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Former Woodland Hills student comes full circle, joins board of directors

Although she had a troubled childhood, one constant for Melissa Swor was always her drive to succeed.

"As a teenager, I think I stood out -- in different ways -- as someone who tried to get ahead," she said. "Given the right tools and instruction, I was going to get ahead one way or another."

Swor, a former student of Woodland Hills, a delinquency prevention, intervention and rehabilitation service, is now a successful businesswoman who owns and operates National Title Inc. and the Stanley Center in Duluth.

"She went out and created her own future, and did it very wonderfully," said Richard Quigley, Woodland Hills' CEO, who has been with the program for more than 20 years. "She's like the model we try to teach all the kids."

The Woodland Hills community is so proud of Swor that she was recently appointed to its board of directors -- making her the first former student in the private, nonprofit organization's 98-year history to do so.

"I wanted for a long time to have a former student on the board, (one who) was making a significant presence in the community, and Melissa was that," Quigley said.

Swor, now 33, vividly recalls her road to Woodland.

On the heels of a "rough upbringing," the Duluth native (born and raised) found herself homeless, living on her own, at the age of 15.

After a year and a half of that, she got into a little trouble with the law.

That's when Judge Gerald Martin recommended the program.

"Woodland Hills was my first stint in trouble, and my last stint," she said. "It helped me to not be the victim, not feel sorry for myself, not give up -- and go on to own my own businesses."

Above all, she felt safe there.

"I was not going to be hurt. I was not going to be abused. I was fed. I was cared for," she said.

After six months at Woodland -- "a lot shorter than the average stay back then," she said -- Swor, still 16, was back out on her own after spending a summer in the service's transitional program.

"(It) helped me to go back out on my own, back into the community," she said, "and helped me to get a job that was twice what minimum wage was at the time."

Swor graduated from Duluth East in '92 with a 3.8 GPA. Even more impressive, she graduated from Duluth Business University in one year -- with honors.

For the next five years, she worked for a paralegal at a law firm.

"The husband of the woman who caught me doing bad things in high school hired me," Swor said. She didn't know it at the time, but he did. "He asked his wife what I was like and she said, 'If she's not in trouble, she's going to be great. If she's in trouble, you don't want to have anything to do with her.'"

During this time, she was trained in title work. At the end of her stay, in 1999, Swor purchased her boss's title company, National Title Inc.

She was also getting into real estate and becoming a residential landlord ("everything but selling," she adds).

This would eventually lead to the purchase of the former Fargusson Building at Fourth Avenue West and Superior Street.

Swor leases suites in the building -- named "The Stanley Center" after her grandfather -- to a vast array of organizations and businesses, from the U.S. Army and Herbalife to Trip Planners and Tadasana Massage.

"I'm a firm believer that these kids (at Woodland Hills) are here not because they have a lack of conscience, but they have had a lack of opportunities," Swor said.

She said it's more than giving them opportunities, though: They need to have the ability to recognize opportunities.

Although she volunteers with Mentor Duluth and First Witness Child Abuse, Swor has found time to stay involved with Woodland throughout the years.

One of her favorite things to do has been passing on what's she learned.

"I talk to the kids straight from the heart -- not giving them some spiel -- telling them what I really think," she said. "They kind of listen to that a little more."

For more information on Woodland Hills, call 728-7500 or visit www.woodlandhills.org.

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