Not your third-grade spelling bee: Event brings out Vashon’s top spellers

The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation is not your average scholarship organization. And fittingly, its annual spelling bee, which takes place this weekend, is not your average spelling bee.

Bee organizer Barbara Gustafson said the competition — which brings in funds to assure that every Vashon senior who applies for a college scholarship gets one — is not the type of spelling bee that Islanders may remember from their elementary school years.

“It’s the place to go for the nerd-fest,” Gustafson said, laughing. “It’s competitive but light-hearted. ... It’s not a dramatic thing.”

Teams of two or three people dress up in costumes at the lively contest and spell as supporters in the audience cheer them on. Spellers sometimes get a second chance to spell a word, and if they still don’t get it right, audience members can give it a try by shouting out the answer.

“We want it to be a joyful way to raise money to support kids in our community,” Gustafson said.

The spelling bee, now in its fifth year, raises about $5,000 each year for the scholarship foundation, said Mary Andrews, a board member who also helps with the bee.

Last year, the foundation awarded 190 scholarships totaling $116,000 to 114 Island seniors.

This year, 90 students have taken the steps to apply for a scholarship, writing an essay and gathering letters of recommendation, Andrews said.

“This is the only fundraiser specifically for the scholarship foundation,” she said.

While revenue from the bee doesn’t provide all of the scholarship money, Andrews said, it certainly helps bolster the foundation’s coffers and, perhaps more importantly, brings attention to the foundation, which garners donations from many Island businesses and residents.

Awards at the event are given to the winning team, as well as the first team to go out and the best-dressed team, voted on by the audience.

“The costume contest is always a hoot to watch,” Gustafson said.

Though the bee is lighthearted, Gustafson said the words in the final rounds are difficult, and the event attracts some serious spellers along with those who simply like being on the stage.

“We certainly have some capable spellers who do it year in and year out,” she said.

This year, in an attempt to attract more teams to the spelling bee, the foundation is allowing teams of one, two or three people to register for the competition.

“We kept hearing from individuals that it was really hard to find three people that wanted to do it. We had a two-person team one year, and they did really well. Maybe there’s someone out there who can do it so well that they do it alone,” she said.

However, no individual spellers have stepped forward yet, and registration for the event is actually low this year, Gustafson said. While some years have seen 16 teams, there are only eight registered so far.

“I’d like to have another eight teams,” she said. “It would be great to have 20 teams.”

Gustafson also hopes to see more people attend the spelling bee this year. Interest in the event has stayed steady over the years, she said, but has not increased as foundation members wish it would.

She said this year organizers moved the bee from February to January, when there are fewer competing events on the Island, and holding the bee on a Sunday afternoon was strategic as well.

“We made a conscious decision to find a time that would work for the commuter crowd,” she said.

The event has been made possible each year by Islander Beth de Groen, whom Gustafson said generously sponsors the event and its advertising so that all of the proceeds can go directly towards scholarships.

“It would be difficult to run it without her financial support,” she said. “She’s our sole sponsor at this point, and it’s very generous.”

The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation’s annual spelling bee will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Vashon High School theater. Tickets to the event are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door and at Vashon Bookshop. Team registration is $50 per person. For more information or to register a team, contact Barabara Gustafson at 463-1638 or

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