Mom manages to write, teach, volunteer, even bird-watch

by Asa Bushnell
The Courier

pellegrinoIt's probably true that Marjorie White Pellegrino is not a household name among most adults in our community, but her skills touch the lives of so many youngsters in so many memorable ways that almost everyone in the next generation soon will know who she is.

In the heroic tradition of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," she's here, she's there, she's everywhere, helping others with tireless enthusiasm.

"I showed my schedule for the coming month to a friend," says Pellegrino, "and she remarked, 'That's pathetic.'"

Well, "pathetic" obviously isn't the word Marge Pellegrino would use – she prefers "exciting," "rewarding" or "fun" – though she readily admits her nonstop volunteerism for little monetary gain could be viewed as pitiful.

The human dynamo combines the talents of teacher and writer in a myriad of stimulating causes, each of which somehow receives her undivided attention – until it's time to move on to the next assignment.

A favorite cause is the Tucson Writers' Project, which she describes as a "jewel in the crown" of the Tucson-Pima Public Library system. As a part of an APPLECORP grant, obtained for TWP through the "genius" of Ann Dernier, the library's poet-in-residence, Pellegrino this year is involved with the Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence at the Southside Presbyterian Church and PAL (Play and Learn) after-school program at Keeling Elementary in the Amphitheater School District.

"Both programs empower students through writing and community-building activities," she enthuses.

Faces a real challenge

At the church, the teacher/writer faces a real challenge, conducting sessions for young refugees (and some adults as well), primarily from Central America, who do not understand our language, culture or freedom from fear. Her creativity shows as she calls on advanced teen-age refugees to serve as mentors, earning school credits for assisting, and she relies on an effective teacher resource, "The Folded Spiral in the Classroom: Circular Bookmaking Across the Curriculum," of which she is the co-author.

Marge Pellegrino has been thrilled by the results. Beneath a sketch of a house is one typical refugee's reaction to life in Tucson: "All the houses are the same, because there's love in them."

At Keeling, the dedicated teacher/writer places emphasis on metaphors and similes as important learning tools. She also takes students on treasure hunts, such as a particularly colorful adventure at Woods Branch Library, after the "prospectors" have studied maps and clues.

"Every treasure hunt is different," Pellegrino says, "relating to what the kids are interested in. Its fascinating to watch them teach each other."

As a member of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, she regularly must facilitate residencies and workshops for teachers or nonprofits in schools, libraries and community settings. Last year, she fulfilled the requirement at Estes Elementary in Marana, and in mid-January she will be at Laguna Elementary in the Flowing Wells School District.

Pellegrino has tutored at La Cima Middle School in Casa Adobes for three years in the library's valleywide Homework Help Program. Each Monday and Wednesday afternoon, following the school day, she oversees homework and preaches prevention.

And a permanent exhibit of work by Homework Help youngsters has been mounted in the Juvenile Justice Prevention Program building in Washington, D.C., complete with photos of the artists/writers next to their contributions.

Four dates on Pellegrino's December calendar indicate autograph parties for her second children's book, "My Grandma's the Mayor," just published by the American Psychological Association's Magination Press®. She says the story deals with the ambivalence kids feel about the involvement of significant others in the community, encouraging the kids themselves to play helpful roles.

Gives to four nonprofits

Of course, since the story supports community participation, the scheduled signings (first of which is listed in Gatherings on page 6 of this issue) will benefit four special nonprofit organizations dear to the author's heart – Children-to-Children, The Arizona Historical Society, the Northwest Interfaith Center, and the Amphi High School Band.

The band, in which her son, Evan, nearing 16, is a percussionist, qualifies for extra attention by the ubiquitous Marge Pellegrino. If she's not selling 50-50 tickets – "the band's uniforms are so old no one knows how old they are" – she can be found at McKale Center, volunteering at the concessions stands to raise funds.

In her spare time, this whirling dervish teaches for the University of Arizona Writing Works Program. She fondly recalls a series of workshops, entitled Journal Writing for Caregivers, and also a series on the formation of rocks at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where the layered specimens inspired her upcoming book.

"My third effort is making the rounds," she says, "because it apparently is not right for my publisher. 'The Layers of Me' is not a narrative – it's a concept book – explaining why each of us is a different person in public than in private."

Marge Pellegrino's keen sense of community stems from her childhood in Tuckahoe, a small suburb (pop. 6,000) on the north side of New York City, where her father, Phil White, now holds the office of mayor, three decades in public service.

"My family always has been active in the community," she remembers, "and public life has followed a lot of volunteering."

A psychology graduate from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, she had no early inklings of a writing bent: "I always wrote in a journal, but I didn't know anyone who was a writer, I thought they were magical people."

Curiously, while she and her husband, Steve Pellegrino, grew up in the same town, they were not destined to meet until Christmas break of her senior year at college, by which time he already had seen duty at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson.

For four years of marriage, he worked as a microbiologist and she worked for Con Ed, before he suggested a vacation trip to the Old Pueblo. Out they came and, to provide a little temptation, University Medical Center offered the medical scientist a job.

"Economics influenced our decision to move here," she concedes. "A row house back there cost twice as much as a nicer place here, and parking was terrible there. All Steve really needed here was a satellite dish so he could watch his alma mater, St. John's, play basketball."

The Pellegrinos arrived in 1979, spent a year near Amphi High, switched to a home by Children's Memorial Park in 1980, and settled in their present home on Yvon Drive, between Oracle and First, just north of River, in 1995. He joined Sunquest in 1993, on the software side of medical-info business, after stints with UMC and St. Mary's Hospital.

Career "turning point"

As for Marge Pellegrino, who had been working for US West, the "turning point" came 13 months after the birth of their son, when he was calling his babysitter "Mom."

In her usual animated fashion, she explains: "I decided, if I want him to follow his dreams, I have to follow mine. I became a stay-at-home mom – and a writer."

Mostly, she tried her hand at articles and a parenting column for a now-defunct local magazine, Compendium. Then, with the death of her only brother, Phil, she wrote her first children's book, "I Don't Have an Uncle Phil Anymore" (she has two sisters still living).

Told through a child's eyes, this tender story explores many traditions and social rituals associated with death, defining the child's thoughts, feelings and memories.

In view of her diverse interests, it seems incredible that Marge Pellegrino can maintain the pace, especially since she also goes hiking and attends Audubon Society meetings with her bird-watching husband.

A gift from son Evan – a bird-watcher's clock that offers the audible call(s) of a different bird each hour – reminds the family of its devotion to that particular avocation.

Trouble is, the birdcalls are triggered by a light sensor on the kitchen clock and more than one unsuspecting house quest has been startled silly when opening the fridge to sneak a midnight snack.