Aging Well: Resurrecting the art of storytelling

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Aspen resident Bobsy Sacks is among nearly 1,000 volunteers in Colorado and other states who tell stories to school children and other listeners through the Spellbinders program. A training workshop is being held next week for residents interested in volunteering as storytellers in Steamboat Springs during the upcoming school year.

Volunteer training workshop

Steamboat Springs Spellbinders is conducting a training workshop next week for volunteers who would like to tell stories in Steamboat Springs elementary schools. The workshop will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 10, 12 and 14 at Bud Werner Memorial Library. The workshop is limited to 12 participants. The cost is free for those who complete the training and sign a commitment contract.

For more information or to register, contact Sarah Kostin, youth services librarian at Bud Werner Library, 879-0240 extension 314 or skostin@marmot.org.

For more information about Spellbinders, visit www.spellbinders....>

Al Dietsch has worn several distinguished hats throughout his life, including lawyer, businessman and officer in the U.S. Navy.

It wasn't until retirement that he encountered one of the more scary experiences of his life: Telling a story to school children.

His fears were confirmed when a little girl cried after that first tale. As it turns out, she was just disappointed she wouldn't be able to attend his next storytelling adventure.

The magical connection established between children and older adults through oral storytelling inspired Dietsch and his wife Germaine to form Spellbinders, a national organization of trained volunteers who share stories with school children.

"Everybody is a storyteller - everybody loves to tell stories, but they think they can't," Germaine Dietsch said during a presentation in Steamboat Springs last year.

There currently are 23 chapters of volunteers throughout Colorado and in nine other states.

The Steamboat Springs chapter began last year with six active storytellers in Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools, coordinator Sarah Kostin said.

The chapter is hosting a three-day training workshop for new volunteers next week.

The rewards

Spellbinders provides volunteers with initial training as well as ongoing workshops and resources to help them prepare and become confident in their storytelling abilities. Volunteers are encouraged to give programs in elementary school classrooms at least once a month to establish a mentoring relationship with their listeners. Some volunteers tell stories to as many as 25 classes regularly.

Germaine Dietsch planted the seed for Spellbinders in the late 1980s when, as a volunteer for the Denver Public Schools, she wanted to involve the community, particularly older adults, in the classroom.

Germaine found that storytellers, by giving new life to oral tales they had enjoyed as children, not only stimulated children's imaginations and creativity but enhanced their language development, vocabulary and reading skills.

Perhaps most importantly, the experience created a special bond between youths and older adults: Children benefited from storytellers' wisdom and knowledge, and volunteers enjoyed being creative and fulfilling a traditional elder role.

Germaine's storytelling program expanded to other counties and, in 1997, after receiving numerous awards and requests for the program in other states, the Dietsches established Spellbinders' nonprofit status. Last year, nearly 260,000 children heard stories from Spellbinders volunteers.

"The reward of seeing the children and having them so enthralled with your stories is just so much satisfaction," explained Norma Roscoe, a storyteller and chapter leader for Mesa County Spellbinders.

Since retiring, Roscoe has spent most of her time volunteering as a storyteller and overseeing about 48 people in her chapter. She tells stories to students in preschool through the fifth grades.

Although volunteers typically spend about 20 to 30 minutes telling each story, at least that much time goes into preparing the tale. Volunteers often find themselves in the children's section of the library reading through different tales and putting their own spin on their favorites.

"When you get to the class and tell a story and see the response of the children, it's worth all the effort it takes," Roscoe said.

Training, volunteering

The initial training workshop includes lessons in traditional folk and fairy tales. As volunteers gain confidence, they can explore other types of stories and tell tales based on their personal experiences.

"You can't tell a story unless it comes from your heart," Al Dietsch said.

The diversity of Spellbinders volunteers ensures there is no end to the color and wisdom in their tales.

Volunteers include retirees from all walks of life as well as from different countries. Some storytellers have disabilities - one is blind - or carry oxygen tanks and walk with canes.

Although the program focuses on older adult volunteers, some chapters include teenagers and mothers.

Chapter coordinators help place volunteers in school classrooms. Storytellers typically start telling stories to younger elementary school students. As they become more experienced, they can expand to older classrooms or other audiences and venues such as long-term care facilities and hospitals.

To gain confidence, new volunteers shadow experienced storytellers after their initial training. They can polish their storytelling during regular meetings and workshops which feature videos and the opportunity to learn from others.

Sharing experiences and meeting other volunteers is another positive aspect of the program, Roscoe said.

"I've enjoyed the association with other Spellbinders. : You find so many friends - it's rewarding and interesting to know these people," she said.

- Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org or 871-7606. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults ages 50 and older. For more information or to view past articles, log onto www.agingwelltoday.com.

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