Melissa Fitzgerald: A day in the life of an actress, producer, and social activist

You may know Melissa Fitzgerald for playing the role of Carol on NBC’s award-winning political drama, The West Wing. You may not know that Melissa Fitzgerald is an entrepreneur who has created so much good in the world. She grew up at a time when it was common for very well-educated mothers to lead a tremendous amount of really important volunteer work. Her parents were both activists and engaged with creating opportunities for others. So, after acting school and living in New York, that tenacity showed up as she jumped right in to create an off-Broadway theater with a group of unemployed actors and it was a success.

In 1995, soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Melissa co-founded Voices in Harmony, a non-profit youth arts organization committed to empowering at-risk teens by cultivating personal, academic, and artistic excellence. When she has an idea she goes all in. “It’s like throwing my hat over the wall,” she said. “Now I have to go get it.”

She is an incredible woman achieving great outcomes for the people she serves. This is a day in the life of an actress, producer, and social activist.

What keeps you busy? I changed careers very dramatically a little over two years ago when I took the job as senior director at Justice for Vets and moved from Santa Monica to Washington, DC. I did not work my way up to get to this job so there was a very large learning curve for me. The program was launched in 2008 and now there are more than 700 Veterans Treatment Courts in the US. To achieve our goal of having a court accessible to all veterans, we need about 2,000. This is a critical time to expand access to veterans in need, so I work really hard. When I am committed to something, I see it through.

People ask me what I want to be doing in five years. I have goals for the organization and I plan on doing as much as I can and will stay and do that work as long as I feel that I am adding value – it is critical component in order for me to do something. I am not motivated by money or title.

Today I woke up a little before 6 am. I am a lousy sleeper. I woke up at 2:41 am and then went back to sleep and woke up at 5:45 am. I set my alarm for 6:15, 6:30, and 6:40.  A long time ago I would wake up early and get moving. Now I like to linger a little more.

The first thing I did was check my phone. I check my email and I check my computer for anything work-wise that I need to address.

Before anything significant happens I make some very strong coffee. I have to have coffee with half ‘n half and real sugar or agave – none of that fake stuff. You know the expression, “Give me my coffee and no one gets hurt.” That’s how I feel in the morning. My life is fueled by coffee. When I went to Uganda the first time to volunteer I had to learn what I could and couldn’t bring, what to wear, and we were all told to make sure to bring a luxury time. I brought Illy coffee and a plastic mini cone, filters, and powdered milk so I could have my coffee every morning; and, a really nice pair of sunglasses.

My morning ritual includes… Check email for any emergencies (to make sure nothing happened at night that I need to handle), pull up The New York Times online, get out of bed, make my coffee, get back in bed with coffee, answer emails and read The New York Times. I never missed the hard copy paper – I was an early adopter to online news. It’s not messy and I don’t miss the shuffle.

And, I check Facebook to keep up with my friends, both personally and professionally. I have very little free time so it’s one of the ways I can keep up with what they’re doing and share what I’m doing with Justice for Vets.

I go to the gym in my building to work out. I have a broken toe right now so I didn’t get to work out even though I wanted to.

I start working from home in the morning. I get to the office by 9 am.

I like working from home. Being an actor and producer, that’s mostly where I’ve worked. It’s been a big adjustment working from the office. The part I like least is sitting at a desk with my computer.

Being an actor is incredibly collaborative. More of this work is behind a computer with the door shut. Justice for Vets is a division of the National Division of Drug Court Professionals with 28 people in my office. I really enjoy being together for meetings. I am definitely a people person. I have experienced that so much is possible when you get people in a room and engage – things happen and so much more comes from the experience than you can get from email.

My biggest challenge was changing a lot of things in my life at once. I had been in Los Angeles for 20 years and everything has changed – the climate, my activities, my career, my friends. I used to go exercise at the beach or hiking at 6 am.

I celebrated people – the people I get to work with and my friends and family.

What I love most about my work is the people. The people we get to serve who are participants in Veterans Treatment Courts, getting their lives back, fighting for their freedom, facing their challenges and demons head on. I get to meet their family members and really see that the work we are doing is changing lives. It is a gift to get to be a part of that.

