me so much more than I even knew was possible," Picon said.

Picon attributes her years spent at Robert Treat Academy for giving her confidence in herself and passion to help others. Founded in 1997 by The North Ward Center, Robert Treat graduated its eleventh eighth-grade class this year.

Named a Blue Ribbon school in 2008, Robert Treat has sent its graduates to some of the most prestigious boarding schools in America. Its graduates have been awarded more than $35 million in scholarship offers.

"Without Robert Treat, I truly am not sure where I would be," Picon said. "I never envisioned my life would turn out this amazing so far and it is only getting started. Who knew that my anxious but loving parents would change my life forever when they trusted The North Ward Center with their daughter's future by entering me into the lottery for a spot at the Robert Treat Academy. That single decision back in 1998 has forever changed my life and it is only the beginning."

Adrianne Davis, the co-founder and executive director of The North Ward Center, said Picon is exactly the kind of graduate that Stephen N. Adubato envisioned when he created the school.

"We are so proud to hear that our graduates have taken Steve's challenge to give back and help others," Davis said.

Picon said her teachers at Robert Treat gave her the confidence she needed to thrive in boarding school and in college.

"It was engrained in my mind to always pursue my dream and to not let any one thing stop me," Picon said. "My teachers taught me to break down barriers that were in my way and to never be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. I know that with passion and hard work, I will accomplish everything I set my mind to."

Theresa Adubato, the principal of Robert Treat, said Picon is an example for other students at the school.

"Students like Melissa are setting a high bar for future graduates of Robert Treat Academy," Adubato said.