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CRENSHAW : Tightening Bonds by Sharing Stories

July 28, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

Twirling a wooden staff festooned with silver ribbons with the deftness of a drum majorette, Ellaraino led a curious group of parents and children into a world few said they had visited before: storytelling.

It is a make-believe world that has something for people of all ages, said the actress-turned-storyteller, her radiant smile undimmed by dubious looks from the audience. "You know why I love to tell stories? Because in stories, you can be anything you want to be. Anything!"

And for the next hour, they are, adults and children alike, assuming roles as goats, old women, leopards, horses, even yams. Lighthearted though it was, the session at the Head Start center on Western Avenue had serious intentions of planting seeds of literacy, a knowledge of ancient African culture, and perhaps most important, a sense of family togetherness in participants.

"I want to encourage families to start traditions by telling personal stories," said Ellaraino, colorfully dressed in African garb and surrounded by African dolls, figurines and other tools of her trade. "It doesn't matter that you haven't heard any before. You can start where you are."

The weekly storytelling workshop is the newest and most creative program launched thus far at the Head Start Family Service Center at 6801 S. Western Ave. The year-old facility provides a variety of services aimed at improving family life for its low-income clients.

One of only three Head Start Family Service Centers operated by the county, the center opened last year in response to the 1992 riots and the need to address such problems as illiteracy, substance abuse and unemployment with free classes and job training. The center serves qualifying families living in the area bounded by Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, the Harbor Freeway on the east, Adams Boulevard on the north and Imperial Highway on the south.

The pilot storytelling program, says social worker Cheryl Darden, brings together several important elements in a single, enjoyable activity. "It fits in with what we do here because it serves the whole household," said Darden, a family service specialist at Head Start. "It's a nice activity for families that doesn't cost anything, either."

During the workshop, Ellaraino literally kept her audience on their toes. She called upon them to help act out stories, gathered them in semicircles for "ring" games, and paraded them around the room in a dramatization of an African folk tale about an old woman trying to cross a river.

Each tale imparted a message: the travails of "The Knee High Man" encouraged listeners to be satisfied with their physical appearance, while the " hujambao " chanting game called upon each participant to describe what they want to achieve in life. Hujambao is a Swahili greeting.

"I want to be an adult," Darlene Walker said with a laugh during the game.

Like the 15 other participants, Walker began the session sitting in a chair with her son in her lap, but when the storytelling began, she was quickly on her feet.

"It's a lot of fun," said Walker, who has been coming to the center since it opened and describes herself as a "neighborhood nanny." "The good thing is, it got me out of the house and away from the television set."

Ellaraino, a veteran film actress who turned to storytelling six years ago, said she hopes to build family solidarity, something she said has eroded too much over the years in the black community.

"I got inspired to do this after I heard my son tell a story his father had told him," she said. "He told it so vividly, so well. The seed was planted for me. . . . I realized that you can be very creative about doing things with family, which is something we've forgotten. You don't need money. You only need imagination."

Information: (213) 750-1203.

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