“They’re coming. I see the buses,” Emogene Haller, event manager, announced over the walkie-talkies.
Four schools with their students and teachers were arriving to participate in the second annual Okei-san Experience Field Trip at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm site in Placerville, near Coloma.
“Places everyone,” Haller called out.
The morning group of 134 students, teachers and parent chaperones were offloading the buses as they were welcomed by the volunteer guides. Each guide was dressed in colorful happi coats or yukata (Japanese robes) with straw hats and hand signs in matching colors.
The guides were ready to lead the student groups through a series of eight stations positioned throughout the expansive property. The students and teachers gathered together cautiously, not knowing quite what to expect or what they were going to experience.
The journey begins
“Welcome,” smiled Cathy Barsotti, as she and Bill Roby from the El Dorado Community Foundation, and Lindsay Raber, environmental education director from the American River Conservancy, greeted the guests.
“We are excited that you’re here. Thank you for sending in your applications and for taking the time to work this program into your curriculum. Enjoy this very special experience,” said Barsotti.
A group of eight passionate individuals working with four local organizations and more than 40 volunteers had launched the first Okei-san Experience Field Trip in 2013.
This year’s event included a number of enhancements to last year’s program — mostly because the people in this community have generously donated money to the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund, managed by the El Dorado Community Foundation. This fund provides the financial backing needed to coordinate this event. The grant applications also provided funding for the schools to be able to participate in the field trip.
The organizers were thrilled that this year, additional funds were donated by the California Retired Teachers Association (CalRTA), division 73 of El Dorado County. The funds specifically went to help enhance the program by allowing the organizers to create bold signage to highlight the learning stations and key directional signs to place throughout the site.
The donation also provided funding for the many, colorful volunteer happi coats. The signage and the happi coats will continue to be utilized each year.
Teachers and students from the 82 fourth grade classrooms in El Dorado County had all been invited to participate in the third annual El Dorado Reads Okei-san program this spring.
The program included reading local author Joan Barsotti’s cherished book “Okei-san: A Girl’s Journey, Japan to California, 1869-1871.”
The El Dorado Reads program is also funded by the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund. Each classroom received copies of the book accompanied by a Reader’s Guide and a resource box which included an origami kit and hashi (chopsticks).
In book club style, they learned about this young girl’s journey from her homeland to El Dorado County.
All schools were eligible to apply for a grant from the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund to pay for a field trip to the Wakamatsu site to culminate their studies. The response from the schools was overwhelming again this year.
Selections were made — and five schools joined the volunteers on the property for the adventure: Blue Oak Elementary School, Camino Elementary School, Cedar Springs Waldorf School, El Dorado Adventist School and Pioneer School.
Special approval was granted from the American River Conservancy (ARC) to use the property for the event. The property is not currently open to the public and the ARC is still seeking funding to preserve this significant portion of local and international history.
“On behalf of the American River Conservancy, I am proud to say how happy we are to be a part of this project and watch the unfolding of this vision take root,” said Raber. “My hat goes off to all of you and without a doubt, Joan was there with us, smiling and enjoying herself as much as everyone else. Well done, everyone. So happy to be a part of a magical and unforgettable day.”
The events of the day included escorted visits to eight stations: Ceremony at Okei-san’s Grave Site, Japanese Kamishibai (storytellers) on Okei’s Hilltop, Japanese Folk Dance Lesson, Japanese Language Crash Course, Hands On Origami Demonstration, Interactive Silkworm Experience, Japanese Sword Exhibit, Japanese Clothing and Living Arrangement Exhibit.
Each station was hosted by an expert or volunteer who led the children through an informative history lessons or a hands-on experience.
The events of the day were designed to give the students a better understanding of what the young girl, Okei-san may have also experienced while she was living on the property more than 143 years ago.
Students were able to hold silkworms, fold origami figures and even practice speaking Japanese. They toured the Graner House while learning about Japanese swords, clothing and living arrangements.
The students were able to practice a classic Japanese style folk dance in a beautiful area overlooking a lake.
The groups also visited Okei’s gravesite and listened to professional Japanese storytellers under the large oak tree near what is believed to have been one of Okei-san’s favorite retreats at the end of her day.
