Back in grade school, my friends and I formed a club called the Busy Bees. Our goal was to perform service projects in the community. While I do remember several afterschool club meetings held at my house, I don’t recall ever doing any community projects. While our intentions were good, we Bees weren’t really that busy.
A few decades later, I found the person who I think could have led our club to accomplish great things in the community. She’s Melodee Colbert-Kean, a Queen Bee buzzing with seemingly endless energy and a passion for service. While I can’t transport her back in time to mentor our club, I certainly appreciate all the things that she does for the place I now call home: Joplin.
Melodee’s career highlights include serving as Joplin’s first African-American mayor, and as President of the National League of Cities. She has met President Obama and traveled the world as a representative of Joplin. With all of these accomplishments under her belt at only age 50, I’d assumed that she’d been interested in civil service most of her life.
I was wrong.
Serving in Joplin Government
Melodee’s foray into city government began in 2005, when City of Joplin Council Member Jim West held a meeting with members of the black community to see if anyone was interested in running for one of the open council seats. Melodee was convinced that some of the older citizens at the meeting would be interested, but no one volunteered. Recognizing the importance of the black community having a voice at the council, Melodee (somewhat reluctantly) answered the call.
Melodee has been the voice of her community since she was elected to the council in 2006, and her term will expire in 2020. It’s a position that she doesn’t take lightly. To prepare for council meetings, she reviews the meeting packet, talks to community members, and drives around the city to to educate herself about the issues to be discussed. “It’s very involved because you’re representing the people,” she says. “You have to be connected to the community.”
When citizens approach Melodee with issues, the first thing she asks them is if they are registered voters. To Melodee, this is necessary because “if you’re not voting, we really don’t have a lot of things we can do.” The second thing she asks is for them to provide at least one solution. “It makes people stop and think because it’s easy to complain,” says Melodee. “But, how about a serious solution? Your everyday citizens have some of the best ideas.”
When Melodee was elected Mayor of Joplin in 2012, she served as a conduit between Joplin and the rest of the country – and world – during the crucial post-tornado recovery period. Oh, and she happened to do this while raising her youngest daughter Alissa (who’s 11 now), proving once again that she’s a Queen Bee.
During this time, Melodee was also highly involved with the National League of Cities, an organization representing 19,000 cities whose leaders strive to make a difference in the places where they live. She served on various committees in the league, ran for a board position, then was encouraged to run for an officer’s seat, which she won. She progressed from Second Vice President, to Vice President, then finally to President in 2015.
Through her civil service, Melodee has been able to travel around the world, representing Joplin and offering others the insight she gained from leading our city in the aftermath of a crisis. Through these journeys, she’s learned a lot herself. Her most memorable trip was to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “If you get a chance to visit a culture outside of your own, my goodness! The wealth of knowledge, information, and appreciation you have for people outside of yourself is amazing!”
While Melodee recognizes the value of visiting other countries and cultures, she understands and honors the importance of the people and traditions of her hometown of Joplin. So much so, that she’s opened a restaurant that serves the kind of food that she grew up with. It’s called ME’s Place (named after her: Melodee Elaine), and it’s a labor of love that she shares with her husband William. “We’re the true mom-and-pop.”
ME’s Place is located on Broadway Street, which is off the beaten path as far as the Joplin dining scene goes. But this was a deliberate choice; this was the neighborhood in which Melodee went to school as a child. “To me, it was more of a sense of giving back to the community by opening a business on Broadway,” says Melodee. “Not only was it the original Route 66, but it used to be thriving with businesses, and the majority of them were black businesses because this was the original East Town – the only area that black people could live in at that time. It meant a lot to me to open it here.”
Melodee’s passion for preserving the history of Joplin’s East Town is reflected in a small room at ME’s Place, where poster boards covered with newspaper clippings and photos of important figures in the neighborhoods history are displayed.
The food served at ME’s Place also reflects the heritage of this Joplin neighborhood, along with a bit of flavor from Louisville, Kentucky, where William is from. His specialty is fork-tender smothered pork chops, which are served on Fridays. He also makes Southern-fried catfish, meatloaf, and sweet tea. “People rave over that tea,” says Melodee.
Chicken and dumplings, as well as peach cobbler, are Melodee’s signature dishes. This is the place to come when you want comfort, to taste something like what Grandma used to make. The food here “brings people back,” says Melodee. “You center them back on family, on good feelings. To be able to do that is amazing.”
Serving the Community
Believe it or not, but the aforementioned gazillion things that Melodee does aren’t the only ways she serves the community. She’s also been on the boards of several Joplin organizations, including Joplin Metro Credit Union, George Washington Carver National Monument, and Missouri Southern State University. Her experience on these boards has helped her hone her listening skills. “I learned how to be quiet,” she says. I learned that it’s okay to disagree, but be respectful.”
She also felt inspired to establish a business called Prayerful Portions. The name came to her in the middle of the night, long before she figured out what she was going to do with it. Eventually this business came to be an umbrella under which she and other members of her family (including her tech guru son) consult with people and small businesses to help them figure out what they are trying to do and, more importantly, why they want to do it.
Serving Her Family
It’s obvious that Melodee is passionate about her service to her community, but there’s an unmistakable light that sparkles in her eyes when she talks about the family that she’s created with her husband William, “an all-around good guy,” according to Melodee. The Colbert-Kean clan consists of Melodee’s two adult children, Tyler (a Marine sergeant stationed in Okinawa, Japan), and Typhanee (an educator in Nashville, Tennessee); William’s daughter Amber (a medical student in Tennessee); and the couple’s daughter Alissa (a middle schooler).
Serving Her Soul
Melodee and I talked at length about the things that she does to serve the community, but I had one lingering question: What does she do to serve her own soul?
Ideally, she likes to visit the beach to unwind, but when she can’t get there, she relaxes by reading, doing puzzles, spending time with her family, and listening to music. “Music is my center. It brings me back to focus, or transports me off somewhere.”
In fact, Melodee is so passionate about music that she even DJs at parties, weddings, and other events. “My mom did right when she named me Melodee,” she laughs.
Serving the Hive
Now that you have learned about Melodee’s many contributions to the Joplin community, can you see why I think she would have made a great mentor for my club, the Busy Bees? She’s a woman who gets things done and who inspires others to make their community a better place. Like she says,”If you’re going to be someplace, why not make the best of it?”
Well put, Queen Bee.
To read about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.