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Former social worker gives $1.4 million to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work

In the 1950s, as a young social services worker in some of North Carolina’s most rural communities, Melvarene Adair didn’t fully grasp the important role she was playing in so many families’ lives.

Back then, she spent much of her time making home visits to determine how much financial help or “welfare” that households would receive. Adair, who earned her masters of social work degree from UNC in 1976, still recalls one home in Warren County, where the family cooked their meals in the fireplace over an open flame. 

“I didn’t understand that these dollars meant so much more to them than they did to me,” she said. “I didn’t understand how needy they were. I think at the time, I was thinking more about saving the taxpayers’ money. I’d be more generous today.”

Adair, 78, has embraced that philosophy of giving back and is sharing it in a big way. The retired social services worker has established a charitable gift annuity with the UNC Foundation, directing nearly $1.4 million to the School of Social Work – one of the largest gifts in the School’s history. 

The money will be used to create a $1 million endowment for The Johnson-Howard-Adair Distinguished Professorship. About $394,000 will go to an existing scholarship, which was created by Adair’s son, Kenneth Howard, in his mother’s honor.

“Mel’s transformative gift will have a lasting impact on the UNC School of Social Work,” said Associate Dean for Advancement Mary Beth Hernandez. “The Johnson-Howard-Adair professorship will be among the largest professorships established at a school of social work, and the Adair Scholarships will support masters of social work students in perpetuity.”

The professorship will target a scholar or distinguished teacher interested “in the impact and influence of poverty on individuals, families and communities.” Ultimately, Adair hopes the gift will also help attract more students to the social work profession. 

“I’ve gotten the impression that everybody wants to go into mental health because of the prestige, but I want them to realize that this is a good field, too,” she said.