HANCOCK COUNTY — Melissa Ewald was preparing to send her youngest child off to college last summer when she saw the job posting for a new executive director for Leadership Hancock County.
Fast forward eight months later, and the part-time job Ewald successfully landed has dovetailed nicely with her new role as an empty nester.
“I love it. It’s been such a fun experience,” said Ewald, a Henry County native who has lived in Greenfield the past 20 years.
She’s now halfway through her first year with Leadership Hancock County (LHC), which helps guide and shape county leaders through monthly meetings and community projects.
Ewald had never gone through the program herself but has become a respected community leader in her own right, having served five years as director of Meals on Wheels of Hancock County and six years as a board member for FUSE (Families United for Support and Encouragement).
Ewald has been an active Realtor since 2014 and has served as the marketing coordinator for the Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce since 2016.
She’s also a member of the Greenfield Rotary club, has served as a ReadUp tutor and volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels.
Even though she’s been a local leader for much of the past 20 years, Ewald can’t believe how much she’s learned about Hancock County since this year’s LHC class kicked off last September.
The class focuses on a different aspect of the county each month, including local commerce, nonprofits, and county history and government, which includes visits to facilities like the county jail.
Ewald said the experience is eye-opening, especially for someone like herself who thought they already knew the county so well.
“We have a very supportive and very active board at Leadership Hancock County. They are ‘all in’ on our mission and making sure that the class and participants have the best experience they can, whether through speakers that are scheduled and field trips the class takes,” she said.
It’s not often that local residents are granted a guided tour to the whole county, said Ewald, with behind-the-scenes glimpses of local businesses, nonprofit organizations and government offices.
A variety of speakers also lend insight into how those various agencies operate, introducing some of the players who personify local leadership.
The class’s main objective, said Ewald, is to cultivate and develop leaders who will help drive, shape and sustain Hancock County’s future.
The main way of doing that is by assigning class members to work in small groups throughout the year, focusing on individual projects designed to enhance the community.
This year’s projects include creating a bike share program, a drug court library and a recipe book for food pantry clients, and doing renovations at a local recovery house.
“I think the project piece really develops (class members) as learners and leaders in our community because they are actively seeking out something they can do to better our community,” said Ewald, who has marveled at their progress thus far.
“The projects we’ve got in the works this year touch so many areas of the community, from the wellness aspect of the bike share to the nutrition aspect of the recipe book for food pantry recipients,” she said.
Participants learn how to collaborate with one another and with members of the community at large, navigating contacts they’ve made through the leadership course. Individual groups are tasked with planning and implementing their projects from beginning to end, which typically includes facets of research and development, fundraising and marketing.
“They also need to think about what it’s going to take to sustain these projects past the end of our class,” said Ewald, who has been impressed with the class members’ commitment to the nine-month program.
“I think any time you dedicate yourself to spending time learning more about the community you live in, so that you can get involved and help better that community, it’s going to make you a better person,” she said.
Ewald said the ultimate hope for LHC graduates is that they go on to become involved with local organizations in a number of ways, like civic involvement or volunteering and serving as board members for nonprofits.
Her longtime friend and colleague, Jane Barton, said Ewald is a prime example of a person dedicated to supporting and enhancing the place they call home.
“Given her past leadership and volunteer roles, Melissa seemed a very natural fit to lead Leadership Hancock County,” said Barton, who serves on the LHC executive board that hired Ewald last year.
“Melissa has jumped in with both feet with a willingness to work hard and promote Leadership Hancock County. She brings fresh ideas and energy to our board and organization, and has already made an impressive impact,” said Barton, a graduate of the the Leadership Hancock County class of 2020.
In addition to leading LHC and doing marketing work for the Greenfield chamber, Ewald also stays busy selling homes as a real estate broker with Level Up Real Estate Group in Greenfield, and was honored to be named Best Realtor of Hancock County by the Daily Reporter’s “Best of Hancock County” survey in 2021.
In her spare time, she likes to spend time with her husband, Andy, and their grown kids — Tyler, 28, and Ellie, 18 — as well as her 2-year-old granddaughter, Jane.
For more information on Leadership Hancock County, visit LeadHC.org.