On Call 24/7, She Still Finds Time for Others

Miami Herald, The (FL)
Section: Tropical Life
Edition: Final
Page: 1E

As a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, Melissa Bert has been stationed ``everywhere - all over the place.'' But since being posted here two years ago, she's made Miami a home for herself and a better home for others.

``It's important wherever I go to be part of the community,'' says Bert, one of 10 public servants who earlier this month received the annual United Way Green Family Foundation American Values Award. The Seventh Coast Guard District's lead attorney and a military judge, Bert serves as legal advisor to more than 100 Coast Guard units in the southeastern United States and Caribbean. ``It's a 24/7 thing,'' says Bert, who nevertheless finds free time and spends it as a volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, the state's advocacy program for children in need.

``It can be very frustrating, an endless battle with bureaucracy,'' says Bert. ``There are lots of children who don't have anyone looking out for them, advocating them, loving them.''

Bert is now advocate for a 14-year-old and is working to find a home for him. ``You try to improve their situation, get them adopted, get them to family who might form a permanent loving attachment,'' Bert says.

Bert's program supervisor Alex Falcon says, ``Melissa is very good, very conscientious, very dedicated. She's looking out for the kids' best interest.''

Bert also participates in Women of Tomorrow, which mentors girls in Miami, Broward and Palm Beach County public schools. ``Kids have hope for their future,'' says Bert, who at 40 has a kid's enthusiasm. ``I relate well to younger people, so I have a good time with them.''

She just began mentoring at Key Biscayne's Mast Academy, which has a junior ROTC program. ``It's nice for teenage girls to see a woman officer, to see women who are confident, successful, who've done things in their own right, who have achieved,'' says Bert, who also serves on the executive committee of Leadership Miami, a program of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. ``It gives them an idea of what they can do with their lives.''

In addition to participating with the girls in Women of Tomorrow's careers in media, sports and law programs, Bert talks them through teen issues and gives hands-on help with job interviews and scholarship applications.

A self-described goodie-goodie back in high school, Bert inspires kids, but she inspires adults, too, including her supervisor, Capt. William Baumgartner. He nominated Bert for the United Way Green Family Foundation Award, which recognizes excellence in rank-and-file public employees.

``The start-up of Homeland Security, drugs, immigration, the situation in Haiti - it's a 60- to 70-hour-a-week job. And in addition to that, Melissa has a whole wealth of other projects and volunteer activities - it's amazing,'' Baumgartner says.

It's not amazing to Bert, though. ``The Coast Guard attracts people who are service-oriented, people who think of others first,'' she says. ``I'm lucky to be in an organization where that's what the people are about.''

It's not just the volunteering that impressed Baumgartner, but what Bert volunteers for. ``Leadership Miami is important, but Guardian ad Litem you only do for the kids. That's a really selfless thing that takes a lot of energy, a lot of emotional commitment,'' he says.

In addition to the plaque itself, Bert has received $3,000 from the Green Family Foundation. ``I'm going to donate some to charity - obviously I want to give back to the organizations I work with,'' she says. Some of the money, though, will go to repairing Bert's hurricane-damaged roof. The money, the award and a roof are good to have, but that's not why Bert does what she does.

Born in New York, her parents, a civil rights attorney and a teacher, raised her ``to get involved, correct injustices where you see them and help out. It's important,'' she says. ``I don't know what people do with their free time if they don't volunteer. That's what I've always done.''

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NURI VALLBONA/HERALD STAFF WOMEN OF TOMORROW: Students Laura Wilcox, left, and Ashley Smith with Cmdr. Melissa Bert.