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Citizen of the Year 2023 Awards: Michelle Belser

The Citizen’s 2023 Block Captain of the Year gets her neighbors to vote in record numbers, and makes sure the block isn’t just clean — it’s beautiful.

Citizen of the Year 2023 Awards: Michelle Belser

The Citizen’s 2023 Block Captain of the Year gets her neighbors to vote in record numbers, and makes sure the block isn’t just clean — it’s beautiful.

It’s a cool Saturday in December, and Michelle Belser and about 15 of her neighbors are cleaning the leaves covering the road and sidewalk of the 100 block of E. Colonial Street. Belser is, as usual, leading the charge.

“When you’re block captain, people want to see what you do. They don’t want to hear about it,” says Besler, who has lived on this cul-de-sac in the Melrose Park Gardens neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia for 23 years. “They don’t want to know if you’re on this board or that one. They want to see you out there, hand-in-hand with them.”

Hair still in rollers, she turns up the music and sets up the snack table. She works alongside teenagers and octogenarians, sweeping, raking and bagging leaves. One elderly neighbor pitches in with a leaf blower, telling Belser that the group cleaning, “keeps me alive.”

Three hours after they’d begun, the team stacks about 20 leaf-filled bags on the corner, and the block is again one of the cleanest in the city. (More on that later.)

“When I see something that needs to get done, I’m not going to complain about it. I don’t send somebody a note. I get things done,” Belser says.

“She doesn’t seek accolades … She does it from the goodness of her heart.” — Faruq Scott, Sanitation Operations Administrator for the Streets Department

A doer, not a talker

Belser doesn’t talk about change; she makes it. If she’s not leading street cleaning efforts, she’s bringing platters of food to elderly neighbors. If she’s not organizing a meeting with local elected officials, she’s reminding her fellow citizens — by text, by email, by flyer and/or in-person — to make their opinions count by voting in every election.

For her incredible work leading her neighborhood to civic greatness, Belser is The Citizen’s Inaugural Block Captain of the Year. (She, along with her fellow honorees will be honored at a dinner and reception on January 30, 2024.)

Belser has reached into her own pocket to get a neighbor’s yard tended to and to buy another household trash cans. She’s hired a worker each season to change the four flags that fly from the block’s four electric poles. She picks up decorations, building supplies and flowers for her home and for other properties on the block.

“It’s work, but it’s good work if you’re able to do it,” says Belser, whose day job is handling procurement for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she has worked for more than two decades.

Last February, Belser was one of about a dozen people recognized as Heroes of the 9th Council District during a City Council meeting. Her efforts have contributed to multiple points of pride for the residents of the 100 block of E. Colonial St., including a second-place finish in a citywide clean streets competition in 2019.

“She doesn’t seek accolades,” says Faruq Scott, the Sanitation Operations Administrator for the Streets Department. “She does it from the goodness of her heart.”

En route to work the Monday after Belser’s leaf cleanup, Scott passed that pile of 20 trash bags and made a mental note to get them picked up. He needn’t have worried: When he got to his office, Belser had already left him a message

“We get paid to keep the streets clean. Michelle does it on a volunteer basis,” Scott says. “(Belser’s) is one area of the city I can worry a little less about.”

“Trash doesn’t bite. It doesn’t bark at you. It just wants to be picked up,” Belser jokes.

Michelle Belser on her block.

Getting out the vote in Melrose Park

Belser lives in the 61st Ward, which boasts the highest voter turnout in the recent primary and general elections. Pete Lyde, leader of the 61st Ward Democratic Executive Committee, says Belser, a committeeperson, gets involved far before the voting starts.

“For every election, we have literature and (sample) ballots and she always asks for more to make sure her community is fully informed,” Lyde says. “You don’t see that anymore. Times are crazy and people aren’t serious about their community.”

In 2022, Belser accompanied Anthony Bellmon, then a candidate for State Representative, when he knocked on doors.

“Everyone knew her, everyone liked her, and everyone respected her,” says Bellmon, now a State Representative. “Ms. Belser leads from the heart. She very much cares about her block, her neighborhood and her community.”

Belser has for many years worked the polls on Election Day, bringing a dish to share with her fellow workers. (In 2023, it was chicken and potato salad.) That consistency matters, Lyde says. Voters like knowing they’re going to see the same friendly faces who can answer questions.

“She speaks to her neighbors not just on Election Day, but every day, all day,” Lyde says. “When your community sees you’re involved, that you care, then they care.”

When I see something that needs to get done, I’m not going to complain about it. I don’t send somebody a note. I get things done.” — Michelle Belser

A family legacy

Taking action, being in motion, getting things done — it’s in her DNA, Belser says. As the seventh of 10 children growing up in South Carolina, there was always a household task that needed to be done or an errand to be run. Don’t sleep late: You have to mow the lawn. Finish cleaning those steps before it’s time for church.

“My parents gave us a lot of love and a lot of examples of what to do and what not to do. They were always giving to others,” Belser says. “I didn’t realize … they were shaping their children to be the next leaders.”

Belser purchased her home on E. Colonial Street about 23 years ago. Not long after settling in, she was part of a group that established the block’s first Registered Community Organization (RCO), which ensures residents can weigh in on any proposed development and zoning decisions.

“I was pretty young and grateful to be able to buy a home as a single woman by myself,” she says. “When I bought my home, I knew this was really real … I immediately started asking questions, ‘Who’s the block captain?’”

Today, it’s a question no one on the 100 block of E. Colonial St. needs to ask.

Michelle Belser is one of 11 Philadelphians who will be honored on January 30 at the inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards, featuring MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and activist George Takei. To buy individual tickets, click here. If your company or organization would like to sponsor the event or purchase seats for a full or half table, please contact [email protected].


Michelle Belser. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce

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