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The Hearth stays true to home

Many Ashlanders know and love The Hearth as an old friend who stops by several times a year for a glass of wine and a cozy evening of catching up.

Locals fill the parking lot of Temple Emek Shalom and surrounding fields to snag good seats. At the door, attendees are asked to donate to the local nonprofit benefiting from that night’s proceeds as an entry fee.

Entry usually is based on a sliding scale of $5 to $15, but nobody gets turned away.

Local wines are offered in the lobby along with baked goods from the Ashland High School Culinary Arts Program, and the place fills to standing room only within minutes of opening.

At each event, six community members tell their story based on a common theme; all are crafted with the aid of the nonprofit’s founder, Mark Yaconelli.

A local band plays before, in between and after the stories. Once that first individual takes the stage after the music ends, whether they’re a familiar face, the room freezes in anticipation, rapt with attention.

Yaconelli said the events aren’t about the quality of performances. They’re about the space it creates.

“The idea of The Hearth is that these are nights that we are practicing community,” Yaconelli said. “It’s not a show. It’s not a performance. It’s not even about great storytelling. There are other projects that do that better. These gatherings are not that. It’s an evening where we are practicing what it means to be a community.”

Yaconelli said listening to people’s stories helps people empathize with them, especially when it’s someone you may recognize in the community. Sharing community in this way heals in a time when society is self-reliant and polarized, he said.

“It’s different when you live in a town like this, and they tell you something difficult they’ve been through like the loss of a parent, being in prison, going through addiction or even something that makes them smile like the time they won a national rowing competition,” Yaconelli said. “They’re all helping us to get to know each other. You hear these stories, and it makes the town feel different, because the next day you see them at the grocery store and you know what makes them suffer or makes them feel alive, and it makes you feel differently.”

This year The Hearth offered its first Certificate in Community Storytelling program. Journalists, activists, teachers, environmentalists and everyday people from all over the country came for a three-day intensive seminar and a Hearth storytelling event last March. The participants went home for the summer and had online coaching once a month to discuss the projects they want to start in their own communities. They’ll come back for a final training session in October.

He said staff were hoping to have 15 to 20 people sign up this year, but they had 55 people.

He said community members opened their homes to house and feed many participants.

Yaconelli said there were many incredible stories of why people came to the training, mostly focused around community healing. For example, one person came from Thousand Oaks, California, after about seven people were killed in a mudslide following a shooting at a bar that killed another 12 people in 2018.

“They were traumatized, so she came up to find out if there were ways by telling stories to let people heal,” Yaconelli said. “So, I’m most excited for helping people like that. In order to do this work they need care and they need to be equipped. Story is a way to not only bring people together, but it provides sustenance and it provides nutrients. It’s a way of being human together.”

Registration for the 2020 certificate training can be found at thehearthcommunity.com and continues until the 35 slots are filled.

Next year’s program will include an intensive five-day training with an option of six months of personalized online coaching with Yaconelli.

He said they’re also offering a teacher training certificate program for those who graduated from the community storytelling certificate program.

This year The Hearth offered its annual retreat in the Greensprings and other various community workshops.

Yaconelli has been invited to Minneapolis in October to offer a weeklong training, and he’s been invited to Austin, Texas, to offer training next year.

He’s also been invited to be the keynote speaker or offer storytelling workshops at a few statewide conferences this year.

Yaconelli said he’s about two chapters away from finishing a book on “how story operates in our lives, how our lives are formed and shaped in stories, and how it lives in us and between us.”

The Hearth will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Valentine’s Day 2020 with an event that will feature love stories.

Yaconelli said The Hearth was born in the Caldera pub downtown on the Ashland Creek. He went around and asked people if they had any great love stories. He said despite it being a cold, blustery February night, the doors and windows were opened because people were packed inside the pub, some even standing outside to listen. He said the owner was afraid the building was going to get shut down by police due to being over capacity but he couldn’t get people to leave and fled.

Yaconelli said social media and online interaction creates often negativity and a lack of humanity.

“We have to go back to old techniques, being in the same room as people, seeing their eyes tear up, making a room full of people laugh, this brings out the humanity,” Yaconelli said. “When you sit in the same room as someone and can connect, there’s a softening. It’s going back to this old technology called ‘you had to be there.’”

“Yes, we’re in an age of polarization right now because of political forces, and there’s an advantage of separating us and marketing us individually,” Yaconelli said. “They divide us and play on our fears, and we need more human spaces where we can be in the same room.”

He said each Hearth event asks for donations to a local nonprofit so it creates a feeling of generosity as soon as people walk in the door.

“At the events everyone pitches in — some are telling stories, some are putting up chairs or baking goods,” Yaconelli said. “Giving to the nonprofit changes the feeling in the room. Everyone there is giving to something larger than themselves, the whole event is about something greater than just me, and I get to participate too by donating at the door, and that’s the culture we’re creating, one of generosity.”

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

Sophie Javna shares her story at a Hearth event in December 2018. Photo by Joseph Yaconelli.