Can you spell f-u-n-d-r-a-i-s-e-r? |

Can you spell f-u-n-d-r-a-i-s-e-r?

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen’s Hotel Jerome ballroom plays host to all kinds of events, from wedding receptions and holiday galas to business luncheons and bat mitzvahs. On Saturday, it will transform into a TV studio, where a half-dozen Aspen “celebrities” will square off in a game show version of the traditional spelling bee.

“This is a great town filled with people who love to compete and love to be smart,” said Keith Berglund, co-executive director of the Aspen Youth Center, which is putting on “Spell What?!”. “So we think this is a perfect event for Aspen.”

The locals scheduled to compete include: Mayor Mick Ireland; Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan; former Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud; extreme athlete Chris Davenport; former Aspen schools superintendent Diana Sirko; and Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug. Skiing icon Klaus Obermeyer also will be on stage to “cheer on” the contestants, while local personalities Mark Thomas and Nina Gabianelli will act as emcee and official “word pronouncer.”

“Obviously there are a lot of superstars in Aspen, but we decided to keep it local … to find our local celebrities,” said Berglund, adding that a seventh contestant still might be added to the spelling bee roster. “I think it’s going to be really fun to see these people on the stage.”

The idea of hosting a spelling bee to raise money for the youth center came about when the nonprofit organization decided against holding its traditional “Cirque d’Aspen” fundraiser in December.

According to Berglund, the event was losing steam after several successful years, so the board of directors decided to go in a different direction.

“Like all events in a small town, people had seen it. … They were looking for something new,” he said. “So we started brainstorming and someone knew of a spelling bee event in Portland, Ore.”

After researching that and other spelling bee fundraisers – some that played strictly by the rules, and some that eschewed the rules altogether – the AYC decided to play the middle ground. At Saturday’s event, the contestants will be asked to spell real spelling-bee words (beginning with a list designed for third- through fifth-graders, and going up through high school level). If a contestant fails to spell a word correctly, he or she has three options: a do-over can be bought on the contestant’s behalf, a pass to the next round can be purchased, or a table “shout-out” can be bought, where a table in the audience shouts out the answer, and the contestant can choose that answer or try again. There is also the ultimate save: For a $5,000 donation on a contestant’s behalf, he or she can be given immunity and sent right to the final round.

“We think it’s a good compromise, from a strict spelling bee to a spelling bee for cheaters,” Berglund said. “And being a spelling bee, it should be easy to remember who it’s all about: the kids.”

In fact, “SpellWhat?!” dovetails perfectly with the youth center’s purpose.

“The Aspen Youth Center’s mission is provide a safe place for kids to be when they’re not at school, or other activities, or at home,” Berglund explained. “And we want to be this for all kids in the community.”

Toward that end, admission to the youth center is free. It is the organization’s goal to keep it this way in perpetuity.

But free admission has its price. The Aspen Youth Center’s annual program budget, which includes all things that directly affect the kids, is about $250,000; the organization hopes to raise about 40 percent of this at Saturday’s fundraiser.

“Being free has clearly, without a doubt, made a difference for the kids in our community,” Berglund said. “But it has also put more wear and tear on the building, and increased the demand on our programs and staff.”

According to Berglund, the number of kids – in fourth-grade through high school – who utilize the youth center has grown dramatically since the price to play dropped to zero. He said an average of 45 kids hang out at the facility, which is in the Aspen Recreation Center, every day after school; in summer that number swells to close to 80.

“We are still providing a great service to these kids, but we’re doing a lot more with the same funding,” Berglund said. “Raising money for the kids, and awareness for the Aspen Youth Center, is what ‘Spell What?!’ is about.”