by Suzanne Daub
One of the first questions newcomers to Nantucket ask (after do people live here in the winter? and are there schools on Nantucket?) is often “does Nantucket have a hospital?”
The answer, of course, is a resounding YES. And thanks to years of dedication, determination, and dollars raised by generous donors and local residents, in February of 2019 Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s new facilities opened to patients. Thanks to an unprecedented $120 million capital campaign, the largest in Nantucket history, the new hospital was built entirely through private donations: debt-free, using no taxpayer dollars.
One of the very enthusiastic, energetic, and devoted volunteers who helped make the vision of a new hospital a reality is global philanthropist Melanie Sabelhaus. Her relationship with NCH goes back more than a decade. In 2012 and 2013, Melanie was the chair of Boston Pops on Nantucket, and she has been a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair or co-Chair of the Marketing and Development committee since 2018. She was also a founding co-chair of the popular annual Women+Wellness event. For the past two years, with COVID-19 resulting in the cancellation of Pops (the hospital’s largest annual fundraiser), Sabelhaus has worked tirelessly to raise significant funds to close the gap. Hospital staff considers her “a guiding light” in planning for the 2020 virtual Pops celebration and this year’s televised Pops show.
Melanie discovered Nantucket Island 37 years ago. “I lived in Darien, Connecticut, and worked in Manhattan. My friends asked me ‘where do you summer,’ and I said ‘I don’t summer,’ but I asked them ‘where do YOU summer?’ They all told me Nantucket. I told my husband Bob ‘let’s visit,’” Sabelhaus explained. “We came for a weekend with the kids and fell in love with Nantucket!”
The Sabelhaus family first stayed in guest houses, then began renting homes for the summer. “We purchased our first home here in 1997…I consider it [Nantucket] my home. I enjoy Naples, but my home is Nantucket… When you land on Nantucket you are overwhelmed by the sense of community. I’ve discovered friends from around the world who vacation here.”
Sabelhaus’ first foray into volunteering on Nantucket was with the Nantucket Historical Association’s Antiques Show. “Volunteering has always been a big part of my life: I learned it as a young girl from my parents. Dad was a steelworker and Mom was a homemaker… My Dad used to call it the three T’s: your time, your talent, and your treasure… My parents were very involved: they didn’t have a lot of treasure, but they gave their time and their talent,” said Melanie. “My Dad told me he wanted to lead a life of significance in service.”
Sabelhaus names Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as another inspiration—“I met her once, and it changed my life! I live by her quote: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.’”
After the NHA Antiques Show, Sabelhaus became an NHA Trustee, and in 2011, she was recruited by Maureen Hackett to become engaged in the hospital. “Maureen asked me to be chair of the Pops for my first assignment, and you don’t say ‘no’ to Maureen!”
She accepted the assignment and got to work. “I had chaired many big events and galas…. I’m all about making it all-inclusive and forming big committees, so when she told me there were only three people on the committee, I immediately brought on 28 women—we all know the power of women!
“Our first meeting was so powerful with great ideas, and we had a great combination of people. The way the volunteers set it [Pops] up and then break it all down is magical…Chairing this event was one of the joys of my life UNTIL the night before…” Melanie paused for a moment, remembering… “it was pelting rain and the stage was struck by lightning. Pops was cancelled.”
With predictions for continuing severe thunderstorms, this was the first year the Boston Pops on Nantucket was cancelled. Because part of the event had already been set up, the Pops committee went ahead with the few aspects of the fundraiser they were able to preserve. “It was disappointing due to all the work that went into it,” said Sabelhaus. “We had debriefs after: that helps the event improve every year…we talked about what went well, what was needed, what does the community want.”
Because of the cancellation, Sabelhaus agreed to chair Pops again for 2013. “The next year we had 7,500 people dancing on the beach together…Bottom line: the small core group of 3 that made this happen all these years was expanded… opening up networks… to include people with different spheres of influence: year-round people and seasonal residents…. It’s important to me to be engaged. I’m a recruiter. People will support what they help create. This is a community hospital and we want community involvement. This is YOUR hospital.”
After two years of experience with this major fundraiser, Sabelhaus decided that Nantucket Cottage Hospital would be her main endeavor here. “THEN I met Bruce Percelay,” she said. “Bruce Percelay rocked my world! He’s another recruiter… from a $50 lemonade stand to a 10 million gift from the Percelays, we raised the money for the new hospital. What the Percelays were to me, I want to be for others: a role model.”
After chairing Pops, Sabelhaus worked to build a strong Marketing and Development Committee for Nantucket Cottage Hospital. She has stepped down from that role, but she continues to participate as an NCH Trustee.
It was just a year ago that Nantucket Cottage Hospital became even more vital to Melanie Sabelhaus, in a very personal way. “My husband Bob was diagnosed with cancer. His doctors at Johns Hopkins said they eradicated it, so we came home to Nantucket to relax and recover [from treatment]. But he became so ill here that his island doctor—Dr. Diane Pearl—said there was a serious situation, and we had to fly him off.
“We watched the 2020 Pops online together from his hospital bed… Dr. Pearl was a wonderful quarterback, talking to Johns Hopkins, coordinating everything. And when Bob said ‘Melanie, I’m ready to go home,’ Nantucket Cottage Hospital made it happen… My lifeline was NCH. I was surrounded by all the support I needed here. That hospital was the center of our universe. My husband would say ‘I’m so grateful’: he would include the hospital in his prayers every night.”
Sabelhaus would like Nantucket Cottage Hospital to be in the top three of everyone’s donations and contributions. “I believe in the mission of NCH, I believe in the leadership – Gary Shaw, Dr. Diane Pearl… We need everybody on this island to engage: this is our community hospital. There are opportunities to volunteer and to be on committees.” She emphasized that every donation counts and would like to encourage residents who would have purchased tickets to the Pops concert this year to donate that money to the hospital at nantuckethospital. org/donate. “Please join us in donating what you can. We’re grateful—your donation matters.”
And next year, Melanie added, “will be our biggest Pops ever—we are celebrating the 25th next year. It will be the biggest and boldest …and we will do everything it takes to be safe and secure.”