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Arriving in Bethel in 1973, Athanas immediately became involved in art, education, and women’s rights. As a teacher at BRHS for more than 20 years, Athanas brought in native artists to teach soapstone and ivory carving, mask making, beading, and other native arts and started Art Club, encouraging all students an opportunity to express themselves. She worked with youth and community members on how to order materials and sell their art, showing them they could make a living. For many high school students, Reyne’s art class was a key motivator to continue going to school. Athanas coached volleyball ten years to show students females could coach. Athanas was Lower Kuskokwim School District Teacher of the Year 1990 and Coach of the Year for two years.
Athanas was one of the founders and on the first Board for the Tundra Women’s Coalition, (TWC) which grew from a grassroots group to incorporate as a non-profit and start a crisis line that has led to 45 years of emergency, prevention and outreach services. TWC is now one of the largest domestic violence and sexual assault shelter/outreach providers in the state of Alaska.
Athanas became actively involved with Bethel Council on the Arts in 1974 and was president for many years. Bethel Council on the Arts started unofficially in 1972 to promote the arts and bring art-related activities to Bethel and is a member of Alaska Touring and Presenting Consortium. BCA brings international musicians like Socks in the Frying Pan from Ireland and Women of the World, national musicians such as Derina Harvey Band, and state and local musicians to perform and do Outreach at the schools in Bethel. Camai Dance Festival, a 3-day Yup’ik cultural event unparalleled in Alaska with over 20 dance groups participating, is under the umbrella of BCA and was started in the early 1990’s. Athanas has been a Board member of BCA since 1980. Athanas has represented Bethel Council on the Arts on the #BethelGives steering committee for the past three years, since its inception. #BethelGives is a collaborative fundraising campaign involving 11 nonprofit Bethel-based groups.
Athanas was a Board member of the Alaska State Council on the Arts 1987-1990 and throughout her teaching years actively involved with Lower Kuskokwim Education Association (LKEA) and National Education Association(NEA) and is now a member of the Retired Teachers’ Association.
Athanas received Alaska’s American Red Cross Hero Education Award, May 2000, for her bravery in standing up to shooter Evan Ramsey in the Bethel High School lobby Feb 19, 1997, asking him to give her his rifle. The principal and a student had already been shot. Ramsey chose not to shoot her as he had a good connection with Athanas from art class. Athanas took a leadership role in the community on how to move forward and what to do next after attending a conference at Quantico by invitation of the FBI.
After a two-year hiatus from her art, Athanas made up time by starting the Emerging Scholars Program at UAF-KuC which provides college readiness skills for new college students. The program continues today and has helped many students meet their goals and graduate from KuC Campus or transfer to other campuses.
Athanas became director of Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in 2004. Athanas believed YPCC should not be limited to a rental facility, but be the community and cultural center for Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region.
Programs started since 2004 include Saturday Markets, Best in the West small business competition, Bethel Bowls, Taste of Bethel, Summer Youth Art Camps, Twisted River Film Festivals, annual Dog Show, Open Mic nights, Art Exhibits, and Kuskokwim Art Guild.
Best in the West Economic Competition began in 2009. Athanas developed a funding partnership with businesses, organizations, and Native corporations statewide to start this competition for local start up businesses. There have been 76 winners from the YK Delta, of which 68 are minority businesses, and 58 are still in business part or full-time. Between 2009 and 2019, $282,070 awards were given out.
Taste of Bethel was started three years ago by Athanas to bring diverse people together through showcasing food from their country or heritage. It was such a success it is now an annual event.
Kuskokwim Art Guild started in 2003 and runs the Gift Shop at the Cultural Center where Delta artisans can sell their crafts, fundraises with the Steel Salmon and Raven Auction each fall for art scholarships and classes, started the Bethel Soup Bowls fundraiser for a different group each year, and runs Youth Summer Art Camps, which include art, dance, and theatre.
When asked what allowed her to think of so many different activities and programs for Bethel, Athanas responded that part of her being an artist is not to limit herself and to go beyond boundaries and edges. If an idea occurs, see if it is possible to make it happen.
Athanas and her husband Casey Burke raised three sons in Bethel and have two grandchildren.