Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

September 27, 2012

Taking literacy to the streets

Storyteller pitches idea, gets hit at business competition

Judy Wakefield
Staff Writer

---- — Professional storyteller Nicolette Nordin Heavey of Andover was the fan favorite at a recent advertising pitch contest hosted by a group of businesses.

Her explanation of her literacy program – she performs stories for kids on the street – proved just as popular with businessmen and women as it has with parents and their children.

Heavey spent the summer pursuing her program, “Stories in the Streets,” at community gathering spots in Lawrence, including its farmers’ market and a playground at North Common. Armed with a colorful rolling cart of books, she performs stories for underserved families and gives a free picture book to every child who listens.

It’s long been a dream of this Smith College graduate, married mother of three and former Andona Society member, to perform stories and give away books to children.

“I just have a talent to communicate with children,” she said. “Andona is about giving back and I very much believe in that.”

It’s certainly not a lucrative career, but a storyteller’s life has other, non-financial rewards.

“It’s the hugs and smiles from kids,” Heavey said. “The real life stuff, that’s what is priceless.”

Maureen Pasek of Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, which has awarded Heavey a children’s literacy grant, said Heavey is phenomenal.

“She’s so animated and engages kids so well, even with the simplest of books,” Pasek said. “She’s like the Pied Piper. Kids just love what she does.”

Two weeks ago, Heavey pitched her “Stories in the Streets” idea to the Merrimack Valley Sandbox group, a community-wide initiative supporting entrepreneurship, based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Up against start-up companies, including a company that turns old athletic shirts into bedding, she placed second and was also selected as the fan favorite. Heavey was awarded a total of $1,250. She will compete again for a bigger financial prize next month.

Successfully pitching her idea to an audience of 100 business people was not a bit intimidating for Heavey, who calls herself “pretty competitive.” The audience voted on their favorite pitch from their seats and votes were tallied on a big screen at the event, held at Chester’s at the Bell Tower in Lawrence.

Heavey will use her winnings to run a summer camp in Lawrence for students who want to be storytellers. She expects a dozen kids to take part.

“It’s an art form,” she said of storytelling, and it’s a passion she has pursued through performance for the past 10 years.

Heavey, who has a business and marketing background and lived in Belgium and London before attending college in the United States, is hoping to get grants so her “Stories in the Streets” program can grow. Lawrence is her pilot site. She has also performed in Lynn.

The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council is hoping to give her more grant money from the federal grant program, Race to the Top, which is promoting literacy development across the country.

“I’ve been so well-received in Lawrence and I want to keep Stories in the Streets going,” Heavey said. “The program meets a critical literacy need in Lawrence, where about 60 percent of third-graders are reading below grade level.”

Competing for $10,000 in the Sandbox final pitch contest next month is Heavey’s next step. That money would certainly help her literacy program grow. Contestants have just one minute each to pitch their new businesses.

“I had two and a half minutes before, so I’m just editing,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

Check out mvsandbox.org to learn more about the effort.