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Storytelling on Wheels

When Lisa Polito arrives at work, she may laugh one moment, cringe the next, perhaps experience exhilaration, then feel like her heart is breaking.

And that roller-coaster ride of emotions can all occur in the space of a few hours.

Polito, 47, is the coordinator for StoryCorps' mobile oral Airstream trailer now touring the nation, collecting heartfelt stories on American lives as told by those who have lived them.

"We had an intensive care unit nurse who talked about her experience in an ICU where many don't survive," says Polito, a former producer at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland. "She talked about the role of being a caregiver helping someone through the death process.

"Alternatively, we've had folks come in who tell very funny stories," she adds. "There is such an amazing variety of stories, every one of them unique and surprising. They are all human stories that draw you in."

Right now, the StoryCorps trailer is parked at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. After a six-week stay ending March 23, the three-person crew and trailer will hit the road to Las Vegas, then St. George, Utah, and points beyond.

Created in 2003, StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit dedicated to preserving American life stories through the oral tradition of storytelling. Thus far, it has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews. Each conversation is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Each participant also receives a free CD of the interview to share with family or friends.

One interview is edited down each week to be aired Friday mornings on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," where it is heard by millions.

Polito said though she enjoyed her three years at JPR, working for StoryCorps was too great an opportunity to miss. She has been supervising the mobile trailer since early January, joining the crew in Sante Fe, N.M.

"I'm a longtime fan of the oral narrative as well as radio," says Polito, who is a native of Tucson, Ariz. "As a kid, I loved radio and storytelling. I've always been interested in talk radio — as long as someone actually has something of substance to say."

While living in Kodiak, Alaska, for nearly two decades, she became a volunteer at a local NPR station to get her foot inside the world of radio. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and a master's degree in nonfiction writing from Goucher College in Baltimore.

But the interviews at StoryCorps are different than those the seasoned radio journalist conducted earlier in her career. Rather than a stranger asking questions, the interviews are generally between two friends or family members.

Polito and the other two crew members step in to serve as facilitators when needed while the two people share their intimate memories in a sound studio built into the trailer.

"It is a sacred process," she says. "The emphasis is on the experience of our lives and the lessons we have learned. It is a privilege and an honor to be part of that.

"The interaction we have gets really personal," she adds. "It is a challenge for anyone who sits in not to get pulled in."

However, the facilitators have to retain their professionalism to keep the interview on track while taking notes for an archival database, she says.

In the six weeks the trailer is in Phoenix, Polito expects to conduct some 200 interviews, or roughly 37 a week.

Most are average folks, like the young woman whose life was full of challenges, Polito says. The woman had two young children and another on the way.

"She talked about her adversity and her religious faith," Polito recalls. "But she didn't dwell on the negative. She said she was too blessed to be stressed."

The trailer also attracts those whose names are well known. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dropped in with her son Scott O'Connor on Feb. 14 to talk about her life.

Polito, who has signed up to supervise the trailer and its crew as it travels along through the end of the year, says the work is challenging but rewarding.

"I really love the opportunity to have access to these kinds of stories," Polito says. "It's truly inspiring."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, right, walks out of the StoryCorps Airstream trailer after being interviewed by her son Scott O'Connor. At left is Lisa Polito, former producer for Jefferson Public Radio who is now coordinator for StoryCorps. - ASSOCIATED PRESS