Melani Walton of the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation was presented the Global ATHENA Leadership Award at the ATHENA Valley of the Sun (AVOS) Ignite Change Conference on Thursday, February 28, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Melani is the daughter of Charles and Marleen Lowman of Sidney.
The ATHENA Global Leadership Award is presented by the ATHENA International Board to an individual who has achieved the highest level of professional excellence, assisted women in reaching their potential and whose body of work has an international impact.
As a philanthropist, Walton is committed to efforts on a local, national and global scale. With her studies in art history and background as a K-12 educator, real estate specialist, multi-sport clinician, and Collegiate All-American in basketball and track and field, she brings a diverse skill set to the philanthropic arena. Walton is passionate about supporting research and innovation in the areas of education, arts and humanities, brain health, consciousness studies, well-being, conservation and sustainability.
“To be recognized for the work Rob and I are doing on a global stage was really an honor,” Walton said. “And to be a role model for the next generation of leaders is what Athena is all about ...mentoring etc. — so to be considered in the group of past recipients such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Condoleezza Rice, Billie Jean King and others was again, a surprise and an honor... Each and every person has the potential to affect another’s life each and every day in so many ways. We all carry the gift of opportunity along with the burden of responsibility to choose to be in the game of life. As sports taught me, TEAM stands for together everyone achieves more. And as my parents quoted ....from the words of [Theodore] Roosevelt, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’”
What follows is a Q&A conducted by Judith Prince from the board of directors of ATHENA International.
Did mentors influence your life? What are some of the core messages you received from your mentors?
My parents, Charles and Marleen, are the epitome of integrity and doing what is right day in and day out. They love each other and their children, are contributors to their church and community, and have always expected us to do our best, where we were, with what we had. My mom and dad have been my biggest fans and greatest mentors throughout life. Every single day they cared, by never missing a basketball game or track meet, horse show, piano, flute or dance recital. The core values they instilled have shaped how I live my life. My grandparents also had the best advice. My grandfather always said, ‘If you do what you love, you will love what you do.’ My grandmother would say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do in life, you are always in the service business. It doesn’t matter what your job title is, if you’re not in service to others, you are in the wrong business.’ The message is that we are each other’s keepers. When we are no longer grateful to those we serve and those who serve us, then we have lost our humanity.
What are two or three events that helped shape your life?
Being raised on a ranch in Montana, in Big Sky Country, our family had a very strong connection to the land. I grew up learning about the cycles of life, the rhythms of each season and how to honor nature.
The experience of living close to the natural world shaped my passion for conservation, sustainability, health and well-being.
My experience as an athlete was life-changing, too. I was a collegiate All-American in basketball, track and field and academics, and played on a national championship basketball team in college. Our team had a chant – “T-E-A-M. Together Everyone Achieves More.” The lessons I learned from sports – about the value of teamwork, self-sacrifice and perseverance – are invaluable. Sports created opportunity for me to earn scholarships and later start my own business – as a sports clinician and consultant – that helped others achieve their goals.
My marriage to Rob has been a defining event. I have been blessed to find someone who shares the same values and who supports my life journey. Rob is my indispensable partner and soul mate. The Rob and Melani Walton Foundation wouldn’t exist without his kindness and generous heart. He gives me the greatest gift every day by giving me the freedom to be myself.
What woman inspires you and why?
I’m inspired by so many strong women, like the past recipients of ATHENA’s Global Leadership Award. They are trailblazers and role models. I am honored to be recognized in their company. On a personal level, I share the same birthday as Amelia Earhart and have always admired her adventuresome soul. That same sense of adventure inspires our foundation’s approach to conservation work. My husband Rob and I visited 22 countries in 20 months to identify and find ways to protect biodiversity hot spots — places with a high number of endemic creatures and natural resources at high risk.
Another navigator and explorer I admire is Sakakawea, who guided Lewis and Clark across the West. Lewis and Clark became national heroes for reaching the Pacific, but the Corps of Discovery would have failed without Sakakawea leading the way. She was in an incredibly difficult position – carrying her infant son with her on a long and risky overland journey – but she made history. She walked her path and lived her destiny. I had the incredible opportunity several years ago to work with the Native American community and the U.S. government to help mint the Sakakawea dollar coin.
I am most indebted to the women who have had a very direct impact on my life, like my mother and grandmother, who taught me the value of hard work, community service and caring for others. My mother was a teacher for 40 years. She would have breakfast on the table for us in the morning, go to work all day and then have dinner ready for us every night. I still have no idea how she was able to juggle everything. My grandmother ran a one-room schoolhouse in the Killdeer Mountains and helped my grandfather, who was county commissioner, run a large ranching and farming operation, as well as a construction business. She would also cook breakfast in the morning and dinner at night for the family and farm workers, go to school and teach students of all ages during the day. With all she was doing, she somehow still found time to tend her garden and have a rose-lined walkway to her home.
What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women leaders?
In some ways, the challenges for the next generation of women leaders are going to be the same as those women face today. For example, finding a healthy work-life balance is everything. But I also think it’s important that women reframe questions about what they can achieve and see things through the prism of opportunity, as opposed to challenges.
There are many great women who paved the way for all of us to have greater opportunity, like those who won the right the vote and advocated for Title IX. Without Title IX, I would not have had the opportunity to play basketball or run track and field in college or compete in the same athletic competitions as men. It opened a lot of doors. Women are no longer limited in what they can do or achieve in sports because of gender.
The generation in which I grew up is standing on the shoulders of the generations before us. Finding new opportunities to succeed and being inspired by the women who broke barriers and pushed through the glass ceiling in the past is how we create our future.
Ultimately, our benchmark for success as women will be when we are no longer talking about gender equity. I look forward to the day when we can celebrate all leaders without it being a competition between male or female dominance. We need to find and celebrate our common humanity, especially as we face new opportunities and challenges posed by technological advances such as artificial intelligence.
What is an accomplishment of which you are proudest?
The most fulfilling experiences through our foundation are those moments when we directly witness the effects of giving in real time. The personal connection of mutual respect and appreciation is powerful; to create opportunities that potentially alter the course of someone’s life for the better is incredibly humbling. We also take on many ‘systems’ challenges like the ocean which can be overwhelmingly complex and have a long-term trajectory where results or progress may be slower but are increasingly important for people and planet. Rumi’s quote, “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop,” clarifies how each of us contain both the choice of perspective and the power to make a difference.
Having the opportunity to create change and see how our partners are improving lives in profound ways close to home and around the world is deeply satisfying. In Arizona, we work with one of the largest human services providers to the homeless – St. Vincent de Paul. We partnered with their leaders to create the Urban Farm, which is truly sustainable and provides healthy produce to a population that often lacks access to nutritious food. St. Vincent de Paul serves over 4,000 meals a day, grows 48,000 pounds of food annually, has over 15,000 volunteers and over 25,000 donors. Think of how many lives are impacted and how that creates a ripple effect to change many more lives.
What we have achieved with our conservation partners in some of the most special and vulnerable places on the planet is also rewarding. An example is in Indonesia, where we worked with the government, local communities and several organizations – like Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy – to help establish a network of marine protected areas in the Bird’s Head Seascape. That action is helping ensure the survival of thousands of species, everything from sea turtles to whale sharks and pygmy seahorses. We helped do something similar working with Conservation International and the island nation of Kiribati, which created the Phoenix Island Protected Area in another one of the world’s most biodiverse marine regions. It is a privilege to play a role in developing conservation solutions with lasting impact.