The people who work in Veterans Treatment Courts are inspiring. They know there is a better way to do business which is saving lives. We are transforming the way veterans are treated in a criminal justice system that is not only about punishment and accountability, but also about hope and healing. My dad has worked in criminal justice my entire life and has been a judge for decades. He launched the Mental Health Court in Philadelphia 20 years ago.

When you do something that is new you have to fight for it and prove that it is working so that others can believe in something bigger than themselves.

I saw this from my mother and father growing up. They could have been making way more money doing something else but they choose to do what they believed in and make a difference.

The highlight of my career is when veterans come back to see me, invite me to a wedding, introduce me to their kids, share their news about a great new job – the work we are doing together is transforming lives.

Right now there are more than 13,000 men and women veterans who are participating in treatment courts across the country. Those are people who have families, who are needed in our communities. Without them as productive citizens we all loose. We are seeing the positive effect of Veterans Treatment Courts on our communities including enormous savings for the tax payer.

My favorite part of the day was when I had a friend in from out of town, Dulé Hill from West Wing, and we went out to dinner. He helped on the PSA launch in LA recently. I got to meet his girlfriend and I love that he is still part of my life and the things I care about.

Least favorite… Sitting behind my desk at my computer with my door closed working on my reimbursements for my credit card and sending email blasts to our supporters. I love sharing the news but I don’t like computer work. I would rather go in early and clean the floors than do computer work.

I am so glad that I get to work on behalf of this issue, this cause, and in support of the men and women who have served our country in such a meaningful way. They are doing it for themselves and I get to play a small part.

I wish I had more support staff so I wouldn’t have to schedule calls because that is time consuming and there are things that only I can do and they don’t get done if I have too much other work. Some of those things could get done faster and better by someone else.

Did you have a plan for your day? Did it go as planned? Yes, always, though, I don’t ever get through my to-do list. I have a pretty intense to-do list that I write on a legal pad in two colors (green is M-W-F; yellow is T-Th) and I love to physically check off the items.

Being able to go home without completing the to-do list is very challenging for me. When I first started I would go home at 11 at night and that is not sustainable and not the best use of my time. I am better out meeting people and creating new opportunities. Sometimes things fall through the cracks and that is very challenging for me.

I want to recognize the people I work with at the office for being great collaborators and my friends for supporting me and the work that we’re doing. I had a bunch of friends volunteer for the PSA event in LA – a PR friend who helped with check-in; an incredible chef who helped got coffee.

How do you commute? I used to walk because I was only two blocks away because I don’t want to add on a commute to my already long day. I recently moved to a bigger place in Alexandria, VA and now I drive and I’m less than five minutes from the office.

For lunch I’m a disaster. I work a lot and I don’t take as good of care of myself as I should. Sometimes I will go to Starbucks and get a breakfast sandwich but often I will just work through lunch. It’s unusual that I will bring something. I may have a Snickers bar or instant oatmeal at my desk. I’m trying to eat better but I have a hard time breaking the momentum of work. Vegetable juice has been a good option.

A personal activity I do just for myself is read The New York Times. Sometimes I read an inspirational quote. When my toe is not broken, I exercise – go for a walk or go to the gym in my building, or do a spinning class. I like doing things with other people, meeting friends at a class. Outdoor exercise is my favorite and I miss that about my lifestyle in Los Angeles.

I most enjoyed spending time with friends and family.

For dinner I go out a lot. I had a great dinner with Dulé – pasta and a yummy dessert. If I’m home alone I’ll have eggs because it’s really easy to make. I have gotten really lazy and I don’t have my routine down. Before, I could walk to everything. I like eating yogurt, fruit, and organic foods so I make a really good smoothie for breakfast with vegan protein powder, mixed berries, kale, spinach. It’s fast because I can drink it and at least I get in one good thing a day.

I travel a lot and when I am home it is harder to have the inspiration to cook something for myself.

My favorite technology that I used today is my phone.

I am inspired by the participants and the graduates of the Veterans Treatment Courts. (Besides the coffee) they are why I am able to keep the momentum going.

Did you meditate? Did you exercise? I get the Deepak/Oprah emails every day and do it about once a week.

One strategy I use to make my time more effective is I have room for improvement and am looking for suggestions. I am very much in the moment and that may not be the most efficient time management. I don’t think I want to change that about myself.

