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Telling stories to connect people

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After a Southern California town experienced a mass shooting and wildfire evacuations in the same day last year, a woman from the town began collecting stories from survivors to heal its trauma.

An organization that works with homeless youth in Denver created a pop-up museum dedicated to the youths it serves. It asked the youths four questions, which it then asked museum attendees to help people relate with an overlooked population.

A woman asked people to write down the good parts they remember about loved ones who have died from opioid overdoses. She hung those stories on a clothesline and compiled them into a book to help those grieving to accept death.

These stories are examples of the raw impacts felt in the nooks and crannies of our country inspired by the first Certificate in Community Storytelling training, put on this year by The Hearth.

Staff had hoped about 15 to 20 people would sign up, founder Mark Yaconelli said, but 55 people from all over the country signed up for the training in how to facilitate community storytelling.

“This is a really hard time we’re all living through,” