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Noche De Cuentos offers a night of stories

The Hearth, a nonprofit community storytelling organization in Ashland, received two grants this year to expand its programs and outreach.

One grant was for $150,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Latino Partnership Program to support storytelling in the Latinx community in Jackson County.

The second was for a $30,851 from the Oregon Cultural Trust to hire volunteer Karen Carnival as a part-time operations manager for a year to help develop the organization.

Founder Mark Yaconelli said this past year The Hearth offered a Certificate in Community Storytelling Program for the first time. People from all over the country came to Ashland last March for three days of community storytelling training. They attended a Hearth event and went back to their homes, where they met once a month this summer with trainers via video chat.

These folks will come back in October for one last training session and to finalize projects they’re starting in their own communities.

At the program last summer, Roberto Franco, Latino Partnership Program director at Oregon Community Foundation, met Talent native Erica Ledesma, one of the founders of Noche De Cuentos or “Night of Stories.”

Ledesma, along with colleagues Raul Tovar Jr. and Cesar Flores, all teachers in the Rogue Valley, were inspired by The Hearth to create their own version last October for the Latinx community in Jackson County. At Noche De Cuentos stories are served up in Spanish along with tamales, local art, music and other treats.

“A lot of the spaces in the arts in Southern Oregon like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are very white,” Ledesma said. “There’s not really space for Latinx to be creative.”

She said there’s not even space for the Latinx population to celebrate community in Southern Oregon.

“The main places the Latinx community is gathering are schools or churches,” Ledesma said.

Ledesma said the theme for the October event was celebrating The Day of the Dead, and it drew more than 200 people. She said it’s an entirely volunteer-run program, and they provide dinner for free before the storytelling. Her goal is to find sponsors to help with the costs.

It’s floated around various high school auditoriums but will mostly stick to Phoenix High School for the near future. Dinner begins at 6 p.m. and storytelling begins at 7 p.m.

Upon Franco’s return to Salem after the certificate training program, OCF awarded The Hearth the three-year grant to hire Ledesma to direct what they’re calling the Latinx Story Project.

Within this new section of the Hearth, Ledesma will continue to develop Noche De Cuentos and a new program called De La Raíz or “From the Root,” which will focus on gathering oral and written stories. She’ll also mentor young Latinx community leaders in the art of community storytelling through volunteer opportunities, putting on the events, and internships.

“De la Raíz will focus on the power of storytelling as a means of community building, remembering and spiritual healing,” Ledesma said.

She said it’s planned to be an online blog where she’ll capture a person’s story biweekly, transcribe it so it’s bilingual and pair it with art that reflects the story.

The Hearth hired Ledesma in August, Yaconelli said, adding that it’s more like a partnership.

“I’m there to lend an ear and offer any wisdom I can, but Erica has her own sensibilities with bringing the community together in storytelling,” Yaconelli said. “She’s an artist and she has a whole vision for what she wants to do for that project.”

He said she’s already formed an advisory board with strong local Latinx community leaders and artists.

“I’m hoping we can find a way to bring the communities together, because we’re still pretty segregated in Jackson County,” Yaconelli said. “She might help to strengthen the local Latinx community. She sees story as it strengthens identity, helps with healing and helps people embrace their past and history.”

Ledesma said as a teacher she believes in the power of mentoring, which is why a part of the program allows her to mentor high school and Southern Oregon University students. She said most of the volunteers at the events are high school students.

“I think for myself as a Latina growing up here, I never saw myself anywhere,” Ledesma said. “There were not events that I got to learn about my culture unless it was in my home. We’re going to keep the project in Spanish because we haven’t been given the platform to listen to our stories, so this allows us to control the narrative of our stories. It’s important to connect. It’s really healing.”

Franco said this type of community strengthening is a part of OCF’s strategic plan.

“I think it’s part of the basic human experience, meaning that we as human beings regardless of where we are, who we are or where we come from, our lives are made up of stories,” Franco said. “We all as human beings have stories to tell. Our lives are but a series of stories that when put together our experiences influence how we interact with people, how we see the world and often pave the path for our relationships.”

He said Oregon Community Foundation’s Latino Partnership Program facilitates a statewide Latinx focused conference every other year for Latinx partners and allies that work in leadership development, education and community building.

This October the Conexiones Summit’s theme is “Connecting our Stories for a Common Purpose,” and a community storytelling workshop will be led by Yaconelli and Ledesma.

Franco said the conference is focused on improving the lives of Latinx Oregonians. Partners and allies mostly in the nonprofit sectors are invited to participate in the summit, which is in Silverton this year.

He said the grant given to The Hearth was procured through Oregon Community Foundation’s William and Florence Schneider Fund.

Although The Hearth is expanding its programs, it’s still true to its core — practicing community.

The next Hearth event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland.

The theme is “Rite of Passage: True Tales of Change,” and Ledesma will be one of six people to tell stories about a time they were initiated into a new understanding of themselves and the world.

Entry is based on a sliding donation scale of roughly $5 to $15. Essentially, it’s a “give what you can” model.

Proceeds from Hearth events go to local nonprofit organizations. Proceeds from the next event will help benefit the Prevention Education Programs of Jackson County SART.

For more information about the Hearth and the Latinx Story Project, see thehearthcommunity.com.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Storytellers for Noche De Cuentos or “Night of Stories” this past spring in Southern Oregon celebrating Mother's Day:{ }Mayra Garcia, Roberto Franco, Rocio Hernandez and Raul Tovar. Photo courtesy of The Latinx Story Project.