From Down Under to hills of Pitman
By Justin Strawser
Joanne Risso has worn many different hats in her life.
The 40-year-old Australian native has worked as a teacher for World Youth International in Kenya, an immigration officer at the Australian High Commission in London, a caregiver in Holland, is a published author and English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor in America.
So how did someone with such a fervor for globe trotting find herself living in Pitman and teaching in the Mount Carmel Area School District?
Call it true love and the desire to start to a family.
"I met Pete, and it changed both our plans," she said recently during an interview with The News-Item.
Born and raised in Gippsland, Victoria, in Australia, Risso graduated from high school in Pakenham Secondary College in 1990. She took a few years off to travel to work at a summer camp in Wisconsin and live in Ottawa, Canada, before returning to Australia to acquire two bachelor's degrees in education from Deakin University in 1995 and 1996.
After that, she barely looked back, traveling from country to country and working in whatever field brought her the most adventure.
"Once Australians get out of the country, they just have to go," she said, explaining that Australia is so isolated from the rest of the world.
A round trip airline ticket costs the same as a "world tour" ticket in Australia. As long as an Australian keeps heading west around the world, they are allowed six stops in any country before coming home.
Fourteen years ago, she was planning to teach English at a teacher's college in China for two years, but she noticed a man playing Frisbee with a 60-year-old American woman, and she was smitten.
"I introduced myself right away," she said about the American man named Pete. "We were married nine months later."
What should have been two years in China turned into four months because Risso spent the summer with Pete in America to explore whether the budding relationship with this central Pennsylvanian was the real deal.
She and Pete now have four children, Matilda, 11; Emanuel, 10; Nerida, 7, and Samuel, 6. They live on Main Road in Pitman with an Australian Shepherd named Foster, three house cats named Phoebe, Towhee and Mo and two geckos named Percy and Piper.
Pete Risso grew up in New Berlin and graduated from Bloomsburg University with a degree in cultural anthropology. He has been teaching social studies for the last 10 years in the Tri-Valley School District. Joanne Risso, who worked as a substitute teacher for years, landed a full-time position at MCA last year as an ESL teacher.
At Mount Carmel this year, Risso had six students originally from China, one student from the Dominican Republic, one from Thailand, one from Mexico and two from Syria.
Although not fluent in any other language, she uses the Rosetta Stone program with most of the students. If a child cannot speak any English, she uses pictures with their language on the back. The student will tell her what the word is in their original language, Risso will say it in English and the student will copy it.
"Sometimes there are lots of gestures and pointing," she said.
Keeping in touch
Risso's parents visit often, and she stays in contact with her family through webcams and computers, but when she misses home, she can look outside her window.
"This area looks very similar to what it looks like in Australia where I grew up. It was hilly. This looks similar to a point. There are no gum trees here. How it looks in the winter without the snow is how it looks in Australia in the summer. Brown and dry," she said.
Life as an author
While Risso once had a focus in making and selling quilts, she would now rather pick up her laptop and write. She is the author of two children stories called "Over the Sea" and "In the Field."
The first book, "Over the Sea," was published in 2011 by Sunbury Press, of Boiling Springs, and is illustrated by Kathy Connelly.
The story, which is based on her oldest daughter Matilda, is about a young girl named Tilly who hates taking baths, so she devises a plan to rid her house of all water by running the faucets. However, her actions dry up all the rivers and lakes around her house.
"Her actions have consequences and she needs to change how she thinks and acts," Risso said.
Her second book, "In the Field," was published last month by Sunbury Press, and is illustrated by Missi Allen.
The story is again based on one of her children, this time 10-year-old Emanuel. The boy in the story, Manny, would pick all the flowers in the field for his mother, but they would eventually dry up and die.
"He wouldn't understand why I was so upset. If there are no flowers, no one else can look at them," Risso said.
Both stories have an environmental message about conservation, she noted.
"You take from the earth, you got to give something back. If you take too much, something bad is going to happen," she said.
Both books can be purchased for $9.99 at sunburypressstore.com or amazon.com. Signed copies can also be purchased through joannerisso.com.
Risso plans to write more children's books. She has one written about her youngest son, but she is still trying to place Nerida in one of the stories. She also plans to write a young adult novel based loosely off stories of the cadets she met when she worked at Northwestern Academy, Coal Township.
She can be found at Mount Carmel Area School District until April 4 as the author-in-residence, during which time she will be signing her books and providing an author discussion for grades kindergarten through sixth.
The event fundraiser, which was organized by the parent teacher association (PTA), involved a $1 donation for every pre-ordered book to the PTA.
She will also be attending the Book Expo America, a national event held in New York City, on June 1.
A complete list of appearances can be found on her website.