Community feature: MelRo Potter brings advocacy for homeless youth to Africa

Erica Thompson

Earlier this year, MelRo Potter traveled to Ghana to explore her heritage and ended up setting a different course for her future. She is currently building a school to both house and educate 150 girls. It is scheduled to open this fall.

“This particular region that I was in, we found that the youth were homeless,” she said, recalling her trip during a mid-May interview at a German Village coffee shop. “I realized that the only difference between them and I was the fact that they have a different country of origin and they speak a different language. But what we were connected by was our traumas.”

Potter discovered the teenagers in the region were being forced into sex-trafficking for food, and could easily get pregnant. “I looked back over my life and I was like, ‘OK, I was a teen parent and I lived in a teen parenting homeless shelter. … I had no support. So what would've helped me?'”

You might say the odds were stacked against Potter when she was born. The Seattle native was conceived after her 13-year-old mother was raped by an older man. Potter's mom considered terminating the pregnancy, but Roshan, an older woman in the neighborhood, prayed over her stomach.

“You're carrying light,” Roshan said. “You're carrying someone who's amazing.”

Still, Potter, whowas given the first name MelissaRoshan in the neighbor's honor, had a troubled life. She ended up in the foster care system, where she experienced abuse, living in over 20 homes. She had her son, Trey, at 17 years old, and was homeless for two years.

Potter emerged from poverty after being discovered by a modeling agent while shopping for diapers. Her professional career took off, and she moved to Columbus to start a new life with her now ex-husband. But she felt increasingly empty.

“I used my modeling as a cover up for many, many years,” Potter said. “I would go home and still miss mama and daddy, still thinking about the shit from my past. And I felt very ugly.”

“I remember I had this moment where I looked in the mirror and I was terrified because I didn't know who I was,” she continued. “And a couple days later, instead of walking on a runway, I walked across the Hoover Reservoir and got ready to take my life.”

A woman saw Potter and encouraged her not to jump. Potter then checked into a psychiatric ward, and took a break from modeling to recover.

As part of her healing, she enrolled in trauma-based therapy and even met and forgave her biological parents in person. She also traveled back to the foster home where she'd had the most difficult experiences.

“But I had to do some other shit,” Potter said. “I had to jump out of an airplane a couple times so I could get over the fear.” She also held a tarantula and fired a gun.

“My math became: Go toward that which makes you afraid,” she said. “That's where you find your healing and that is where you find your power, because that thing no longer controls you. And that's where you find your freedom.”

These days Potter is finding value beyond her photographs; she speaks to young women about the importance of inner beauty, and has become an advocate for youth in the foster care system.

“There's a national shortage right now of foster parents available,” said Potter, who teaches trauma-informed parenting classes. “You don't have to be perfect. … You do have to be passionate. You have to be loving and willing to learn.”

Potter is learning as she goes, continuing therapy to achieve balance, and now running MelRo's Foundation with the ambitious goal of opening nine more schools in Ghana in the next two years.

“A lot of people get consumed by their past and pain,” said Shelton Mercer, a friend who has witnessed Potter's progression over the years. “She's transformed that into a story of triumph, and inspiring not just women and girls, but people all over the world. … She's one of the most courageous people I know.”

“Giving back, it's the rent that we pay for being alive,” Potter said. “I feel so rich. … Being homeless and not having parents, my advocacy feels like home. This is where I'm supposed to be.”