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DES MOINES, Iowa — Marlena Arnold lights up a room. Meeting her now, you’d never guess how dark the last two decades of her life have been. “Back when I was 23 got into heavy alcohol drinking. Like I walked into a bar and didn’t walk out for twenty years,” she admits.  “I don’t remember a good 10 years of my life because I blacked out so much.”

She was also in and out of prison and when she got out the last time she ended up at The Beacon. “It’s a place where women can learn and grow and empower each other and get on the right track for a wonderful life.”

The Beacon serves women who are homeless because of addiction, domestic violence, and criminal history. Melissa Vine is the executive director.  “I came in July 2020 and it has been a wonderful, messy, beautiful, exciting, terrifying journey figuring out how to run a non-profit,” she says with a laugh.

Melissa may not have come to the job with traditional work experience, but she brings something more important — life experience. She says she grew up with an abusive father and as a young woman, married a man just like him. “I didn’t understand domestic violence and I didn’t understand my childhood,” she says, “when I made the decision to separate from my former husband, I went from being wealthy to being in poverty overnight.”

She had four little boys and after being a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, no career resume. “I had to get a job quickly,” she remembers, “first I worked as a clerk in a grocery store and eventually I became a victim advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault.”

She also finished her Master’s degree, became a licensed mental health counselor, and started small businesses. Her friend Lisa Behrends was there for it all. “This has been an honor and a privilege because I’ve been able to see the journey,” she says through tears, “it’s pretty cool. She has gone from lowest of low to working her way out of that and trying to make the world a better place by empowering other women.”

It’s why she nominated Melissa to be a WHO 13 Remarkable Woman and it’s no surprise that the women she serves also think she’s remarkable. “Melissa is amazing,” says Marlena, “she has this confidence about you and sees things in you that you don’t see at that moment.”

As if Melissa hasn’t already accomplished enough, she started law school at Drake University last summer.  She hopes to use her degree to continue lifting up women in Central Iowa.