LIMA — The Rev. Belle Heffner Mickelson saw a need to bring music into the lives of Americans in remote Alaskan villages to brighten their lives.
Since 2006, she has spent the better part of her life making that happen.
Mickelson, a former Lima resident and 1966 Lima Senior graduate, was one of six people nationally to be awarded the Purpose Prize for her work. She gave a brief presentation of her program Tuesday at the Allen County Historical Museum.
“I started noticing how music changes lives,” Mickelson said. “I chose these villages because of the high suicide rate.”
Mickelson was in a small village in Alaska along the Yukon River when she noticed a lot of the people were depressed because of a high number of teen suicides in the area. She began her “Dancing with the Spirit” program in Cordova, a village where she serves as rector at St. George Episcopal Church as an ordained priest. The program is geared toward youth, but also teaches adults to play music with the ukulele, fiddle, mandolin and guitar using a color-coded system. By the end of the weeklong program most students can play at least 15 songs. The program helps students perform a community concert and dance and also involves community elders doing storytelling and teaching songs in local languages. The end result is that students are connected to their local culture in an effort to prevent suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.
The program was so successful that Mickelson decided to take it to other villages in remote Alaskan regions.
“Music is a way for us to feel good together,” Mickelson said. “I felt we should have one in every village.”
Mickelson has now taken Dancing with the Spirit to 34 villages. She said it has been remarkable.
“You think you are going there to help them, Mickelson said., “but you are truly the one being blessed. The good thing about the program is the number of people it helps.”
Mickelson said she hoped that her presentation would inspire other native Lima residents to do something helpful.
“I hope it will inspire people in Lima to do similar things and keep Lima great.”
Reach Lance Mihm at 567-242-0409 or at Twitter @LanceMihm.