From left: Lynn McKinney, Sherri Hironaka, and Kelly Poe stand amongst the books and T-shirts soon to be given out to kindergarteners all around the county as part of the seventh annual StORytime event. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

VALE – Covid worries meant that the Malheur Education Service District’s StORytime event, which normally gathers hundreds of kindergarteners at Four Rivers Cultural Center for a day of reading and music, had to be moved to a virtual format. 

But volunteers and staff say they’re just as excited as ever for the event, now in its seventh year. The event will take place on a rolling basis throughout the fall. 

“We’ve put so much into it, we couldn’t let it die,” said Sherri Hironaka, an Ontario resident who since the event’s inception has taken charge of recruiting volunteers. “We can do this virtually, we can make it better than last year, and we’re going to survey teachers at the end of September and ask them what they thought about the virtual one and what we could do to make it better.”

Over 400 kindergarteners are expected to participate from across Malheur County. 

During the event, kindergarteners will watch videos of volunteers reading three beginner-level books by Mo Willems. The videos are split-screen, with the reader on one side and the pages being turned on the other. Each book will be read in both English and Spanish.

“Guest readers” will include Steve Romero, Ontario police chief; Lung Hung, Malheur Circuit Court judge; Kathie Collins, former executive director of Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery; and Jennifer Susuki, Education Service District student wellness coordinator.

The theme for this year’s StORytime is “friendship,” and the slogan associated with the event is “GO to school, LEARN to read, and GRADUATE from high school.” 

The importance of the message, said Hironaka, is to promote school to the kindergarteners. 

“Tell them that the community’s behind them and that the community’s rooting for them and we want this for them,” she said. 

The event will also include videos of musical exercises by Susie Lott, a retired music teacher from the Ontario School District. 

Hironaka explained that the event, while initially a project of Gov. John Kitzhaber, was now fully planned by her team, which also includes Kelly Poe and Christy Hill of the Malheur Education Service District. 

“It was quite a huge undertaking trying to put it together from people in Salem who didn’t really understand the layout of Malheur County,” Hironaka said, alluding to the long distances kindergarteners had to travel from outlying towns to make it to the in-person event in Ontario. 

But by the time Kitzhaber left office in 2015, the event had been “so popular with teachers that we said we’ll design it ourselves,” Hironaka said.

During this year’s StORytime, each kindergartener will get to pick out one Mo Willems book to keep from the three read during the event, and each classroom will receive a copy of “The Kissing Hand” courtesy of the Friends of the Ontario Community Library. The kindergarteners also all receive StORytime T-shirts, with their high school graduation year – 2034 – stamped on the back. 

Hironaka said it was sad to lose some aspects of the in-person event. 

When the kids met at Four Rivers Cultural Center, the StORytime coordinators arranged for all of the local high school mascots to be there, as well as the Chukar mascot from Treasure Valley Community College. The mascots would be introduced, and they would all bow to the Chukar when it came out.

Volunteers from the juvenile department would dress up, and Umpqua Bank, one of the event’s sponsors, would donate ice cream. 

“You cannot even imagine how many little kids would throw their arms around us and say, ‘This was the best day of my life!’” said Hironaka. 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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