I am passionate about helping people – providing support and a platform or an opportunity for people to help themselves. I have never given anyone a voice. At best, I have given them a platform to share their voice. It’s about access. We provide the structure, the financial support, and the audience. If they don’t bring their voice there is nothing there.

Something I wanted to get done but didn’t get to do was my to-do list and exercise and wash my hair so I would look better.

A dream I am currently focused on fulfilling is… I wake up with our goal for Justice for Vets – putting a well-trained Veterans Treatment Court in reach of everyone in need. My goal is to get fewer of those phone calls where a veteran with PTSD ends up in a bad situation because they couldn’t get the help they needed.

I can’t live without my friends and family.

Today I felt happy/sad/frustrated/excited – all of it.

I went to sleep at… I fell asleep with my light on probably around midnight.

Tomorrow I am looking forward to collaborating with 25 others from veterans service organizations to better advance the missions of all of our initiatives. That’s what I love about being in the nonprofit space. There is a lot of good in the world and it is heartening; it gives me hope about the world. And then when we are done I am going to drive to Houston and be with my family for April Fool’s Day which I consider to be a High Holiday and boy, do I have plans!

In November 2013, Melissa Fitzgerald joined Justice For Vets as its new Senior Director. As an actor, Melissa is best known for her seven-year role as Carol on the NBC smash hit The West Wing, but off-screen she is widely recognized as a courageous advocate for people in need. Melissa is co-founder of Voices in Harmony, a non-profit mentoring organization that uses theater to work with underserved teens. In 2007, Melissa traveled to war-torn Northern Uganda to bring the Voices in Harmony program to former abducted child soldiers and other teenagers effected by the region’s brutal rebel war. The experience opened her eyes to the lingering impact of war. In 2011, Melissa co-executive produced Halfway Home, a documentary featuring Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Senator Max Cleland and Silver Star recipient and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, Sgt. Tommy Rieman joining other veterans in recounting their experience in war and their struggle to reintegrate and recover upon returning home. “Although most veterans are strengthened by their military service, my experience working on Halfway Home personalized the struggle of many veterans who are having difficulty reintegrating. I have followed the development of Veterans Treatment Courts closely and know that there is no better way for me to be of service to veterans than by devoting myself to the expansion of these life-saving programs,” said Melissa. “I am deeply honored and grateful to have the opportunity to be part of Justice For Vets, an organization that is having such a profound impact on veterans and their families.”

Even while appearing in films such as Love and Sex, Frequency and on TV in The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy, Melissa has been dedicated to community service and outreach. In the summer of 2006 Melissa traveled with International Medical Corps as a volunteer to war-torn northern Uganda to work with IMC’s gender based violence program and with malnourished children and their mothers, giving birth to Hope Not Lost, an award winning short film she produced documenting her experience, narrated by Martin Sheen.  In 2007, she traveled back to northern Uganda as the producer of the award winning feature film, After Kony-Staging Hope, a documentary that follows Voices in Harmony as they take their unique theater program to northern Uganda.

In 1995 Melissa co-founded Voices in Harmony, a non-profit youth arts organization committed to empowering at-risk teens by cultivating personal, academic, and artistic excellence. Melissa has served as Goodwill Ambassador and Board Member for the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC), and traveled to South Africa as an IAPAC volunteer working with those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

In addition to her own organizations and projects, she is passionate about lending her support to others.  She was a spokesperson for Environmental Alliance, a political organization designed to educate voters about environmental issues. In 2004 she traveled to battleground states carrying the organization’s message to prospective voters as part of the Women’s Tour for The Environment.

A year later Melissa represented the International Medical Corps at the Live 8 Concert and the G8 Summit as part of the ONE Campaign to end poverty. Major media coverage of Melissa’s work with the ONE Campaign included CNN, BBC Radio, NBC, CNBC, People Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer and others.

In 2007 Melissa won a New York Times writing contest, Your Turn To Tell the Story sponsored by Nicholas Kristof.  She has written pieces that can be found in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and the book, The Enough Moment by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle.

In 2011, Melissa joined fellow artists Martin Sheen, Matthew Perry, Harry Lennix and Trey Anastasio on Capitol Hill to advocate for Drug Courts and Veterans Treatment Courts as part of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Annual Training Conference.

Melissa earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and attended a two-year conservatory program at the Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York City.