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Melanie Beelen


Mizizi Maji Mentoring Program

935 Baxter SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506
Executive Director Melanie Beelen wraps her heart around the children and families at Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids. A good measure of success, Beelen says, is to be able to look a small child right in the eyes, at her own level, speak to her, and then to simply listen. And she does so. Every day.  
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Baxter Community Center Executive Director Melanie Beelen: Being a leader means being a servant.
Being a leader means that your eyes are on the horizon, unlike a manager whose eyes are on the bottom line. To me, it means leading the way, because I want people to know what direction I’m going in, but I don’t want to leave anyone behind. I want to build capacity for someone else to shine.
A leader does the things that no one else wants to do and does not walk away when things get uncomfortable. Leaders are accountable. Being a leader means being the first one to admit you are wrong, but it also means that you are the first one to be able to laugh at yourself. If you take yourself too seriously, you lose sight of your mission.
Being a leader, in this business, means getting on your knees. By that, I mean recognizing the little people in this world. A leader looks at children eye-to-eye and quietly listens to what they have to say.
It is important that a leader knows when it is time to leave. Some do not recognize that their work isn’t quite finished when they leave. Others can’t see that their tenure is over and that their impact has plateaued.
I dream that every kid has male in their life who they admire and want to emulate, because so many children and adults have what I consider a

What is your dream for kids?
I dream that all kids have at least one adult who knows their heart.
I dream that every kid is able to attend a wedding, a graduation, and a funeral before they are 10 years old. They need to see that people make lifelong commitments when they get married, and they need to know how hard graduates have worked to make something of themselves. And at a funeral, a child comes to see that their short life needs to make a difference.
I dream that every kid at Baxter knows that we love them and that the work we do here will turn into childhood memories of loving people who made a difference. I dream that every kid has male in their life who they admire and want to emulate, because so many children and adults have what I consider a “father wound.” Studies show that that kids who have both a male and a female adult in their lives are far more likely to be successful when they become adults.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
I believe the community is gaining a better understanding of what collective impact means, but there needs to be a stronger commitment to collaboration among nonprofits and more sectors – like schools, healthcare organizations, and human services – in order for us to truly make the greatest impact.
Whether we work to better education, alleviate hunger, or eliminate racial inequities, we are all tied in together, and we cannot do it in a silo. 
I would say that a stronger focus should be placed on leadership development, too. We need to work to identify young people who show signs of compassion, drive, and humility, and then mentor them.
How do you know you’re making progress?
Progress shows its face in many ways. When I see a parent realize that reading to their young children at home really makes a difference, I know that we are making progress, because a child’s brain is 80 percent developed by age three. Progress is
Progress is when we see people working toward what they can give, rather than what they will get.
when we see people working toward what they can give, rather than what they will get. Often, someone who has received services ends up volunteering to help others who are also in need. It’s wonderful to see someone who has used a food pantry working in that food pantry later on.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my staff and board of directors. Both groups are so loyal to our mission and so persistent in giving everything they have to make Baxter a better place. Our building is an old school that has been renovated, and that, over the years, has become a vibrant community hub.
We were intentional in creating an environment that does not feel institutional. For example, an institution might have beige or white walls, but a home is filled with vibrant color. We used 27 different paint colors inside this building. I am proud of the fact that our wide spectrum of colors is symbolic; they reflect the wide spectrum or colors and ethnicities of those who walk into our doors. So often, someone we serve will point out to me how the unique the atmosphere at Baxter really is. They say things like, “it feels like home.” Someone said to me, “There is a sense of peacefulness here. It’s welcoming and everyone wants to get along.”
I like hearing those things about Baxter; I’m proud that we are old, restored, and inviting in ways that bring the community together and allow everyone who comes in to find their space.
What keeps you awake at night?
One of the things that keeps me awake at night these days is worrying about what the effects will be on a generation growing up in a society that has legalized marijuana.
The media seems so focused on this as an economic stimulus, but I have not heard anyone reporting the social and emotional effects of pot use. So many people that we serve have an addiction history that began with marijuana as their drug of choice.
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Program Profile


  • Baxter Community Center
    The Baxter Community Center responds to human needs in its community through effective programs and partnerships. Baxter’s response primarily includes addressing immediate needs, assisting individuals to become responsible, productive and ...


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