Don Belisle, at 68, works like a driven, much younger man, despite having a pacemaker in his chest and an automatic insulin injector (‘type 1’ diabetes) attached to his abdomen.
The 6-foot-3-inch, former, high school and college athlete had open heart surgery in 1981 due to a cardiovascular disease called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, and has had many other life-threatening surgeries, he said.
“I always thought God spared me because he had something he wanted me to do,” Belisle said.
He is a U.S. Army veteran, was employed for 18 years as a Soo Line railroad switch/brakeman, then became an insurance agent for 12 years before retiring in 2004 due to the heart condition.
Belisle has not let that condition keep him down. In addition to bicycling many miles every summer, including pedaling 30 miles in a day, last year, on the Paul Bunyan Trail, with his wife, Cindy, who is a fit, 63-year-old, Belisle feels ready and able to put in many hours a day on laborious projects.
The popular saying, “Just do it,” seems to be front and center in his illness plagued life. Often, that means “do it” for other people. If he hears that someone, including a stranger, needs help he can provide, he’s there for them with his comprehensive fix or build it skills.
“I call it my Christian handyman ministry,” Belisle said with a big smile. He believes he has found his calling, this handyman ministry.
Pastor Keith Thompson, of the Living Hope Assembly of God Church in Little Falls, has gotten to know that ministry during the past seven years since Belisle joined the church.
As an example, “Over the past several months, Living Hope Assembly of God has been doing a remodel, along with a new addition, to our church,” Thompson said. “Don has been a very important part of the volunteer labor, working countless hours, using his carpentry skills.”
“They’re family,” Belisle said about the church’s congregation. “I need to be with them.”
Thompson had more praise: “Don always has an incredibly good attitude; he really works well with others; and is always willing to help.”
That reminded the pastor of another good example of Belisle’s handyman mission. A few weeks ago, an individual called, needing help remodeling a room so they could move their washer and dryer to the main level of their house, as they were unable to continue using them in the basement. “I helped him and Don connect, and Don was there within a few days helping them,” Thompson said. Still is.
Belisle has long had a remarkable tendency to reach out a helping hand, including adopting five orphans, ages 9 to 14, from Latvia in 1996. Although he and his prior wife, Linda, were looking for just one child, they kept the three brothers and two sisters together.
When they got word that two other children, from Russia, were being mistreated by their adoptive parents, Don’s family in 1998 grew by two more, ages 5 and 7. They are all grown and independent now.
After a troubling divorce, years later, Don finally met Cindy, who he recently said is “a great blessing; she saved me.” Don’s family grew more. From her previous marriage, Cindy had two, already grown offspring, and a child with special needs.
She and Don have been married for seven years, and share their 1895-built home in Little Falls with Vincent, now a special, young man, while they continue to remodel the home, “as time and our budget allows,” the 2004-retired (early due to the illness) Don said.
Cindy laughed when it was suggested that the remodeling might go faster, if Don put all his labors into their home instead of other homes.
“Don is a blessing I share with others,” said Cindy, who is also devoted to the Assembly of God faith. She admitted that she is eager to see the work at home finished.
The creative and professional-looking work they have done there so far is vivid evidence that Belisle is a handyman with artistic skills, as well as proof that Cindy has a flair for interior decorating.
She is an artist who also works with oil paints and with frosting. Her natural talent was honed by lessons from a popular, professional artist and teacher, her great-uncle, Art Deshayes.
“Many people know who he is, and love his artwork,” Cindy said. She also enjoys the artistry of her occupation as a cake decorator.
Belisle also studied with masters, by helping professionals work on his homes or business places.
“I always have wanted to be involved with that,” he said, “I’ve always had a thirst for learning. By being those carpenters or other pros’ helpers, I learned a lot.”
Still, his thirst for knowledge also drives him to study how-to manuals and Internet sites, like some people pore over romance novels. That ultimately has added fuel to his drive to help others, because it makes him able do more.
Two venerable 119-year-old mansions, that he calls “the jewel in the heart of Little Falls,” also are benefiting from their connection with Belisle, ever since he first found out, six years ago, about the help needed to save and protect the precious, former lumber barons’, Weyerhaeuser and Musser, estates. He put in about ,1300 volunteer hours last year at the Linden Hill, non-profit, nine-acre property, which is available for public use in many ways. Visit www.linden-hill.org for more about that.
Julia Mueller, executive director, of the Linden Hill Historical Event Center, Lodging and Museum, said, “Don is a very dedicated volunteer at Linden Hill, working in various capacities from serving on the board of directors to doing maintenance and repairs on the grounds and in the mansions, really investing in this community treasure on a nearly daily basis.
“We are ever grateful for the many hands and hearts that have invested so deeply in this great place,” said. “With a nine-acre estate that includes two, nationally registered, historic mansions and various other buildings, our list of projects is never-ending.”
“More help is needed,” Mueller said. It appears that the ways to help are widely varied, such as indicated by the list of Linden Hill committees, including: Christmas at the Mansion, Education, Garden and Grounds, History Preservation, Lodging and Hospitality, Maintenance, Marketing and Tour Guides, with a variety of ways to help within each of those and other needs.
One of the other dedicated volunteers, Wayne Andersen, said, “That’s the thing about this place. If you have an interest in any particular thing, there’s probably something here for you to enjoy helping with.”
Volunteer Walt Prokott called his appreciated work there “an ongoing hobby.” Paul Given also enthusiastically expressed his delight about volunteering at Linden Hill.
For more information about how to help occasionally or often, phone Linden Hill at (320) 616-2040. See more online at www.linden-hill.org.
At the heart of Belisle’s work, he wanted to give a lot of attention to the work on “the jewel in the heart of Little Falls.”
So, Belisle continues his Christian handyman ministry, wherever he finds needs which his skills can help with.
“Don has a very strong faith in God,” Thompson said. “It is very important to him to live out that faith by serving where he can.”