Shaler Area storytelling festival celebrates district’s rich history

Sunday, November 3, 2019 | 12:01 AM


Shaler Area School District hosted a storytelling festival Oct. 23 at Scott Primary School featuring the premiere of the trailer for the district’s storytelling, as well as parents, teachers and community leaders sharing their stories in person.

“This storytelling event kicks off an entire year of highlighting our mission in action and celebrating who we are as a district,” Superintendent Sean Aiken said in a news release prior to the “Our SASD Story” event. “The stories that will be highlighted through this event — such as our communitywide Homecoming celebration or coming together to support one another after the flooding from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 — are part of the fabric of our school district and capture the unique qualities that make Shaler Area a great place to live and learn. We are excited to share our story with the larger community.”

Bethany Baker, Shaler Area communications specialist, said that her district piloted the storytelling program, with Brentwood Borough School District launching its own storytelling initiative, afterward.

Shaler Area’s storytelling project was made possible with support from The Grable Foundation and local marketing agency, The Motherhood.

The storytellers attended a daylong May workshop to hone their narratives with The Motherhood’s guidance. Baker wrote the film script and Shaler Area technology education head Lee Myers shot the footage.

A committee composed of The Motherhood and Shaler Area administrative staff members selected the following featured storytellers: Mindy Thiel, High School activities director; Steve Deal, parent; Gina Chmielewski, Unified Sports Bocce team coach; Christin Pintar; Unified Sports Bocce team coach; Melissa Matlock, Backpack Initiative co-founder; Shelley West, Backpack Initiative co-founder; Lacie Spagnolo, parent; Mary Ellen Ramage, Etna Borough manager; Karen Tobias, retired teacher; and Dave Fortun, retired teacher.

“For many of them, it pulled them way out of their comfort zone. Their stories are key to the success of this event,” Aiken said.

“We didn’t think about people, per se; we thought about the events that shape our community,” he said.

The event focused on the following topics: homecoming, a student’s cancer diagnosis, the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative, the Championship Unified Bocce Team and support following 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

West and Matlock explained how they started the Shaler Area Backpack Initiative, which provides students and their siblings with food for weekends. The program started when a student asked if he could keep leftover lunches that the teachers planned on discarding following a field trip. After securing their principal’s permission, the teachers distributed a letter requesting monetary and food donations for their program.

“From that one conversation with that student, it has become a community event,” Matlock said. “Five years ago, we sent three meals home with a student, and five years later we have sent over 10,000 meals home.”

Thiel informed the attendees about the history of Shaler Area homecoming, which she plans, annually. AW Beattie Career Center won the float contest with its Bugs Bunny design, Oct. 2, 1971, during the first homecoming parade.

She described the “sea of food vendors,” including “chicken fingers, of course” available during the homecoming picnic.

According to her, more than 800 students pack into the school cafeteria for the dance. “Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s sticky. Yes, it’s part of our story,” she said.

Thiel said the tradition is one that she is “so lucky to be a part of.”

Deal, who hails from Churchill, spoke about experiencing homecoming for the first time with his now wife, who is a Shaler Area native.

“It looked like a time warp. This is 2001, not 1950,” he recalled thinking, upon seeing the crowds blocking Mt. Royal Boulevard for the parade.

He compared staking out a spot annually to watch the homecoming festivities to sitting in the same church pew each week. “It was like homecoming for her and her family.”

“We’ve been there when it’s freezing cold. We’ve been there when I should have worn sunscreen,” Deal said.

“Now, I know why, not being from Shaler, most people don’t leave. It’s because of that sense of community.”