In her 2014 memoir “Blood Sisters,” Billie Travalini writes, “I never was the sort of person who goes along with something without asking a fistful of questions.”
Story by David Bernard
Photos by Susan L. Gregg
In her 2014 memoir “Blood Sisters,” Billie Travalini writes, “I never was the sort of person who goes along with something without asking a fistful of questions.” Lately she’s been asking whether our community — the human community, or at least the part of it that seems to get all the media attention — wouldn’t benefit from a look in the mirror.
“There’s a dangerous lack of humility, a lack of awareness that the same dirt’s going to cover us all,” says Travalini, an adjunct professor of English and Creative Writing in Wilmington University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Everyone has a voice, but having a voice for others is important, too. It’s our responsibility to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.”
Speaking up for others has, in many ways, driven Travalini’s career as an author and teacher. It has also gained her the praise of her peers, both statewide and nationally.
In January, the Delaware Division of the Arts selected her for its 2019 Masters Fellowship, the agency’s highest honor, which is accompanied by a $10,000 grant.
Since the year 2000, the fellowship has recognized one artist per year based on a body of work or a history of artistic accomplishments, and “the impact it has had in Delaware and beyond,” says Roxanne Stanulis, program officer for the DDOA. “Members of the Arts Council voted unanimously to award her the Masters Fellowship.”
In addition, last fall Travalini won the National Federation of Press Women’s 61st annual Communicator of Achievement Award, an honor that recognizes its recipients’ community impact as well as their professional accomplishments.
“Billie Travalini is nothing short of magnificent,” says Katherine Ward, executive director of the Delaware Press Association, which nominated its longtime member and current vice president of Programs for the national award when it granted her its statewide communication award the previous year. “It’s not enough to say that she was chosen because of her outstanding career. Billie chooses to keep redefining herself through service to others. She’s all about the other person, which is why people respond to her.”
For Travalini, communication is the key to community service. “This is what writing does best: it gets people to think,” she says. “It wins a little more dignity for, and gives a little more hope to, those who are the most vulnerable among us.” It’s a lesson she learned early in life.
The story of a girl
“Blood Sisters” describes the summer of 1960 through the eyes of 10-year-old Billie Elizabeth Toppin — then known as Betsy — as she meets her biological family for the first time. Raised since infancy by a loving foster mother, Betsy is returned to an abusive father, an indifferent mother, and two sisters she’d never known by a Delaware Family Court judge, leaving her longing for connection and a safe place.
“People ask me, ‘Were you sad writing the book? It was hard to read,’” says Travalini, who’d previously earned a DDOA grant for established writers the year after the book’s publication. “I was never sad, not for a moment. To be honest, I didn’t see Betsy as myself, but as a ‘universal me.’ I was giving a voice to all the children who were left out of the conversations that directed their lives.”
She came into contact with more than a few of them while growing up in and around Wilmington. Her chronic illness led her father to commit her to a year-and-a-half stay among the blind, epileptic, cerebral palsied, autistic and other disadvantaged children at the Governor Bacon Health Center in Delaware City, which she described as “a worn-down former U.S. Army fort turned dumping ground for unwanted children.” She spent much of the rest of her adolescence in foster families, group homes, and special needs programs before graduating from the former Wilmington High School.
“I was blessed to have had a childhood with a lot of diversity, but also an abundance of misinformed characters,” she remarks. “If I changed even one day of my life, though, I wouldn’t be me.”
Learning and leading
An associate degree in accounting from Brandywine College (now part of Widener University) guided Travalini into the workplace, and the birth of two children in the mid-1970s created a family of her own, but writing for the local newspaper fired up what would become her mission.
She’d been writing stories and poems since she was a child. “Every writer begins as a reader,” she notes, and she always loved books. But reporting on family, health, and community issues inspired her to earn bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from the University of Delaware in 1983 and master’s degrees in literature and creative writing from Temple University in 1986.
Since 2002, Travalini has taught English Composition I and II (ENG 121 and 122) and Creative Writing (ENG 360) at Wilmington University. She’s also led writing and literature classes at Temple, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Delaware, and the state’s youth detention centers.
She’s served as a consultant to Delaware’s Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Families, helping to incorporate creative writing and critical thinking into lesson plans. (Her 2008 book, “Teaching Troubled Youth: A Practical Pedagogical Approach,” showcases some of her students’ stories and poetry.) Her work as an educator even drew the attention of Delaware’s Governor’s Awards for the Arts in 2014.
“I am always surprised with Billie’s patience and persistence with her students,” says Assistant Professor Matt Whelihan, who chairs WilmU’s English program. “She wants every student to succeed, and she wants them to succeed by tapping into their own unique set of skills. When she has students who struggle, she truly personalizes the way she works with them to help them build connections with the content.”
Connection is the heart of her teaching efforts, he adds. “In her writing, you can see the compassion she has for her subjects and the way she really seeks to understand them, and I think that is what she does in the classroom as well.”
Words in the community
Outside the classroom, Travalini has helped mentor some of the region’s emerging and established authors. As the co-founder and coordinator of the Lewes Creative Writers Conference, which held its 11th annual gathering in August, and the editor of two collections of homegrown literature (2008’s “On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers” and 2011’s “No Place Like Here: An Anthology of Southern Delaware Poetry & Prose”), she’s provided numerous opportunities and outlets for First State voices.
Her friends and colleagues frequently use the word tireless when describing Travalini. “What has always impressed me about Billie is her energy,” says novelist Maribeth Fischer, executive director of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild. “Not just in the promotion of her writing, but in the promotion of a writing community and her unflagging support of other artists.”
This support reaches deeper than just words on a page, Fischer says. “I am constantly reminded, through Billie’s example, of what matters most: that people are encouraged to keep writing, encouraged to believe in their own stories, in their value and worth.”
“Billie thinks of writing as activism,” says Dr. David Teague, a professor of English at the University of Delaware. “She’s not just invested in writing her stories or even nurturing the work of others because she likes the sound of her own voice. She really believes that making all voices heard will change the world for the better. And her faith in that principle rubs off on people.”
For instance: her involvement in the Fort DuPont development project. From 1948 to 1984, the former military installation on Delaware Bay was the site of the Governor Bacon Health Center’s adolescent unit, at which Travalini spent a formative year-and-a-half. She’s been sharing her recollections of that unsettling experience with the project’s planners in order to lobby for the inclusion of a special needs resource and treatment center in the proposed residential and business development.
“I think in most cases, most folks would just rather forget about that time,” says Jeffrey Randol, executive director of the Fort DuPont Redevelopment and Preservation Corporation. “Billie doesn’t want people to forget. She wants to make sure the history is remembered. She wants to make a difference where she can, and she embraces the challenges.”
Rules to survive
In the pages of “Blood Sisters,” Betsy has a long road ahead of her before she grows up to become a writer and teacher. Travalini is currently working to capture some of the ensuing experiences in a follow-up memoir, tentatively titled “Rules to Survive Childhood.” She’s assembling a collection of her short stories. She’s also keeping an eye on every moment, and urging her fellow community members to do likewise, starting now.
“We are speeding up every aspect of our lives,” she says. “What becomes important is the next thing. While the next thing is very important, it loses meaning without an understanding of what this moment means. And this moment can have consequences.”
In a moment, she says, we can choose to lie or tell the truth. We can choose to ignore a wrong or speak out against it. We can choose to give 50 percent or 100 percent. In Travalini’s view, the moments before decision, before action, define who we are.
“Each of these moments is an opportunity to become more, or less,” she says. “How we respond each time makes all the difference.”