A great time
“It was a grand field trip — we all thoroughly enjoyed the day and appreciated the energy, organization and generosity that went into it. Thank you so much,” expressed one teacher participant from Camino School.
“This was one of the best volunteered field trips I have been on. Since we have so little classrooms funds to spend each year, the grant made our visit possible. Field trips are expensive and we have many families who cannot afford to pay,” added another teacher.
Perhaps the most spectacular event of the day was a wonderful repeat performance from last year by the taiko drummers who performed during lunch for more than 315 wide-eyed participants.
The Sacramento Taiko Dan group played for 30 minutes, described each instrument and even brought kids up on the stage to perform.
This year the lunchtime entertainment also included a Japanese sword and martial arts demonstration. Exciting elements of swordsmanship were demonstrated and shared for the audience. It was a combination of entertainment, history and awe.
Another addition this year was the lunch that was provided for all participants at the newly created chuckwagon area. Students, teachers, chaperones and volunteers all delighted in the bento box-style lunch of teriyaki chicken, rice and vegetables. An apple spice cake for dessert was generously donated by Kid’s Inc. and the Barsotti Family Juice Company donated juice.
“I thought it was the right mix of elements — the children, parents, teachers, subject matter and the perfect setting to reach our goals. For me, the El Dorado Reads Day was proof that if you mix eager children, curious parents, creative teachers, enthusiastic docents, a fascinating setting, glorious weather and a unique event in their history, you will have the epitome of education occurring that day,” said Myrna Hanses, a key member of the organizing committee and founding member of People to People International, El Dorado County Chapter.
The day was split into a morning group (111 students) and an afternoon group (110 students) plus teachers, parents, guides and other volunteers.
Both morning and afternoon groups visited all the learning stations and shared the lunch and entertainment in the sloping field of the orchard.
Even with what seemed like record heat and limited shade, the participants seemed to truly enjoy the events of the day, the food and entertainment.
“We believe that Joan Barsotti would have been so happy that the children were able to enjoy this hands-on and interactive adventure. It truly was amazing. Our mom had finished writing the second edition of the Okei-san book just before she passed away suddenly in 2010. She was very passionate about this book and had always been inspired and drawn to children,” said one of her daughters, Cathy Barsotti. “We are thrilled to be able to use some of the money from her fund to make this day a reality.”
The wonderful memories of the day were captured on film by Laurie Edwards, who navigated through the expansive property for hours with 15 pounds of camera equipment trying not to miss a smile or special moment.
“After two years of planning we witnessed the spark of education in those young eyes,” said Roby. “For me, this made all the meetings and time spent so very much worth it.”
This many children rotating through multiple stations throughout the expansive property was masterfully choreographed by Haller and Hanses.
Emogene said, “… thank you to everyone who helped to make Joan’s book come alive as we all walked in Okei’s footsteps and experienced (heard, saw, touched, tasted) a bit of Japanese culture, all in an historical setting right in our own backyard … Thanks again to everyone for your kid-friendly volunteering and for making the day such a wonderful realization of a dream.”
Forty-four volunteers were on hand to teach, share, demonstrate or present at various stations, to coordinate parking, distribute food at the new chuckwagon or lead the groups of eager students from point to point.
Teachers, students, parents and volunteers alike expressed gratitude and appreciation for being included in this second field trip event.
“I wanted to take a moment to thank you for such a beautiful experience today at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony,” shared Noel Robinson. “There were many moments today that my heart was full and my eyes filled with tears, seeing Joan’s beloved friends at the stations got me every time. Every aspect of the event was perfect. Thank you as a friend, colleague, mom, community member, ARC supporter, former Japanese Rotary exchange student and lover of Joan’s books.”
“And, thank you, friends of the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund for donating your time and money. We hope you know that the money will continue to be used in ways to enrich and enlighten the children of our community for years to come. Domo arigato,” said Cathy Barsotti.
For more information on the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund contact the El Dorado Community Foundation offices at 530-622-5621.
To learn more about Wakamatsu or schedule a tour to visit the site, more details can be found at arconservancy.org/wakamatsu.