In 1999, the Office of Senior Adult Programs in Arlington County, Virginia decided to expand their vibrant program of activities to include oral storytelling as a part of the offerings. Staff members had heard about Spellbinders and were convinced that the activity of seniors telling stories to children benefited both profoundly.
Ten retirees came to the initial gatherings when the program was announced and discovered the beauty of oral storytelling. These first volunteers modeled themselves after Germaine Dietsch’s program in Colorado and determined to tell stories to preschoolers and elementary students in schools and recreation programs. The County hired storyteller Baba Jamal Koram, a nationally-recognized African-American storyteller in the Griot/Gullah tradition, as artistic instructor. Mr. Jamal instilled an appreciation for artistic excellence in storytelling and provided training for Arlington Spellbinders to enhance their storytelling abilities. These first Spellbinders worked together closely and developed a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood. They supported each other with sensitive reflection on the stories and techniques of each teller. They celebrated each other’s joys and shared their sorrows together.
Arlington Spellbinders tell stories regularly at elementary schools, pre-schools for at-risk children (where most are ESL pupils) and summer day camps at neighborhood community centers. For 5 years, one Spellbinders storyteller told stories to the children who attended monthly family visitation days at the County Jail. Those children were especially hungry for the magic of story.
Over the past 15 years, some tellers have moved on and new ones have joined, but the warm camaraderie remains. We’ve been fortunate to have the support of Arlington County in providing opportunities to enhance our talents, including training workshops on telling personal reminiscences with Jon Spelman, and story swapping experiences with Judy Thibault Klevins, a drama instructor who teaches at the Kennedy Center.
In 2012 the Arlington County Board recognized them as “Outstanding Volunteer Team” for their storytelling accomplishments and the resulting contributions to community-building. Arlington Spellbinders are a small group of volunteers who make a big impact through their volunteer commitment.