Melissa is a Founder and the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP). Melissa received her B.A. from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and then joined Teach for America (TFA) where she spent two years teaching 9th and 10th grade students at Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans. After completing TFA, Melissa received her M. Ed from the Harvard Graduate School of Education – where she focused on the research areas of Urban Education and At-Risk Adolescents. Melissa returned to New Orleans after Harvard and spent the next three years working with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), helping to reform the juvenile justice system. Knowing firsthand the dearth of services and opportunities available to disconnected New Orleans youth, Melissa and two of our JJPL colleagues started YEP in 2004 to address the specific needs of this population. Over the past ten years, Melissa has grown YEP to be the largest organization addressing the comprehensive needs of court-involved and out-of-school New Orleans youth. Melissa has garnered local and national recognition for her leadership in the youth development field for 15 plus years. Melissa currently is a member of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice's Southeast Regional Advisory Committee; she sits on the New Orleans Crime Coalition and is a co-chair of its Juvenile Justice Subcommittee; and she has a seat on the New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board. In addition, Ms. Sawyer represents YEP in the Opportunity Youth Coalition (OYC). Melissa is a member of the NextGen Council, an initiative of Greater New Orleans, Inc., and she was a fellow in the inaugural Norman C. Francis Leadership Institute class and in the New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute. Among the acknowledgments she has received, Melissa was recognized as a Young Leadership Council Role Model (2014); a City Business Woman of the Year Honoree (2012); the James G Wright McGill Alumnus Awardee (2009); and one of Gambit's "40 under 40" New Orleanians (2007).
70 percent of YEP’s staff members are born and raised in New Orleans and the vast majority grew up in the same neighborhoods that our youth live in. Our staff members’ personal understanding of the challenges that our young people face make them uniquely qualified to provide support to YEP youth.