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It’s not often one can pinpoint a specific moment that resulted in a turning point for not only their own life, but the life of their entire family — but when Donna Nylander was involved, everything was a tad more magical.

Adrienne Zimny had one of those moments about 17 years ago when she noticed a listing for children’s musical theater in the Daily Record calendar. Nylander died in her home Nov. 28 at age 89.

“I had a 7-year-old daughter at the time who I was looking for things to do,” Zimny said. “I went to that meeting and she just drew our family in.”

Not only did her daughter make her debut in the 2003 production of “The Orphan Train Riders,” but Zimny’s unborn son made a cameo as well as she walked across the stage at one point.

“I was hugely pregnant,” Zimny said with a laugh. “It was more like waddling across the stage. He was literally born three weeks later.”

Flash-forward five years later, Zimny’s son caught the acting bug in another Nylander production, and hasn’t stopped since.

“We’ve been involved in every Donna show after that,” Zimny said. “She was just an amazing force in the community. She saw everyone’s gift, everyone’s talent. Hidden or visible, she could take a shy kiddo that was coming to maybe just check it out and find the light in them, make them feel comfortable being in a group on stage, contributing to the show in some manner.”

Zimny said whether that talent was whistling, or a newly-harnessed yo-yo talent, Nylander would make sure to have that child shine on stage.

When the world of theater can sometimes come really competitive in nature, Zimny said Nylander was able to always keep the environment teeming with a family feeling. Ellensburg Public Library Director Josephine Camarillo, who also was in “The Orphan Train Riders” show echoed that sentiment.

Camarillo moved to Ellensburg in 2000 to become the young adult librarian, not knowing a single soul in town. As soon as she arrived, she was directed to meet Nylander, who immediately was full of ideas on how to connect with children in the community.

“She sees children as such a great joy that can enhance the community if they’re given the right opportunities to get involved in,” Camarillo said.

One of their first projects was starting Family Poetry Night at the library, an event that continues to this day. All over town Nylander’s legacy can be felt, whether it be places like Friendship Park that she helped create on Fifth Avenue, or annual events like the “Teddy Bear’s First Christmas” play.

According to Camarillo, the holiday tradition started when some faculty at Central Washington University asked Nylander to read some stories to children for a “teddy bear tea.” While she embraced the idea, Nylander decided to flesh it out in only a way she could.

“In her reluctance to just sit there and read a story, she invited some of her children’s musical theater people to come and do a little mini performance on a story she created,” Camarillo said.

That mini performance in 2012 turned into a published children’s book in 2014, and then a full-blown production that’s happened every year since.

Nylander’s declining health in recent years affected her ability to regularly direct Ellensburg Children’s Musical Theater productions, resulting in a four-year absence of shows. Earlier this year, Camarillo and others decided to put together a tribute show in her honor. The show titled “It Takes a Village to Raise a Curtain: A Tribute to Donna Nylander” included included excerpts from several of her original plays.

“She was just smiling the whole time during the show and crying,” Camarillo said. “The whole theater was crying and smiling, because for people who had been involved in theater, they’ve seen all those plays and to see them come alive on stage … it was satisfying and heart warming.”

Camarillo is determined help to carry on Nylander’s legacy and continue Ellensburg Children’s Musical Theater productions into the future, and is currently putting together a board of directors to help move the program forward. For more information on that front, call Camarillo’s office phone at 509-962-7252.

“She’s one of those people who you feel will be here forever,” Zimny said. “You just never think of them of not being here. To be honest that’s the Donna legacy. She did touch so many lives and bring this special feeling to so many people that she really does live on in all of us and all of our children.”


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