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St. Marys native Jennifer Schneider Woolstrum, now living in Pittsburgh, is helping to preserve and promote the cultures of many ethnic groups as a member of the board of directors of the Junior Tamburitzans of South Hills (JTSH), a youth folk ensemble based in the South Hills of Pittsburgh dedicated to preserving the arts, music, and heritage of eastern and central Europe.
Woolstrum's two children, are part of the South Hills group. Her son Daniel, 14, dances and plays the upright string bass. Her daughter, Lavender, 11, dances, sings and plays the prim, a small guitar-type instrument with steel strings that is popular in eastern and southern Europe.
"We became involved with the JTSH through a friend of mine from college. She thought I would be interested," Woolstrum said.
The South Hills group, founded in 1979, is one of about 35 active Junior Tamburitzan groups throughout North America. Junior Tamburitzan groups are sponsored by the Croation Fraternal Union (CFU) and perform at various events in their area. The "tamburitza," from which the group gets its name, is a family of plucked, stringed instruments originating in central Europe with roots in the Turkish Empire. In the Tamburitzans, students learn to play traditional tamburitza instruments of central and eastern Europe, as well as sing songs in various languages and perform traditional folk dances.
"The members range from ages 6 to 18. Each student receives instruction and education in the art of tamburitza playing, folk dance and song. Students also learn about the countries and cultures of central and eastern Europe. Through public performances, the group promotes public interest and awareness of the rich cultural diversity known throughout these European regions," Woolstrum said.
While not directly affiliated with the famous Duquesne University Tamburitzans, several past members and current instructors of the South Hills group have been DU Tamburitzans.
"I hope my children decide to stay with the Junior Tamburitzans group.Â Lavender has already expressed an interest in joining the Duquesne University Tamburitzans in college," Woolstrum said.
Woolstrum, a 1992 graduate of St. Marys Area High School, received a bachelors degree in history from Edinboro University in 1997.
"In college, I became interested in genealogy and began researching my family history.Â Doing genealogy, I have been digging deeper into the Polish roots from my mom's side of the family," Woolstrum said.Â
Woolstrum, married to Brian, is the daughter of Mark and Rosie Schneider of St. Marys and has two sisters: Stephanie and her two children, Cody and Lawryn, of St. Marys; and Sonia, who resides in Rosenberg, Texas. Woolstrum noted she enjoys being part of the Tamburitzans because the group performs songs and dances that reflect her family's history.
Not only is Woolstrum a JTSH board member, but she also serves as the chairperson of JTSH's fundraising committee, and has lately taken on yet another responsibility within the group.
"I also help with costuming and recently volunteered to chair the costume committee for the coming years," Schneider said.
She explained that costumes are provided by the group and are authentic in nature; because of this, it takes ingenuity and effort to secure the proper clothing to make the performances as true the cultures they represent as possible.
"One of the biggest challenges I have noticed with costuming is ensuring a good fit.Â We do a lot of alterations on costumes to make sure they fit the kids and will not fall off during the performance," Woolstrum said.Â "Our group has established friendships with other local groups.Â As a result of these friendships, we can share costumes and props."Â
The Junior Tamburitzans of South Hills performs throughout the Pittsburgh area. In September, the Junior Tamburitzans had the opportunity to perform for the 100th anniversary of the Polish Falcons of America, wearing authentic costumes brought from Poland by one of the group's grandparents. Last summer they performed in Toronto, Canada, and are currently preparing for performances at the Croatian Fraternal Union Youth Festival, which will be held in Walt Disney World in Florida.
"The most challenging thing about the group is maintaining accuracy.Â The kids work very hard with their instructors to learn the correct dance steps and pronunciation. Being off by the slightest could change the ethnicity of the step or words," Woolstrum said.
Woolstrum also juggles work responsibilities with her children's schedules and the family's involvement with the Tamburitzans.
"I am currently working two part-time jobs so I have the flexibility to be involved in my family's activities," Woolstrum said. "I am a Copy and Print Center Associate at Staples, where I have the opportunity to process and produce various documents and presentations.
"I also work as a breakfast hostess at the Hampton Inn in GreenTree. I cook the complementary breakfast and make sure everything is stocked. I enjoy having the opportunity to talk to the guests."
Woolstrum said because of her schedule, it is difficult to make trips back to St. Marys, but said she does not regret the hours she puts in, either at work or as a volunteer and parent with the JTSH.
"It is great to spend the quality time with my kids while we relive forgotten traditions," Woolstrum said. "The Tamburitzans is a great organization because the children can enjoy and develop music and dance talents. Each student is encouraged to perform to the best of their ability, and there is a place for everyone."