Inside Columbia


Melvin West Celebrates 100 Years of Serving Others

By Jordan Durham
encounters mel west

Photos by L.G. Patterson

Melvin Ezell West, better known as Mel, has always looked for trouble in life. At 100 years old, he has no plans on stopping anytime soon.

As a humanitarian, founder of Mobility Worldwide, retired Methodist minister and an author of seven books, West has dedicated his life to the service of others, both big and small. He has raised money for individuals living in remote villages in Africa, constructed hand-crank Mobility Carts to provide transportation for those most in need, as well as paid the spay and neuter fees for a colony of feral cats who moved into his neighborhood.

These are the troubles he’s found solutions to. So far.

Keeping his “antenna facing out into the world,” Mel has found there is no lack of those in need throughout all countries. Numerous examples color West’s life. As a budding minister, he would knock on apartment doors in his church parish and hand out calling cards. “I would say ‘Hello, I’m Mel West, your nearest Protestant minister. If I could be of any help, day or night, call me.’” And they called.

encounters mel westAt the time, he was assigned to his first church in Dallas with a congregation of 27. He pressed and made sure that the sign placed outside said, “The church that cares.” This statement, along with West’s calling card introduction, made an impact. The congregation grew to 265 members. His yearly salary was $1200.

West swears he is an optimist because he was born on the east side of his family’s house. “I think when you grow up with windows facing the sunrise, you’re more apt to be optimistic than if they face west. They’re there for the beginning.”

West’s family lived on a farm during the Great Depression, a time that he remembers vividly. Once, his family paid for 50 pounds of ice that his mother turned into strawberry ice cream along with making an angel food cake. They put on their “town clothes” and went to their church where a social was held to raise money for individuals experiencing starvation in China. They dropped off the desserts and then left, unable to afford any other food because of their own contribution. West says his family is how he learned to serve people most in need.

“I believe this so firmly that then no child ever born on this earth had a more idyllic childhood,” West says. “My parents and my grandparents and my neighbors were a package that wrapped their hands and hearts around me, and created in me the realization of the joy of helping others.”

It’s hard to say what makes the most impact in one’s life — how important objects, gestures, experiences, mobility depend on each person. Yet, aside from serving others through ministry, perhaps one of the most profound ways West has drastically impacted tens of thousands of lives — 30, 500 to be exact — is by founding Mobility Worldwide in 1994. The nonprofit organization creates three different types of PETs — personal energy transportation — and sends them to those in need across the world. Today, individuals in 99 countries have received a PET from Mobility Worldwide.

The organization started when a friend called West and told him of the desperate need for hand-cranked wheelchairs in Zaire (now Congo) Africa for individuals suffering from injuries casued by polio and landmines. West contacted Earl Miner, a friend and product designer, who designed the prototype. West, at 70, then began building. He originally sent four of PET’s initial prototype to Africa stating, “Put these in the worst places you can find and see if they pass the test.”

The nonprofit has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. In 2020, they built a new distribution center in Columbia.
18 affiliates have been established in the United States and seven overseas, all building the same vehicle via volunteers. Each PET costs $425 to build and ship. Mobility Worldwide also accepts canes, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs, as individuals need help moving when not in the PET. In 2012, Gary Moreau was hand selected by West to become executive director as West retired.

“Mel’s created so many worthwhile projects, to involve volunteers, the Columbia community,” Moreau says. “He’s created lots of opportunities for people to be active and volunteer at all ages.” Moreau knows that finding individuals like West is rare, stating that he’s “just one of those guys that doesn’t come around very often.”

West also enlisted at 18 and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. When he was 65, he walked 1,000 miles with Jimmy Carter to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. West refers to him simply as “Jimmy.”

If you are wondering, yes, West has a cell phone (a Jitterbug “that doesn’t work half the time” so he relies on his home phone), a Netflix account, emails regularly and has had a Facebook account in the past with close to 5,000 followers. He lives with his cat, Pumpkin, who is probably around 10 years old, but West doesn’t know for sure, as Pumpkin strolled in the open door one day and jumped on his wife, Barbara’s, lap.

“That’s the best thing that cat could’ve done that day,” West says. And the best thing that West believes he’s ever done is marry Barbara. She was also a humanitarian and founded Fun City Youth Academy in Columbia. She passed away in March 2023 at the age of 98. “Barbara had a heart as big as the world,” West says.

He tears up while discussing her, but West is comfortable discussing death.

“Why not?” West says. “Death often comes as a friend I think more often than an enemy; it is a part of the rhythm of life that we are called to not interrupt. I’m in amazingly good health for 100 years. If I live to 110, I’ll probably set some kind of record, but I don’t want to unless it is a natural part of the life I live.”

If he were to sum up his first 100 years in his own words?

“He cared.”

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