Alumna Gives $1.4 million for Poverty Professorship, Scholarships

In the 1950s, as a young social services worker in some of North Carolina’s most rural communities, Melvarene Adair ’51 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” households would receive. Adair – who also earned a master’s degree in social work in 1976 from Carolina – 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. It is 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 ’76, in his mother’s honor.

“Mel’s transformative gift will have a lasting impact on the school,” said Mary Beth Hernandez, associate dean for advancement. “The Howard-Johnson-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,” as stated in the gift agreement.

Ultimately, Adair hopes the gift will also help attract more students to the profession of social work. “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.

Carolina’s School of Social Work is one of the nation’s leaders in social work research and education and is consistently ranked among the top 10 schools of social work in the nation.

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