If — years ago — Maria Belcher had set out to chart the path to her dream job, she might have found a more direct route.
But it’s hard to imagine, in retrospect, a more perfect path — or one that would have prepared her any better for her new role as the executive director of FestivALL, Charleston’s multiweek celebration of every kind of art imaginable.
Seeing the job posting a few months ago was a game changer.
“My initial reaction was a mix of emotions, thinking, ‘Wow, I cannot believe that my dream job could be within reach,’” she said.
“FestivALL is something that I’ve always cared really deeply for and enjoyed as a participant and a volunteer for so many years.”
It left her a little star struck, not for the many performers who’ve graced the FestivALL stages over the years, but for the folks behind the scenes who’ve led the efforts to bring it all together in the first place.
“To think that I could put my name forth to follow in the footsteps of incredible community members like [founding executive director] Larry Groce and past board presidents like Sue Sergi and Nina Pasinetti and [outgoing executive director] Brittany [Javins]; just to be involved in that group of people and continue to build on the success of such an incredible event and organization and be involved in something that makes me love to live in Charleston ...” her voice trailed off as she struggled to describe how “right” it seemed.
“I felt like everything was coming together exactly as it was supposed to,” said Belcher, who shadowed her predecessor for seven weeks and formally took the reins Friday, Javins’ last day on the job.
“Just watching her go through FestivALL was incredible and amazing,” Javins said. “I keep telling people, ‘She was always one step ahead of me.’ You know like, ‘Hey, we need to make sure we do this,’ and, ‘Oh, I’ve already got it done.’ She’s just — I can’t use the word enough — intuitive about the work.”
At 27 years of age, Belcher is a graduate of St. Albans High School and West Virginia University, where she majored in interior design. That led to a design and events planning job with Yeager Design and Interiors in Scott Depot.
Then, two years ago, the gig led to a role as a donor relations and event specialist at the Clay Center.
“It was a jump, skill-wise, from doing interior design,” she said, “but I was also doing event planning so that was a natural progression.”
There’s a design element to everything, Belcher said. But the move really made sense because, after a lifetime of volunteering, it afforded her a formal place in the nonprofit sector.
“My grandfather’s been on the St. Albans library board for a very, very long time, so growing up we would go and plant trees at Arbor Day and I would go and help clear up the beds at the library. I will always cherish those memories,” she said.
“And I think that being around people who were always so giving at church and out in the community, it wasn’t ever a question. It was just something that came naturally to everyone.”
Through the Clay Center, she led the planning group that put on the arts and science center’s major fundraiser, Carnaval, as well as other fun events like Sip & Savor.
What’s not so obvious from a strict listing of her work history, though, is that Belcher’s experience includes a long list of volunteer activities that have benefited Charleston and its surrounding communities. The list includes several leading roles with the YWCA’s popular Girls Night Out, as well as multiple behind-the-scenes assignments with FestivALL.
“Maria was one of approximately 80 applicants that we had. We had some very qualified applications from all over the country, including Iowa, Florida, New York,” said FestivALL Board President Mark Davis.
“Maria stood out from all those other applicants mainly because she’s articulate, she has a real passion for Charleston and the arts, with her previous job at the Clay Center she’s been connected with donors in the Charleston area who support the arts, so she checked off all the boxes. ... She was just a clear choice for us.”
With Javins’ departure — she’s been with FestivALL since 2012 — there are some big shoes to fill. Javins would only say publicly that she’s going to a statewide agency in a more behind-the-scenes role. But she added that FestivALL has a well-documented history of cultivating new leaders.
“Maria brings a lot of things to the table, but some of what I see is sort of the business mindset that we need for the next steps,” Javins said.
“She’s got a lot more experience in the development and the business aspects. ... She also had a really strong understanding of the arts community.”
Despite the slightly curved path she carved, Belcher said it feels like a completely natural progression.
“Sitting here now, I look back and I can’t imagine my path leading anywhere but to this place,” she said.
She’s already looking at the numbers — and the impact they can have on a community she loves.
“We had both of those soccer tournaments, the tumbling tournament, all of that in town in the month of June,” overlapping with many of FestivALL’s events, she said.
“Think about the reach that that’s going to have. I’m just so excited to be in Charleston right now. I love it.”