It’s just another day in the life of Melody Longstreth, executive director of Greene County Chamber of Commerce.
She’s standing between County Parks and Recreation manager Brett Moore and Waynesburg Fire Chief Jeff Marshall on the Greene County Fairgrounds' woodsy edge where it stretches along State Route 21.
It’s a summery November morning, and Flags for Heroes are making an All American backdrop for this defining photo of three friends in action, making plans to save Christmas from the COVID-19 Grinch.
Melody laughs. “This is new territory for all of us. But we’re working together. Thinking on our feet. The parade must go on!”
How to save the beloved Chamber of Commerce Christmas parade that has marched down High Street since 1930, now that state roads and crowded streets are off-limits because of COVID-19, is the question. The happy answer: do it in reverse!
A parade of bands playing on bleachers, along with floats, motorcycle brigades, fire trucks and holiday revelers in prize vehicles, all in stationary positions at the Greene County Fairgrounds.
The public will be doing the parading in cars filled with children clutching letters to Santa and the promise of a present at the end.
And Santa in his vintage sleigh – a 1925 American La France fire truck with Fire Chief Jeff Marshall at the wheel, ready to receive those letters and get them to the North Pole.
When COVID-19 closed offices, schools and nonessential business across the commonwealth on March 13, Melody remembers her premonition of what would happen next.
“I emptied my desk, grabbed my files and took my office home,” she said.
She remembers the gut wrench as a year’s worth of carefully planned events, professional luncheons and fundraisers were put on hold. She remembers the shock as Chamber membership business partners began dealing with the shutdown’s effect on their bottom line.
As Greene County and the rest of the world faced a terrifying future, Melody found herself and her staff overwhelmed with information “coming in from all directions and we were trying to find what was relevant for our community. There was no play book, it was a bad roller coaster ride,” she said.
She found herself spending countless hours in her home office, taking calls and searching the internet for information and inspiration.
It was time to think outside the lockdown box. Melody began pulling from a lifetime of creative thinking to help her community survive.
The first order of business: the chamber offered its services to every shop, service and company in the county, not just membership.
“We had to stick together and network," she said. "We were all in this.”
The services she and her staff were able to gather began with making the most of the online newsletter and its Facebook presence to network and learn from other chambers across the nation, then create business-friendly solutions to the state mandates of sequestration.
As the codes changed from red to yellow to green, Zoom conferences became the norm. Online workshops helping navigate the grant and loan applications as they become available are now part of the economic lifeline going forward.
The chamber’s office remains closed except by appointment, and Melody carries her notary supplies with her in her car.
“My whole thing right now is ‘Just call!’ I can meet you at the office or come to you,” she said.
There would be no more office camaraderie to draw creative strength from once those doors closed, but the power of being an optimistic, energetic “country girl at heart” problem solver had kicked into high gear.
Melody Bennett grew up in 1970s Mt. Morris “riding horses and dirt bikes” and being in 4-H. Dancing, baton-twirling competitions, pageants and being voted best artist in the class would be added to her resume at Waynesburg Central High School.
Courses in visual communications at Waynesburg College brought work as a graphic designer, leaving her enough time to train horses and ride in competitions into her mid-twenties.
After marrying high school sweetheart Brian Longstreth, the couple went into business with Carousel Creations, producing custom-designed carousel horses until daughter Lindley came along in 1992.
By then, Melody’s talents as an artistic, effective communicator, organizer and go-getter had already landed her a part-time job as secretary to the development director for Hospice Care of Greene County. When that director position opened, she stepped in to organize fundraisers, write newsletters and manage volunteers.
When approached to be the Executive Secretary of Waynesburg Chamber of Commerce in 1986, Melody was the only paid staff, and their membership was 100. It would be years before Michelle King and Eleanor Chapman were hired to help with the happily manic minutia of planning fundraisers, business seminars, professional luncheons and assisting new businesses to get off on the right foot.
Now that the chamber represents all of Greene County, Melody counts member partners at 365 and growing.
Some bright moments include the chamber’s annual May Golf Outing, which was rescheduled at half-size capacity at the Greene County Country Club in August; and business anniversary parties and new business openings were celebrated with chamber ribbon cuttings and outdoor charcuteries as summer weather lingered into a picture-perfect fall.
By September, Melody had found her inspiration for a Reverse Christmas Parade and got a hearty go-ahead from the county.
“I can’t take full credit. I got the idea from the nationwide Facebook page for chambers and made it fit for us," she said. "What’s great about the fairgrounds is there’s so much room to social distance and set up this whole event to make it safe. If any group or organization wants to be involved, we’d love to have you. Give the chamber a call.”
The 90th annual Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade is from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 5. For more information, call Melody Longstreth at 724-998-2386.