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Heart transplant gives community volunteer, award recipient more time to serve people of Douglas County

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On a frigid Kansas morning in February, the Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year waits. The Harvesters truck is running behind schedule delivering food for the mobile pantry that Marion Belcher organizes and supervises.

With snow flurries blowing in at 20 mph and a windchill of -2°, Belcher and fellow volunteers try to stay warm as dozens who need food line up in cars at the Douglas County Fairgrounds for the twice-monthly food distribution.

Belcher, 68, wears a mask and a hooded jean jacket with a walkie talkie tucked inside the breast pocket. Behind those practical layers – and a layer of hidden scars – beats Belcher’s donor heart. Almost 15 months ago, the head of the Ballard Center’s mobile food pantry underwent a heart transplant just in time for Christmas.

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Called a “a rising phoenix” by a family member, Belcher said, like so many other times in life, he got knocked down in 2020 but got right back up.

An early start

Community service began early for Belcher, who was raised mostly by his mother with his five sisters in the Washington Park public housing projects of Chicago. At 15, he worked in the Model Cities program – an effort to combat urban poverty. He also gave his time to Jesse Jackson’s social justice organizations Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) and the Rainbow Coalition. Belcher recalled joining Upward Bound and graduating second in his class from Englewood High School.

Belcher said those formative years sparked a drive for helping others. “As my sister told me, ‘You do realize this started with you and Model Cities when you had to get all of those young Black kids together and give them something to do and tell them there was a better way.’”

During college recruitment, Belcher learned of Ottawa University. At OU, Belcher studied radio broadcasting and electronics.

He worked as a disc jockey at KTGO’s radio station and then for King Radio Corporation in Lawrence, where Belcher would also raise a family. Jobs with Southwestern Bell and the State of Kansas would follow. After a work injury, boredom got to Belcher, and he amped up his volunteerism – to the equivalent of a full-time job.

Belcher has also gifted his talents to SKYWARN, the storm-spotting service, and decades of volunteerism with the American Red Cross, dating back to his youth in Chicago.

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times Executive Director of the Ballard Center Becky Price, left, nominated Marion Belcher for the 2020 Wallace Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award after years of friendship and working together.

Eventually, Belcher and Becky Price crossed paths in Lawrence. Price was having computer trouble at Big Brothers Big Sisters in 1991 when Belcher came to her rescue. For the next 14 years, she said, Belcher provided volunteer IT support for the nonprofit organization.

When Price took the executive director role at the Ballard Center, she gave Belcher “full control” to run Ballard’s mobile distribution pantry. As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world in spring 2020, Belcher revamped the mobile pantry’s processes so its 240 volunteers could continue their service to 10,400 hungry community members.

Later that year, Belcher had trouble breathing and received a diagnosis of heart failure. When his heart could no longer keep up, Belcher landed at the University of Kansas Medical Center. With his heart performing at only 10%, Belcher’s life was in immediate danger. Doctors placed him on a donor recipient list on a Friday morning. By Tuesday morning that December, Belcher had a new heart.

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Eager to leave the hospital, Belcher asked his friends to smuggle in some Popeyes chicken and a computer. They complied, and he orchestrated a seamless coordination of the mobile pantry’s paperwork and distribution schedule. Quick to praise his fellow volunteers, Belcher said they operated – then and now – as a team.

Price credits Belcher’s organizational skills for the mobile pantry’s success, despite his absence during the medical emergency and lengthy recovery period. “He’s the most humble human being I’ve ever met.”

Belcher’s leadership style, Price said, has allowed the mobile pantry to retain volunteers for more than a decade. She nominated him for the award. “They all respect his leadership as a fellow volunteer and more importantly, trust him as their leader.”

As volunteers counted the items ready for distribution last month, Dave Ranney paused to compliment Belcher’s efficiency. “Marion is very organized. He knows what he’s doing. Everybody knows what they’re doing. There’s really no curveballs.”

A lifetime of service, spirit

Life hasn’t been easy for Belcher. He divorced and struggled with health issues. He recalls multiple intersections in Lawrence where he pulled his car over at the direction of law enforcement officers, including some with racist agendas like the ones he’d hoped to leave behind in Chicago.

Belcher also remembered better moments, including the friendships he forged, listening to his beloved music collection, and the pride realized in his three children.

“All the kids turned out real good,” Belcher said, ticking off the individual talents of sons Tim and Christopher and daughter Cynthia. “I got great kids, great grandkids.”

Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times Marion Belcher, United Way of Douglas County’s 2020 Wallace Galuzzi Volunteer of the Year, displays his award and nomination on Feb. 22, 2022.

He feels “grateful and very, very lucky” for the donor and the heart that enabled him to keep living. A self-described goal-setter, Belcher said he maintains a list of short- and long-term goals that keep him motivated.

“Nine days after transplant, I was home, walking around,” he said. “I did let the donor family know that the heart went to someone who is community minded, who is set to help people.”

Belcher’s daughter, Cynthia Cook, described her dad as “a spitfire.” She recalled trips to the arcade as a 6-year-old playing air hockey against him, needing to stand on a stepstool to reach the table.

“Everyone would gather around, because he never went easy on me. Never! He was just lightning fast, and somebody eventually asked him why he was doing this. And he said, ‘Because when she wins, she’ll know she earned it.’”

Owner of a software company on the west coast, Cook said that approach helped contribute to her success. And she’s glad her dad received recognition for his important contributions to her hometown.

“He’s so smart … He chose a life of service, so it’s about time that he got awarded.”

The Wallace Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award is named in honor of the late Wallace Galluzzi, an active community leader who was named superintendent of Haskell Institute in 1968. The United Way of Douglas County’s announcement of the award for 2020 lagged because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read about Taryn Wells, the other 2020 Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year award winner:
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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