Springfield spelling bee creates buzz for literacy efforts

9-year-old Ridgewood student steals the show.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Tuesday’s word of the day in Springfield was catarrh, not so much for its definition but for what it means for local literacy efforts.

The team of Jim Heeg, Barbara Matthies and Amber LeValley, representing United Senior Services (USS), correctly spelled catarrh – a build-up of mucus in an airway or cavity of the body – in the seventh round to win the 24th annual “Literacy Sting” spelling bee sponsored by Altrusa International Foundation of Springfield at the Courtyard by Marriott.

The event saw 12 teams competing and having fun trying to figure words from the easy to uncommon like cappelletti, which was the downfall of defending champs WellSpring, who finished third. The Ohio State University Master Gardener Volunteers of Clark County team finished as runner-up.

The event is Altrua’s biggest fundraiser of the year with proceeds supporting a variety of Clark County literacy projects. The 2023 theme was “Reading is Magic!”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

“We have a lot of fun with it and a variety of people like to come out to support it. We have some new teams and some that come every year,” said Sandy Justice Fitzwater, Altrusa president, who wore a Harry Potter-like sorcerer robe to get into the event theme.

Previous events have raised $10,000 to $35,000. The organization distributes 10-12,000 books a year.

The teams represented various organizations and ranged from two to three members. They had creative nicknames like “Don’t Stop BEElievin!” and “Warner Wannabees,” and members could consult when given a word, or ask for a definition or usage in a sentence before spelling. Judges were Tom Stafford, Melanie Flax Wilt and Kyle Koehler.

All 12 teams made it through the first two rounds before a third of them fell out in the third round, symbolized by stinger bee Kim Williamson popping their black and gold balloons.

Heeg studied before competing his first time last year but said it didn’t help him.

“If we don’t know it, we never will,” Heeg said of the words.

He cited teamwork as the key this time. Matthies was confident of the spelling for catarrh, grateful they didn’t get a previous word – sphinx.

She followed in her dad’s footsteps, who competed several years ago in a previous sting event while in his 90s.

Team USS called the experience fun and nerve-wracking at the same time and said they’d be back to defend the title on Sept. 24, 2024, for the landmark 25th “Literacy Sting.”

Although his Ridgewood School’s Ridgewords team went out before the final three, 9-year-old Shashank Palla stole the show. The youngest competitor in the event’s history had to lower the microphone to answer and carefully questioned the definition and usage of words before answering.

He finished fourth in a regional spelling bee for competitors in Ohio and Michigan earlier this year, and this was something of a warm-up for future competitions as well as a great way to get out of school for part of a day.

Palla got numerous fist-bumps and high-fives from other competitors and said his goal is to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The word he likely won’t forget was puerile, which eliminated Ridgewood, but you couldn’t tell from their smiles.

The event also gave a spirit banner award to the supporters who cheered loudest, going to the fans of CitiLookout.

Fitzwater Justice said she was grateful for the support as Clark County has an especially high rate of literacy challenges. Altrusa is helping reach the area’s growing Haitian and Hispanic populations at events like CultureFest and the annual Minority Health Fair.

“It’s a challenging. Literacy involves things like stop signs and traffic lights and most basic words, so we’re working to help where we can,” she said.

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