Fourteen years ago, Julie Ostheller was struggling with her health. The stay-at-home mom - a former grade school teacher - was suffering from a type of lupus. Then a job fell into her lap that turned Ostheller's life, and health, around.
A young mother with a degree in early childhood education, Ostheller was asked to be part of a talk on children's literature. "At the end of the conversation, they said, 'Would you be interested in being the story lady at Owings Mills [Mall]?' And I said, 'OK,'" Ostheller said.
After working at Owings Mills Mall for a year, Ostheller brought her weekly Family Fun Day to The Mall in Columbia. Soon the job spread to other local malls owned by the Rouse Co. and later General Growth Properties Inc. Her schedule now includes the White Marsh Mall on Tuesdays, Owings Mills Mall on Wednesdays, The Mall in Columbia on Thursdays and Towson Town Center on Fridays.
Today, Ostheller calls lupus "an inconvenience" rather than a major health issue. "My mother feels that this [job] has been the best thing that ever happened to me," she said. "There's no better medicine than being around happy children."
The woman known as "Miss Julie" has hosted Family Fun Day for 13 years at The Mall in Columbia, where she sings, dances and reads stories. She also welcomes guest performers two or three times a month.
Last week, the program featured Flumpa the Frog and Wendy the Singing Scientist.
Strollers line up double deep around Ostheller's audience, which takes up most of the area in front of Lord & Taylor. About 200 adults and children grab carpet squares provided by the mall and sit on the floor.
Jessica Bloom, senior marketing manager for The Mall in Columbia, said children and adults "come for the performances... [but] they also stay in the center," which makes the program attractive to businesses. Several stores handed out coupons to families in the audience last Thursday.
Bloom calls Ostheller's blend of fun and education "soft teaching." She added: "It's free entertainment for families who are looking to do something with their young children. All of the performers that we have are educational ... geared to that preschool set."
At Family Fun Day, children dance and sing along with the performers. "Your child has a chance to participate in live entertainment and be engaged in that moment," said Ostheller, a resident of Hunt Valley in Baltimore County.
"Look at the faces of the children [when the audience is singing together] - they're euphoric, they're so happy," Ostheller added. "There's nothing better than the face of a joyful child."
Last week, while Wendy the Singing Scientist and Flumpa the Frog sang about the life cycle of an amphibian, Ostheller handed out carousel tickets, chatting with regulars and newcomers. She hugged Jan Ship, who was visiting from the United Kingdom. Ship was here with her grandchildren, Rhys and Siora Rummel, who turn 2 and 4, respectively, this week. The children are Family Fun Day regulars.
Ship's daughter, Eve Rummel of Baltimore, has been attending for several years, first as a nanny and now with her children. She brought son Rhys when he was 7 days old. "I love it. The kids love it. It's a great atmosphere," Rummel said. Ostheller "makes the kids feel special."
A group of grandparents, also regulars, sat in a line of folding chairs at the back of the audience.
Larry Hill of Catonsville has been bringing his 3-year-old grandson Mason Lober, to see "Miss Julie" for two years. When he first came to Family Fun Day, Hill bumped into an old friend, Ann Walton of Ellicott City, and her grandson Maddux Walton, now 3.
Hill and Walton's families were close when their sons were in high school, but lost touch for several years. Now Hill, Walton and June McCormick of Ellicott City have a Thursday routine together. They take their grandsons to Ostheller's show, have lunch, visit the mall's carousel and new play area, then stop by the pet shop.
"I like the camaraderie of the whole program. Miss Julie is fantastic," Hill said. "The boys have become real friends ... they look forward to coming here on Thursday."
McCormick said her grandson, Mason McCormick, 3, "loves Miss Julie. He talks about her during the week."
Bloom said Ostheller is "a celebrity to them. She absolutely enthralls the children ... It's just her personality. She's wonderful with them."
Ostheller said that being around children in the role of happy, friendly "Miss Julie" has helped her be positive and manage her health. "Who has a job that is this fabulous? People are happy to see me, I'm happy to see them and we have fun together," she said.
For information on Family Fun Day go to firstname.lastname@example.org