|| Italian-born family therapist chooses RI 'again and again'
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ROCK ISLAND — The boot heel of Italy is the more conservative part of that country, and the year 1985 was a more conservative time than today.
So it's no surprise Italian-born Rita Melissano's desire to come to the United States for a doctorate in marriage and family therapy put a strain on her relationship with her parents. Her father flat-out told her, if she left, she wouldn't be his daughter anymore.
At 28, she was working as a clinical psychologist in the northeast of Italy. One night, she watched the movie "Chariots of Fire." The Scottish runner's speech reading the Bible passage about being raised up on eagle's wings struck a nerve.
"I realized I was a woman of faith and that there was nothing to be afraid of and that God would always protect me and watch over me, and that was the very moment when I said, 'That's it, I'm going,' and I was fearless, and I let go of all my fears," she said.
She called her parents with the conviction she knew she was meant to come to the U.S. This time, her father said, "OK."
"That was a miracle itself for my father to say that," she said. "So I think I was spiritually guided to come to the U.S."
She wanted to work with couples and families instead of just individuals, and family therapy programs in Italy weren't as widely known as those in the U.S.
"That was not the approach that I liked, so I decided to come to the United States and get the best in family science," she said. She found that Brigham Young University in Utah was the first to be accredited by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Friends at an American base in the northeast of Italy helped get her ready. She recalled her means were skimpy.
"When I came to the U.S., I only had $2,000 to start a Ph.D. program in a private university," she said.
On arrival at the university, she was told it wouldn't be a problem for her to get a scholarship the following year.
"I said, 'Next year?' I'm here now!" she said. "I had already left my job in Italy, so I said, OK, if it is for next year, I will come at least to get acquainted with the department and see how I could prepare myself, what books to read, articles."
She had a conversation with the department head, who began to say she could start with computer science and introduction to family therapy. "I said, 'Are you saying I can start next week?'" she recalled. She was introduced to the professors and the head of the family science department, and the next day, he shook her hand and welcomed her to the family science department.
"It was a miracle it worked out," she said. "In one afternoon, my life changed."
She liked the BYU campus, where 92 countries were represented. She already knew French and Italian, but she studied Chinese and Spanish there as well.
After receiving her doctorate, she accepted a paid internship at the Marriage and Family Counseling Service in downtown Rock Island. Her BYU professors were skeptical, telling her there was nothing in the Quad-Cities, but she said she had a particular interest in the area and started a research project on couples and levels of intimacy.
"They really liked my work," she said of her BYU professors. "They wanted me to be a reference for the younger students, but I wanted to explore the U.S. Utah was homogenous in terms of population."
She liked the Quad-Cities, as well.
"I found the people here very friendly. I was always kind of treated well and welcomed. I really felt that here. Within a month that I was here, I remember my friends at Marriage and Family Counseling Service ... would say, 'You know more people than we do after living here for many years!' I was immediately connected."
In the middle of her internship, the center offered her a full-time job. She started training other doctoral students, then became director of professional programs, giving workshops.
She obtained a special visa to work at Marriage and Family Counseling Service; her attorney had it based on her higher education level and that she was considered an asset to the country. In 2006, she became an American citizen.
"I found everything in Rock Island, even my husband," she said. She and John Hawry met 18 years ago when she enrolled in a tai chi class he was teaching.
"I came to the U.S. with just the intention of getting my Ph.D. and then going back, but it never happened. It just didn't go that way."
The woman who says she loves to be in international settings sings the praises of the Quad-Cities.
"Believe it or not, I've seen the Quad-Cities changing over the years. Huge changes. All the waves of migration -- Asians, Koreans, Indians, Japanese for a while, Bosnians, Croatians and then the latest waves of Africans -- north-northwest Africans in particular, that's the latest one -- and I worked closely with the Latino population here, the Floreciente quarter in Moline. I was there, and people, especially women, are able to walk in the office and come for individual therapy or in a group setting or with spouses in conjunction with Project NOW."
Dr. Melissano's work now is a combination of teaching, writing and therapy as a multilingual therapist.
"I really enjoy this nice balance," she said. "I'm always connecting together to look at what are the latest trends or patterns in the research findings. I use a lot of wholistic approaches to my practice."
Dr. Melissano, who is a full-time therapist at Trinity Enrichment Center, recently brought two major regional conferences to the area on science and spirituality and complementary alternative medicines to raise consciousness about ancient and cutting-edge modalities in health care. In September, she presented a seminar on women at midlife for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy in North Carolina. She also has presented workshops on women at midlife in foreign countries, including India, China, Budapest, Norway and Ecuador.
Dr. Melissano said she probably is the atypical Italian because she is a strict vegetarian, doesn't drink alcohol, always has been interested in spirituality and philosophy and the creative mind and has been doing meditation for more than 30 years.
"Certainly I was the same when I was in Italy," she said.
She visits her family in Italy once a year or once every year-and-a-half. Only her parents have been here to visit her, although she has two older brothers.
"My family hasn't moved much. There is not the degree of interest," she said.
She said she "absolutely" loves Italy.
"I love the Italian approach to life; that is much more easy-going and warmer. Italians, how can I say, they know how to live, and the pace of life is much different than here in the U.S. I think they have their priorities straight. They have style, they have history, they have art, natural beauty. There is culture ... food, and time to rest is important. A sense of family and relations is very important. It's a nice, balanced way of living.
"The U.S. probably needs to slow down in terms of working, you know. Work, sometimes it's too much. The emphasis is so much on working and less on family values and upon personal balance," she said. "On the other hand, here, there is certainly more openness to fulfill your dreams and more possibilities, and everything is much more mobile."
For her own dreams, she said she would like to find more time to write one book, possibly two, and perhaps expand the Satva Center in Rock Island's Broadway District, her "labor of love" that is an outlet for her fields of therapy, spirituality, consciousness-raising and healing as well as a celebration of diversity.
She recalls with fondness almost amounting to awe how she and her husband bought the property that became the Satva Center and then had to apply for a special-use permit to operate a business in a residential district. She and her husband had been active in the Broadway District and chose to live there for its character, history and diversity. "We love all that; that's why we always chose to live in Rock Island again and again.
"I remember literally walking into city hall from Potter House (where they lived) and meeting all the neighbors cheering this project and after the process walking back home, and I said to my husband, 'I feel like George in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' the richest man in town because of all that community support, all that presence, warmth, sharing, trust that people expressed.' It was just a blessing.
"The next step is to publish and have the time to cultivate and have the time to do more writing. Quiet time and space in spite of a very hectic life."
-- Location:Southern Europe, a peninsula extending into the central Mediterranean Sea, northeast of Tunisia.
-- Population:61,261,254 (July 2012 estimate). No. 23 in the world.
-- Languages:Italian (official), German (parts of Trentino-Alto Adige region are predominantly German speaking), French (small French-speaking minority in Valle d'Aosta region), Slovene (Slovene-speaking minority in the Trieste-Gorizia area).
Source: CIA World Factbook.