A community healing from the inside out — 11 years post tragedy

“Devastation doesn’t last, but determination does” Melodee Colbert Kean stepped into her role as Mayor of Joplin, Missouri when the devastation was overwhelming.  

In October of this year, I traveled to Joplin to visit the space and reconnect with former mayor and Firesoul, Melodee. Together, we walked through the space, in silence occasionally broken by the screams of children playing nearby or the rustling of birds in the bushes. When we paused at the Nature Sacred bench, Melodee shared about the multi-layered symbology and sentiments embedded in the design. From the structure meant to mimic the frame of a house devastated by the storm to the waterfall wall with each segment symbolizing one minute that the tornado was on the ground — a gap in place of the moment it touched down at this site; each component of this Sacred Place was intentionally designed, a reflection of the sacrality of this space to the Joplin community.

Melodee shared her own experiences on that tragic day, retold stories of loss, devastation, heroism, and resilience and the impacts that those experiences continue to have on her today.  

On the evening of May 22nd 2011, two vortices touched down just west of Joplin’s City Limits. By the time the storm had reached Cunningham Park in the western center of the city, these two vortices had joined together into an EF5-grade tornado that would continue to carve a 22 mile long and 3/4 mile wide path of destruction. Hundreds of homes and businesses, medical facilities, schools and more were obliterated by the storm that claimed 161 lives, injured thousands and caused over 2 billion dollars in damage. 

When the dust had settled, and survivors returned to assess the damage, the tenacity of this community had already become clear. The citizens of Joplin banded together to support one another; to begin healing in unity.  

   Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Joplin, Chris Cotten recognized this community’s determination to overcome this tragedy, and by the end of May, had already begun brainstorming the concept for the memorial which would become the Butterfly Garden and Overlook. With the collaborative initiatives by the City of Joplin, Nature Sacred (then TKF) and the support of numerous organizations and businesses, the people of Joplin have a place to go to mourn and to heal — together in nature.  

A part of the Nature Sacred Awards Program, this Sacred Place features an intentionally circular design intended to mimic the stages of grief — from mourning to acceptance to healing. With three distinct water features, signage memorializing those lost and sharing their stories of bravery, numerous nooks to sit and contemplate, along with the signature Nature Sacred bench and journal, even today the significance of this space — the care and cohesion that went into creating it is palpable.

So many people lost their sense of community, maybe they lost their job. Certainly, many people lost loved ones and friends. They needed a place to go and be within nature so that they could recover from all of that

Drury University’s Hammons School of Architecture Professor and lead for this project, Traci Sooter describes the motivations for the creation of this space. 11 years later, the Butterfly Garden and Overlook remains a space of recovery, resilience and healing. 

Now retired from her mayoral position, Melodee is a dedicated mother, chef, and business owner — but never lost her passion for supporting her community. As a Firesoul, Melodee continues to hold that spark of hope for the citizens of Joplin. 

To learn more about the Butterfly Garden and Overlook, watch Butterfly Angels, a short film co-directed by Nature Sacred CEO, Alden Stoner.