Nelly Melendez was born in Rio Piedra, Puerto Rico. Her parents came to New York when she and her siblings were very young in order to earn a better living for their family. They settled in Brooklyn where Nelly attended elementary, middle and high school and still resides today. As a young girl, she volunteered at Cumberland Hospital taking care of the elderly that had no family, and also visited patients that no one seemed to care about.
After getting married in 1980, having four children, and a series of jobs over the years, she landed a position as a sorter operator with Bankers Trust Bank. In 1996 at the age of 34, Nelly’s husband passed away from cirrhosis of the liver at which time he was also diagnosed with HIV. Ironically, she began volunteering to help HIV patients in the early 1980’s, many years before she was diagnosed with HIV. She didn't know much about HIV at that time, –only that people needed support without being judged. Because of her early compassion shown to patients in need, no one was surprised when she began volunteering as an HIV Peer at Brookdale Hospital in 2001, helping patients understand their HIV diagnosis. In 2005, she started working at GMHC, a social services organization in New York City, first as a part-time Peer Advocate, then as a Counselor, and currently has been a full-time Client Navigator for 17 years at GMHC. One of the most compelling reasons Nelly advocates for those with HIV is linked to her very own family. She recalls that when her brother-in-law was diagnosed in 1989 with AIDS, the family turned their back on him and didn't want him around. She knew in her heart she had to help him so she opened her home to take care of him. One day when he had to go to the hospital, she visited with her children, sister-in-law and his daughter. He asked for a can of soda and before he could even put his lips on it, his daughter simply touched the can.
Her sister-in-law then smacked the can out of her hands. When Nellie asked why she did that, she said without hesitation “because he has AIDS!” Nelly will never forget the hurt in his eyes and made a promise to herself that she would never treat anyone less than they deserve to be treated. Moreover, she taught her children the same valuable lesson.