Spellbinders Celebrate 10 Years of Storytelling

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by Dora Hildebrand

A local “Spellbinder” was in Walmart one day when she noticed a little girl who kept popping her head around the corner to look at her. From the next aisle she heard, “It’s her, Mom. It’s her. You have to come meet my storyteller.” They met and the mother said, “Every time she hears your stories, she comes home so excited and has to tell us about each story.” Similar encounters have happened numerous times in Larimer County during the past ten years.

Spellbinders are storytellers who share their stories in the oral tradition. They are members of a unique national non-profit organization. Spellbinders® was founded in Denver, Colorado, in the late 1980s by Germaine Kresser Dietsch. Currently there are 17 chapters located in the United States and Canada, with executive offices near Aspen, Colorado.

In 2003, experienced storytellers Nora J. Heaton and I decided the time was right to give back to our community and provide volunteer classroom storytellers in Poudre School District elementary schools. We created Spellbinders® Oral Storytellers of Larimer County as an affiliate chapter of the national organization.

Our first class of 12 students graduated in February 2004, and all became members of our chapter. Each chose a grade level in a specific school and started visiting all those classes every month, sharing folktales from many lands, fairy tales, fables, legends and historical stories. We’ve continued to train new volunteers twice a year; by 2013 we had 64 active volunteers sharing stories in 278 classrooms in 37 schools in Poudre, Thompson and Weld school districts.

Teachers evaluate the program and the storytellers annually. Recent comments included: “Students become better listeners, readers and writers. They are transported into exciting stories in which they use their imaginations and grow.” And, “Hearing folktales from around the world combines literacy and our social studies curriculum units.” Because we tell stories during the daytime, most members are retired and many are former educators. According to comments from teachers year after year, this intergenerational connection between storyteller and student is significant.

The importance of oral storytelling for children has been well documented. Fortunately, the benefits don’t stop there. Studies also show that learning and sharing new skills makes a huge difference for older adults who strive to remain physically and mentally active as they continue to share their gifts and talents. We are privileged to have many members who are age 60 or older, including four in their 80s, and one who is celebrating her 90th birthday this month. All agree that this type of volunteer experience is keeping them young at heart. Our storyteller from the Walmart encounter shared, “Our rewards come not only in thank you notes, pictures, hugs, smiles and heads popping around corners, but in the knowledge that we DO make a difference in a child’s life… even if we don’t always get to see it!”

A popular television commercial suggests that retirement is the time to pay ourselves to do what we love. This is true for Spellbinder Nora Heaton who has always loved teaching. Spellbinders® has given her an opportunity to share her talent, and between 2004 and 2011, she taught the art of oral storytelling to 120 adults. She has since trained others to replace her as our chapter trainer and, as a volunteer, has been responsible for developing new training materials and training the trainers for the entire Spellbinders® organization.

One of our storytellers moved to Missouri and continues to tell stories there under our Spellbinders umbrella. She once commented, “The magic of story has touched thousands of imaginations, planted who knows what kinds of seeds for the future, and gives us tellers the joy, the laughter, the magic of story also.” Patrick McCarthy, a lifetime guitar player and former educator, moved to Fort Collins from Texas in 2004. He discovered Spellbinders while volunteering for another organization. “I absolutely love storytelling and everything that goes with it, including the research time in the library! My fourth grade audiences respond enthusiastically to the bits of music I try to include in most sessions.”

Members of Spellbinders gather monthly to hone storytelling skills, socialize, share classroom experiences and swap stories, staying connected to make a difference in the lives of others. It has been said that the greatest use of a life is creating something that outlasts it, and hopefully that is what Nora and I have done.

Spellbinders welcomes new volunteers. Training is held twice a year, for which there is a nominal fee. The next four-session class begins in Fort Collins on January 17, 2014. If you are interested or if you are a teacher wanting a classroom storyteller, contact larimerspellbinders@gmail.com.

Dora Hildebrand, co-founder of Spellbinders Oral Storytellers, Larimer County, is also a writer, family history enthusiast and blogger at www.dorahildebrand.wordpress.com