Armstrong sisters lifting spirits through music, dance and stories

Jamie Mountain

A pair of local sisters are doing their part to help lift the spirits of residents on both sides of the border during these unprecedented times.

Cassandra Armstrong, 9, and Callahan Armstrong, 18, are sharing their gifts in music, dance and storytelling over the last three-plus weeks over the internet to brighten people’s days during a stressful and lonely time amid the COVID-9 pandemic.

After her mom, Nikki, explained to her how serious the threat of COVID-19 virus was and how people needed to stay away from each other in order to keep us all safe, Cassandra immediately thought about a song that she started learning from her music teacher, Renee Martin Brown.

“Cassandra told me that this song ‘This Little Light of Mine’ was a perfect song to help people during this stressful and sad time,” said Nikki Armstrong.

“She wanted to sing it and share it with her family and friends, so I contacted local music producer Maverick Judson (from Emo) and within a few days, he recorded Cassandra singing this cover song.”

The Armstrongs then shared the finished product on Facebook, immediately receiving an overwhelming response.

“So many people loved it, shared it and sent wonderful comments. We had numerous people contact us and ask for special permission to share her song,” Nikki Armstrong remarked.

“Many teachers asked to share her song with their schools and online classes and many also wanted to share it with their loved ones.”

When Nikki asked Cassandra why this song was so important for her to share, she responded “I want to put hope in people’s hearts.”

The song is now available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tik Tok, etc. For any profit received, Cassandra will be donating to help feed people in the community during this COVID-19 quarantine.

When Cassandra learned that kids would not be returning to school, and that it could be for an extended amount of time, she came up with another idea to reach out to others.

Since she loves reading books and sharing, she decided to start her own “storytime” each night.

“After explaining to her that she could not go to school or see her friends she replied with, ‘I can still read books and help cheer little kids up’,” Nikki said.

“She asked me to share her storytime episodes on my Facebook since she does not have an account. Her first episode was on March 17 for St. Patrick’s Day, where she read a classic Dr. Seuss story. She was pretty excited to see the big response after we shared it with over 1200 people viewing it and many comments and shares.”

When Nikki asked Cassandra how long she was going to keep doing her storytime she answered, “I will do this every day that kids have to stay home–even if it gets up to 100!” She also added, “I just want to make kids happy and make them laugh so they forget about all the things they can’t do right now.”

As of last Monday, 26 days of storytime have taken place and Cassandra has kept true to her promise, Nikki noted.

“She is always planning and thinking of ways she can change how she reads the books to keep it interesting for her listeners,” Nikki lauded.

“She will get into character and change her hair, read from a snowbank or bathtub, use a flashlight to read in the dark, sing, and sometimes use props to add to the fun. Her big sister, Callahan, helped her with a couple of episodes by operating a sloth and parrot puppet. When I asked her which ones are her favourite she said, ‘I really love the parrot one where I tell jokes because I love to laugh!”

What Cassandra was most surprised about was how many adults enjoy her storytime as much as the kids.

“We have received countless messages from all ages, ranging from toddlers up to people in their 80’s who look forward to her storytime each night, said Nikki.

“So many parents have sent her thank you messages stating that their children are excited every night to see what Cassandra has planned. People comment that she brings joy, laughter and comfort during such challenging times.”

Word of Cassandra’s efforts to lift spirits have been far reaching. A couple of weeks ago, Cassandra received an unexpected message from her favourite author, Robert Munsch.

“He watched some of her storytime videos where she read many of Munsch’s books and he said, ‘Cassandra, you are doing an amazing job reading my books. I really enjoyed the video of you reading Mortimer. You did a FANTASTIC job. Thank you for sharing with all the kids,” Nikki recalled.

“Cassandra could not believe her eyes! She smiled big all day and said it was the biggest and best surprise ever. When I asked her how she felt she said, ‘I can’t believe that my favourite author in the whole world actually listened to ME read HIS stories! I never dreamed this could ever happen. Wow, I guess you never know who might be listening. I wish I could give him a big hug.”

With nearly four weeks of “Storytime With Cassandra Star”, over 13,000 people have viewed them on Facebook and over 5,000 on Youtube. Teachers, principals and parents from our community, and in Minnesota have regularly shared her episodes.

As for Callahan Armstrong, her first year of college at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Mn. was cut short due to the pandemic. Since she has been home full-time now, her little sister, Cassandra has been using her talents in some of her storytime episodes in operating puppets, singing or even painting silly faces on her chin to tell a story.

Callahan also has been a regular dance volunteer at the Dancin’ with Darcie dance studio in International Falls for the past five-plus years and has been a dancer for the last 16-plus years.

Dancing has always been one of her biggest passions and methods of escape from the stress of daily life and living as a Type 1 diabetic.

Callahan has helped teach dancers from age four up to teens and has developed a very strong relationship with many of the 250-plus dancers (and their families) at the studio.

“With the heartache of the dancers having to postpone their weekly classes and their upcoming competition and dance recital, Callahan knew she had to do something to help,” said Nikki Armstrong.

“She said to me, ‘We can’t go to the studio, we can’t be together in person and we can’t dance on stage BUT we CAN dance together virtually at home in the meantime.'”

Callahan’s next course of action was to put out a message on Facebook in the middle of March to see if people would be interested in a virtual live dance class, and she was thrilled with the big response of more than 100 people saying they would love to participate.

Her first dance “live” was a huge success, with several hundred people joining in to dance with “Miss Callahan.”

“She received dozens of thank you notes and photos and videos of little dancers virtually dancing with her,” Nikki Armstrong noted.

“She was excited to hear that many adults joined in as well to enjoy the exercise element and increase their cardio.” After her first class, Callahan did receive a few comments that the dance steps were a little too difficult for some of the younger dancers. As such, Callahan decided to change her approach the very next Sunday when she offered the dance classes.

“Callahan worked hard preparing three different dance routines for different ages and skill levels,” Nikki Armstrong explained.

“She created one which was a fun animal theme designed for her younger dancers (ages 2-8) and then she choreographed a more technical hip-hop style routine for the more advanced dancers for tweens/teens and finally she offered a later Sunday night dance class specifically for the dance ‘moms’ (or dads), or anyone who simply wanted to stretch and get some light cardio in after they put their kids to bed.”

Callahan was so excited to see another big response to her various dance classes and even saw some of her elementary and high school teachers join her.

“What is nice about my dance classes is that anybody can dance with me, whether they consider themselves a dancer or not, and it is in the privacy of their own home, so people are more comfortable trying something new,” Callahan reasoned.

“It does come with its own set of challenges, however, since in a dance studio setting I am used to getting live feedback from the dancers, so it is very strange and difficult not seeing and hearing the dancers in front of me.”

Callahan has been working many hours a day on her online college classes through Zoom, so she said it is a nice break for her mentally to plan the Sunday dance sessions.

“We all need an excuse to get up and move with being stuck in our houses,” she noted.
Callahan also uses Cassandra as her dance assistant, which helps when she has to break down the dance moves and explain them to the online participants.

Moving forward, Callahan plans on continuing her Sunday afternoon/evening dance classes until the dancers can reunite again one day, which hopefully comes sooner rather than later.

“Our living room has become a dance studio, classroom, music room and storytime location,” Nikki Armstrong noted.

“I love seeing my girls share their gifts to help others. We are all in this together.

“We can all still be together virtually, with a little creativity and imagination,” she added.