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Valley man to collect recession stories

MEDFORD — Tori King came to the ACCESS food pantry at the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Greenwood Avenue Tuesday to pick up a box of food for her family. Before she left, she put her family's story on a 500-yard scroll that eventually will become a record of how ordinary Americans struggled through the worst recession in more than 70 years.

King's story will be part of "The Man in a Van Project" organized by Aaron Heideman, a former resident of Applegate and Grants Pass who's had his share of bad luck during the current slump.

After losing a good job as a framer, Heideman took a deep pay cut to work at a paint store and began taking stock of his situation. Then he lost the paint store job, and he decided he needed to do something drastic to change things and move on.

He decided to sell his pickup and all his possessions and move into a van. He plans to visit 37 cities in 20 states and collect stories along the way. In September, he plans to display the project at Artprize, the world's largest art prize competition, in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Heideman kicked off the project July 1 in Portland. He's already covered 25 yards of paper with stories at just three stops in Oregon.

Parked outside the church on Tuesday, the dull orange van sported a black ladder on top with a sign that asked "How Has the Recession Affected You?"

The stories he's collected are poignant reminders of how large-scale disruptions in the economy affect ordinary people. One woman wrote about relinquishing custody of a daughter she couldn't support. A bill collector barely paying her own bills described her newfound sympathy for people with money troubles.

King added her family's story to the growing scroll. After her husband lost his job in another town, the family of six moved to Medford for a fresh start. She said the project was an interesting way to record stories about families facing tough economic times.

"I think this is a good idea. Everybody's got something to say about this recession and how things are right now," she said.

"Like I wrote on there, I just try to be thankful for what I have and that my kids are healthy; not many of the little people get a say in what's going on."

She observed that her story was anything but unique.

One entry spoke of a painful divorce. Another wrote, "I can't pay for my college. I want to be a teacher but it's expensive right now. Books and everything else."

One declared, "Living in my (expletive) car."

Medford resident Sean Page, who is homeless and sleeping on friends' couches, said the scroll is a way to commiserate with others in the same boat. Page works part time at Hometown Buffet to support his 19-year-old disabled brother.

"Me and my brother have went nights starving with no food," he said. "Sometimes I go without so he can eat, but I try to energize myself with water and getting enough sleep.

"We're staying with friends and glad to get a place to sleep. It's hard stuff, but it'll get better. Things always work out, right?"

Heideman said he felt honored to collect the stories. He noted some stories seem to offer comfort and encouragement to people who discover their own situation is far better than the plights of others.

The art show had no specific rules about what's considered art, Heideman said.

"I decided to make my van a piece of art and travel the country because I want to build relationships with people and hear their stories," Heideman said.

"In doing this, I'm learning that everyone has a story, and that maybe I can give people a voice."

For more information, see the Web site at www.themaninavanproject.com.