Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

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August 25, 2014
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Spellbinders connects older and younger generations through oral storytelling

It was Halloween 2008 when Julie Wagner was greeted by several teenage trick-or-treaters at her home. One of the teenagers suddenly blurted out that he recognized Wagner as his first-grade storyteller.

“You’re that lady that told stories to our school!” he said. The young man then recalled the story for Wagner.

“I couldn’t believe he remembered that story,” Wagner said. “He was genuinely happy to see me again. It just shows what an impact a story can make to a young child.”

Wagner is a Spellbinders storyteller instructor and has been a Spellbinder since 1999.

Spellbinders trains individuals, almost all 60 or older, in the art of oral storytelling and places those trainees as volunteer storytellers in local schools.

The Spellbinders program began when founder Germaine Dietsch developed a pilot program in 1988 with Denver Public Schools. Dietsch wanted to provide a platform for older adults to remain creatively engaged in their communities and decided to incorporate the art of storytelling between senior citizens and elementary schoolchildren.

The program blossomed in the Denver area, and more volunteer storytellers were needed. In 1990, the 20 storytelling volunteers came up with the moniker “Spellbinders” after seeing how the children were spellbound by their stories.

That same year, Spellbinders became a Colorado nonprofit, with a mission to establish volunteer storytelling chapters around the country. Spellbinders moved its headquarters to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1997.

There are currently 39 Spellbinders in the valley who told stories to nearly 3,300 children last year. There are 358 Spellbinders nationally who engaged almost 73,000 children in 2013.

“The kids treat us like rock stars,” said Catherine Johnson, the executive director of Spellbinders and a storyteller, as well. “It’s a lot like listening to a musical artist in an intimate setting. The teller and the listeners co-create the story as it progresses.”

Spellbinders will offer free training for new storytelling volunteers at the Pitkin County Library starting Sept. 2.

Jacqueline Merrill became a Spellbinder in 2000 and has been telling stories ever since. For the past few years, she’s been telling stories every week during the school year.

Merrill, the board chairwoman for Spellbinders, said the positive impacts from the program are far-reaching from an educational aspect as well as fulfilling on a personal level.

She recalled a story she told at Aspen Elementary about a group of third-grade students in East St. Louis who called themselves “The Earth Defenders” and went around cleaning up neighborhoods in their area.

After telling that story, she saw a group of third-graders at Aspen Elementary cleaning up the school grounds.

“They told me if the kids in East St. Louis can do it, so can we,” Merrill said. “It was truly an amazing and rewarding moment.”

Lisa Lawrence, a third-grade teacher at Aspen Elementary, called Spellbinders storytelling an oasis of calm in a demanding, fast-paced teaching world.

“It’s a moment when my class tunes into the timeless pleasure of hearing a story,” Lawrence said. “In just 30 minutes, my class slows down. We connect with our humanity. We lean in and listen to a story unfold. We engage in great discussions and make cross-generational relationships.”

Merrill said she’s told stories locally at her grandchildren’s schools.

“My grandkids told me they were proud of their grandmother,” she said. “There’s nothing quite like a compliment from a young child because you know it’s authentic.”

The stories told can range from fairy tales to folk tales from around the world with heroes, heroines and underdogs. Wagner said like any art form, the artist takes the storytelling where he or she feels called.

Johnson said recall is a critical component of literacy and pointed to the number of kids who remember the Spellbinders and their stories years later.

“We’ve had many instances where kids can retell a story they heard once years earlier,” Johnson said. “It just confirms they grasp and store that information. Spellbinders improves listening skills and enhances the students’ vocabulary and communication skills.”

Johnson said the volunteers she works with are extremely energetic and enthusiastic about storytelling and working with children.

“What I really like about the program is it shows anyone can make a difference within our community,” she said. “The volunteers we work with are amazing. They defy the myth that you have to retire during retirement. Storytelling opens another chapter in their lives.”

In 2013, almost of all the valley elementary schools used Spellbinders, as did several preschools and middle schools.

“We want to make sure every elementary school classroom in this valley is covered by a Spellbinder,” Johnson said. “The kids are hungry to hear the stories, and they always ask for more.”

For information on becoming a volunteer Spellbinder or to donate to the program, go to www.spellbinders.org.

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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 24, 2014 08:31PM Published Aug 26, 2014 06:22PM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.