By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Traffic on the main streets of uptown Clarksburg will soon come to a temporary halt for the celebration of the 39th Annual West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival, which brings thousands of visitors to the area each year during Labor Day weekend. This event has long been ranked among the top 100 events in North America, and if you’ve ever attended, you have witnessed why it is so popular!
It is a celebration of Italian heritage where traditions are honored … where families gather … where friendships are made and renewed … and where food and entertainment are thoroughly enjoyed throughout the three-day festival!
This year’s WVIHF officially gets underway this Friday, Sept.1st with the coronation of Regina Maria XXXIX on the Main Stage in front of the Harrison County Courthouse. The crown will be placed on the head of this year’s queen Alyssa Marie Oliverio promptly at noon with ongoing entertainment to follow throughout the afternoon and evening hours.
Alyssa, a 25-year old native of Belmont, WV, is a 2010 graduate of Parkersburg Catholic High School. She is also a graduate of WVU – Parkersburg, having earned a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree with a specialization in Education. Although she had originally studied music and psychology, she felt drawn to the education field.
While in college, she tutored other students, has served with AmeriCorps, and taught special needs adults at a camp in West Virginia. She has a teaching position at a private school in Denver, Colorado and was teaching pre-school aged children there who are developmentally and mentally challenged.
“I feel very comfortable in a classroom and teaching those who have special needs was a good fit for me because I am a loving person with a lot of patience and I believe these students need not only an environment with patience but they need extra love. I am drawn to them and find it very rewarding to teach them,” she commented.
Alyssa is confident in different environments as she exemplified by living in Bangkok, Thailand for a while, teaching English as a foreign language to 2nd graders there for a semester.
“My experience with the Thai language was very limited so it was challenging for me as well as the Thai students, but we managed quite well,” she added. “I was their first teacher to be a native English speaker as well, so it took a little time. Fortunately I was able to focus on play-based learning; we played lots of charades and drew pictures and we learned from one another! It was life changing to be in such a different environment and interact with those children daily, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Regina Maria XXXIX visited San Giovanni in Fiore with her grandfather Mike Oliverio when she was 13 years old. That, too, was an amazing experience for her because she learned so much about her heritage.
More recently she traveled to South Africa with her family. She related, “I am an avid scuba diver and was anxious to see a great white shark. During my travels I have learned that the best way to appreciate your own culture is to explore those vastly different from your own.”
Alyssa says that every year of her life, she has attended Clarksburg’s WVIHF and being the queen was always a lofty dream of hers since childhood.
“I was so surprised and so very honored to have been selected to reign as Regina Maria XXIX,” she stated. “It is an honor for my family and rather surreal to me to have this dream come true. I am looking forward to it so much. I want to set a good example because there will be many children looking at me this year and perhaps dreaming the same dream I had of being festival queen someday. I want to encourage them to pursue that dream.”
For some WVIHF attendees, they seek the fellowship of friends and family; for others it is the great entertainment that draws them. But for whatever reason people choose to participate, Alyssa feels that the festival is a very “unifying event”.
“It is one time of year that some families make an effort to get together,” she continued. “It may be the one time that for some families, they are in the same place at the same time. And for all of us, we celebrate who we are as Italian Americans and as West Virginians.”
And of course there is no overlooking the festival food! Alyssa, who is typically a vegetarian throughout the year, says she splurges during the Italian Festival.
“This is the one time I break over and can’t wait to sample the frittis, the sausage and steak!” she said. “I’ll be participating in all of the festival activities – including eating all the food!”
She even took part in the hot pepper eating contest last weekend – the only woman who competed! “It pushed my comfort zone somewhat, I’ll admit. I might not compete again, but I’m glad I gave it a try. After all, if I’m going to reign over this festival, how would it look if I only watched while others took part?!” she joked.
In 1998, Alyssa served on the WVIHF Minor Court along with last year’s Festival Queen Bryanna DeFazio. “Over the years, we have become close friends. She was an astounding Regina Maria and I am so happy to follow her this year. We will join in some of the events this year. It is an example of how as the organization grows, friendships grow as well.”
As Alyssa looks forward to this weekend’s events, she is hopeful for good weather. But even if it rains, she says she will still be dancing in the streets of Clarksburg enjoying the celebration.