GROTON — Winding up her first year as the cultural enrichment program coordinator for the Florence Roche Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), Lisa O’Neill looks back over the preceding months with a good deal of personal satisfaction.
“I have been the cultural enrichment coordinator since last September, and I will be doing it next year as well,” said O’Neill. “I’m a volunteer. It’s been a great learning experience for me and I’ve truly enjoyed doing it.”
A major element of O’Neill’s job has been to scout and recruit talent for personal appearances primarily for students at Florence Roche, which occasionally overlaps with the Prescott School.
“We have had such a wide range of programs from historical dramas and personalities to international musicals,” she said.
Following up leads on potential performers, attending reviews over the summer and acting on suggestions from teachers, O’Neill has managed to keep students and faculty guessing on upcoming acts.
“Having Slim Goodbody performing his ‘lighten up’ routine for the third and fourth grades, raising nutritional awareness and teaching obesity prevention was especially good,” recalled O’Neill. “He was hilarious. I think he really made the kids much more aware of what they eat.
“And then we had Rob Surette, the fastest portrait artist in the world, who was out of this world,” she said. “So I feel that we definitely opened up the kids’ experiences with unique programming and inspired them to think beyond their own world.”
But bringing such quality performers to the 300 students that attend Florence Roche did not come cheap. The average price per show was $600. That is the price paid for each of the three shows put on by Latin musical duo Cubanana. Some acts, like Surette’s, cost as much as $1,000, a bargain considering that his usual price is 10 times that.
The last cultural enrichment program for the year was held on March 27 and 28.
Holyoke resident Eshu Bumpus, a storyteller par excellence who, according to his own promotional material, “captivates his audience by telling a variety of African, African-American and world folktales leavened with music, humor and mystery.”
O’Neill said she first heard about Bumpus while attending a meeting with the Acton Elementary School’s cultural enrichment coordinator last year.
“I wanted to get some ideas and see how different schools (brought in performers) … I found out that almost all of the local schools had had Bumpus (visit) and everyone spoke highly of him and his program,” O’Neill said. “Well, I was looking for a program for the younger grades (kindergarten through grade two), and I thought that a storyteller would fit right into that age group.
“After that I checked his Web site, liked what I saw, called him up and we worked out the dates,” said O’Neill. “He’s a busy guy but he squeezed us in. He’s supposed to be fabulous.”
Bumpus, who has performed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and appeared in national storytelling festivals, did two assemblies at Florence Roche before retreating to individual classrooms to conduct six workshops on storytelling.
“I use my storytelling performances of multicultural or African and African-American folktales as a way of introducing myself to the students and teachers and as a method of modeling principles of originality and non-violence, which I insist on in my workshops,” Bumpus states on his Web site.
“Bumpus acts his stories out using music, humor and drama,” said O’Neill. “So I think he’s really into the storytelling. But the whole point is to teach kids how to create excellent stories of their own so he’s not only telling stories, but teaching the kids how to create them for themselves. He (went) into classrooms and really (helped) the children with their stories.
“I (expected) that by the time the program (was) over, the children would be able to create their own stories with their own rhythm and humor,” she said. “Bumpus (brought) the children to the point of being able to tell their own stories both in written format and performed.”
As for next year, O’Neill said she has no firm acts lined up yet.
“I know that we would definitely like to bring some historical perspectives on Abraham Lincoln in February for Presidents’ Day,” she said. “I would like to get Odaiko, a Japanese drumming group I’ve seen. They were just unbelievable.
“I would also like to get poetry on the program as well,” she said. “Yes, the ideas are brewing for next year, that’s for sure.”
In the meantime, O’Neill said she planned to attend a review next autumn sponsored by Young Audiences of Massachusetts.
“They’ve been around since 1962 and work with artists to bring art and culture into Massachusetts schools through performances and workshops,” said O’Neill. “They act as a clearing house for artists and make it easy to set up appearances.”
In addition, O’Neill said her antennae were always up for suggestions.
“Teachers have made some requests,” O’Neill said. “I haven’t asked the pupils themselves directly, but it was the teachers who had asked for a nutrition show, although not specifically Slim. But if a teacher has a special request I definitely want to try and fit it in with the curriculum and the teachers’ wishes.”
In the end, said O’Neill her first year as cultural enrichment program coordinator would not have gone so well if not for the help and support of everyone connected to Florence Roche.
“I feel very lucky that our principal and the PTA are committed to bringing art to Florence Roche,” said O’Neill.