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First Day: A community party celebrates diversity
By Belinda Anderson
In the foyer of the community college, youngsters enthusiastically engaged in tae kwon do lessons. On the second floor, in a room normally used as a lounge for staff and faculty, adults bowed in greeting in the quiet atmosphere of respect, harmony, purity and tranquility that marks a formal tea ceremony. From a classroom across the hall, laughter spewed from appreciative listeners of Russian folk tales. The student center on the ground floor became an international food court, with live music as a backdrop.
In Lewisburg, January 1 was an opportunity to celebrate cultures from around the world, and to learn something new on the first day of a fresh year. The First Day International Festival, staged at the Greenbrier Community College Center of Bluefield State College, demonstrated how potent and positive a force community can be.
Folks began filling the college shortly after the finish of the downtown Shanghai Parade, an annual tradition in Lewisburg. They drank free hot chocolate and cider and bought a variety of foods, from sushi to Indian treats to the Williamsburg Fire Department’s chili, rated five-alarm. They listened to music ranging from blues to folk to traditional Appalachian songs.
At 1:00 p.m., the festival officially began with a welcome by Lewisburg’s mayor and the mass choir of the First Baptist Church of White Sulphur Springs. For the next three hours, visitors participated in a banquet of free activities, from origami to mask making to weaving. They heard stories from Kenya, Russian folk tales and Appalachian tall tales. They observed the Sankta Lucia ceremony from Sweden, learned about gypsy culture, watched a flint knapping demonstration and heard the story of the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
Mid-afternoon, the college auditorium was packed with an audience mesmerized by Ilene Evans’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman. She stood alone, dressed in a plain coat with her head wrapped in a scarf, a lantern in her hand. “I brought the light with me today because sometimes you lose your way in the dark,” she began in the accent of a Maryland slave from the 1850s.
First Day is a winter light sparked by area sculptor Jessica Levine. She was partly inspired by First Night, a non-alcoholic, family-oriented event sponsored by many communities across the country on New Year’s Eve. She also thought the festival could draw the crowd attending the Shanghai parade at noon. “The idea to change it to First Day is to make it more all-purpose for all ages,” Levine said. “I love to go to parties. I love to throw parties, but I’ve become more interested in the last few years in social gatherings that incorporate some fun, educational elements.”
Inclusion became an important theme of First Day, from organization to presentation. “As a young person, I grew up as a member of the only Jewish family in a town the size of Lewisburg. I can remember feeling isolated during the Christmas season. I don’t feel left out anymore,” she said, but she remains dedicated to bringing diverse people together.
Levine also hoped First Day would be a successful fund-raiser for Dottywood, an arts organization committed to building a community art sculpture park and with the stated goal of “developing hands-on opportunities for people to engage directly in the arts and with each other, bridging community divisions.” An example is Art in the Park, offered by Dottywood and the Lewisburg Parks Commission. Last summer, community members came together to create a mosaic mural on the picnic shelter at Dorie Miller Park. A climbing sculpture project for children is next on the list.
To launch First Day, Levine began inviting herself to meetings of cultural and artistic groups. She also tapped artists and teachers she knew. “There are so many fascinating, talented people in this area who carry a whole culture with them,” she said. Many were willing to volunteer their services for such a worthy event. Groups were invited to sell food, splitting the profit.
Funding came from the West Virginia Virginia Humanities Council, the West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tourism Authority and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.
Individuals made donations, as did the First National Bank in Ronceverte, City National Bank in Lewisburg and the Levine Family Foundation. In-kind donations included the Greenbrier Community College Center of Bluefield State College, which provided space for the event, and presenter accommodations by The General Lewis Inn. The New Greenbrier Preschool offered child care.
Several people also donated time, expertise and leadership, from catering to coordinating volunteers to managing First Day’s community art pageant entry in the parade. Those individuals included Lisa Carter, Aaron Chantrill, Joe Chasnoff, Susan Hewman, Wanda Johnson, Larry Levine, Kayla Mann, Lorrie Monte, Carolyn Rudley, Tenley Shumate, Caroline Smith, Meg Squier and the staff at Greenbrier Community College Center.
Even with so many helping hands, Levine had several concerns for the new event. “My hope was that, as much as possible, the presentations would have an interactive element. I wanted to make sure there was something kid-friendly for every block of time,” she said. “I wanted people to feel really welcome. I thought it was important that people were greeted when they came in. I had a big concern that it would be confusing, so we wanted the signage to be really good.”
So how did it turn out? “I thought we would be lucky to get 200 people,” Levine said. Instead, 500 showed up. “We think the day turned out great. I would love to see it catch on. Every small community has interesting people who want to share their experience. I think we have an opportunity here to create a positive reception, a sense of tolerance and curiosity.”
More information about First Day, Dottywood and Art in the Park is available on Dottywood’s web site: http://www.lewisburg.org/dottywood.