Belle Mickelson: Healing the community with music

Belle Mickelson plays fiddle with staff from Dancing with the Spirit. Back row: Bobby Gilbert, Josephine Malemute and the Rev. Dr. Trimble Gilbert. Front row: Kelly May, the Rev. Belle Mickelson. Photo Courtesy Encore.org/Talking Eyes Media
Belle Mickelson plays fiddle with staff from Dancing with the Spirit. Back row: Bobby Gilbert, Josephine Malemute and the Rev. Dr. Trimble Gilbert. Front row: Kelly May, the Rev. Belle Mickelson. Photo Courtesy Encore.org/Talking Eyes Media

Editor’s note: Cordova community events and programs run on volunteers. This is an ongoing series of Volunteer Spotlight Q&A’s in partnership with the Cordova Chamber of Commerce to honor those who give their time and efforts to better the community.

The Rev. Belle Mickelson went to school to be a science teacher and is now the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church. In Cordova, she helps with the Cordova 4H Music Camp and Morning Music at the Mt. Eccles Elementary School. She travels out of Cordova to village schools with Dancing with the Spirit, a program that connects youth and elders through school music programs. She’s a passionate volunteer, dedicated to helping others in the community and beyond.

Please describe your volunteer work and why it’s important to you. 

Currently, I’m the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church; the director of the Cordova 4H Adult Music Camp; one of the Morning Music instructors at the elementary school; and director of Dancing with the Spirit, a village music program. Volunteer work is really fun; a great way to make friends and helps make the world a better place. People here in Cordova and all over the world are praying for us to help them, and when we do, the people we help are so grateful that it turns out to be more of a blessing for all of us volunteering than we could ever imagine! Because so many people from all over the world live here in Cordova – or come here in the summers to work or visit – we can have a real global impact by being friendly, hospitable and welcoming.

What do you do in Cordova now and what’s your professional background?  

Though I was trained as a science teacher, I find myself now working for the church because it’s a great way to help others and pass love around, and in music, because music really changes lives. I have a biology teaching certificate from Miami University in Ohio; a master’s in environmental education from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan; and a master’s in divinity from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. But you don’t need any degrees to be an awesome volunteer.

List any groups you volunteer for and your volunteer roles.

At St. George’s, I’m proud to be part of an organization that has been helping Cordovans for 111 years. The Red Dragon, our parish hall, was dedicated in July 1908 with 25 Eyak people there to help in the celebration of the town’s first library, reading room, and place to have a cup of coffee and write letters home. Recently we raised money to fix the Red Dragon foundation and to put on a new roof so that this “community living room” will be there for another 100 years of birthday parties, dances, concerts and events. We recently added two gardening boxes so that next summer we can be part of the community garden effort. The St. George’s Church building is celebrating 100 years as a house of prayer for all nations, so look forward to a birthday party next month!  

Our Cordova 4H Music Camp just celebrated 25 years of an annual week-long summer camp for kids. More music camp volunteers are always needed!

Morning Music, which is on Thursdays and Fridays before school at Mt. Eccles, will begin sometime in October and runs through April. It’s a chance for K-6 students to sing and play guitar, fiddle, ukulele, mandolin, bass and banjo. Parents and older students and community members are always needed as helpers and it’s an opportunity for all of us to get better at music, too. Pre-schoolers are welcome with their parents or care givers. Teal Barmore calls it “Mandatory Music” as it’s such a wonderful way to start the day!

Dancing with the Spirit is a village school music program that is an outgrowth of the Cordova 4H Music Camp and the Anchorage Alaska City Folk Arts Camp. We’ve been traveling to 53 villages for over 12 years – most of them many times. In the past two years our staff have spent 70 weeks in village schools teaching guitar, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, bass, singing and dancing. These camps connect elders and their culture and language with students as a way to promote healthy and sober-living, and encourage student leadership. A few years ago, we were recognized with a $25,000 National Purpose Prize. I spend about one-third of my time traveling in small planes to many Native villages primarily in Interior Alaska.

What is something you gained from volunteer work? 

Church and music are two great ways to make many friends, be happy and reach out and help others. One reason I became a priest was because I feel we need more people taking time for each other, bringing chicken soup to those who are sick; listening when people are hurting; giving “hands-on” help; encouraging each other with our faith stories; and celebrating the great events in people’s lives. Everybody can do something to help others! I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams with many friends old and new, and experiencing the best of my own and other cultures.

How long have you lived in Cordova and where are you from?  

I’ve lived in Cordova for 34 years. I’m originally from Lima, Ohio. I spent summers in Alaska working for the Forest Service from 1975-77 on the Kenai and in 1978 in Cordova – and lived in Fairbanks for nine winters before moving to Cordova in 1985 to start a birdwatching lodge with my husband Pete and young son Mike.

If you’d like to know more information on ways to volunteer in the community contact the Cordova Chamber of Commerce at 907-424-7260 or visit cordovachamber.com/volunteer.

Nominate someone for a future Volunteer Spotlight at spencerjaneb@gmail.com.