Those present held their breath as the two school buses, packed with eager fourth graders, lumbered up the gravel drive to the grassy parking area on the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm in Placerville as part of the Okei-san Experience and El Dorado Reads Program.
“It’s really happening,” whispered Cathy Barsotti to Bill Roby of the El Dorado Community Foundation — as they stood in the field dressed in their Japanese yukata (robes) with Emogene Haller, event manager, and Molly Hucklebridge, American River Conservancy, all waiting to greet the first group of more than 100 children, teachers and parent chaperones as they arrived.
A group of nine passionate individuals working with four local organizations and more than 40 volunteers were about to witness the first annual “Okei-san Experience Field Trip” after almost two years of planning.
Teachers and students from the 32 fourth grade classrooms throughout El Dorado County had all participated in the second annual El Dorado Reads Okei-san program in the 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 funded by the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund managed by the El Dorado Community Foundation.
Each classroom received copies of the book accompanied by a reader’s guide and comprehension questions, and a carton of resource materials including 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. Plus this year, 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. Selections were made on a first come, first serve basis — and three schools visited the property for the adventure: Indian Creek School, Gold Trail School and American River Charter 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 bit of local and international history.
“I was impressed with the flow and volunteer coordination of this event,” stated Hucklebridge, ARC environmental education director. “Every ‘station’ I saw (storytelling and Taiko drumming) had gifted, kid-friendly leaders. On behalf of the American River Conservancy, thank you for including us in your special event.”
The events of the day included escorted visits to these stations:
• Ceremony at Okei-san’s grave site
• Japanese sword exhibit
• Interactive silkworm experience
• Japanese clothing and living arrangement exhibit
• Hands on origami demonstration
• Keyaki tree and plaque presentation
• Japanese language crash course
• Pictorial review of Japanese history 1882 to 1871
• Japanese lamishibai (storytellers) on Okei’s hilltop
• Tour of the Graner house cellar.
Each station was hosted by an expert or volunteer who led the children through informative history lessons or 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 over 142 years ago.
Students were able to hold silkworms, fold origami and even practice speaking Japanese. They toured the Graner house while learning about Japanese swords, clothing, living arrangements and furniture. The groups also 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 wonderful local field trip that was age appropriate and appreciated by all” was expressed by Tiffany Presgrave, teacher at Indian Creek School. “Where do we sign up for next year? Fantastic,” was her closing comment.
And — perhaps the hit of the day — the Taiko drummers who performed during lunch for the 200 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. It was a combination of entertainment, history and awe.
Myrna Hanses, a key member of the organizing committee, and founding member of People to People International, El Dorado County Chapter had this to say about the day: “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 occur that day.”
The day was split into a morning group (90 students) and an afternoon group (120 students). Each would have a similar experience — visiting the various stations located throughout the property.
They overlapped for lunch in the sloping field of an orchard to watch the Taiko drummer group — when the morning session finished and the afternoon group just arrived. It was a little bit like magic — with the drums booming and the sun shining down on the smiling faces staring at the performers on the stage.
“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 walked 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 from the foundation. “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.
“We could not have pulled off doing this event for the first time without the wonderful volunteers, whose creativity, flexibility and kid-friendly enthusiasm made the day go smoothly. It was a compliment to the presenters that the ‘guide’ volunteers seemed to be as enthralled with the presentations as the students,” Haller said.
More than 40 volunteers to either teach at one of the stations or lead the groups of eager students from point to point were recruited by Haller and Hanses.
One student, toward the end of the day, had whispered to one of the escorts, “I hope this isn’t the last station. I don’t want this day to be over.”
Teachers, students, parents and volunteers alike expressed gratitude and appreciation for being included in this first event.
“I just got home from a fabulous day and wanted to commend you all once again,” wrote Erin Dealey, author, teacher, presenter, in an e-mail to the event organizer. “What a tribute to Joan’s legacy, and such a cool living history event. I think the kids learned a lot (I did too!) and I was impressed by the thoughtful, knowledgeable presenters, the storytellers, and the Sacramento Taiko drummers — wow. Thanks for letting me be a part of this celebration. Arigato!”
For more information on the Joan Barsotti Memorial Fund contact the El Dorado Community Foundation offices at 530-622-5621.
For more information about Wakamatsu or to schedule a tour to visit the site go to arconservancy.org/wakamatsu.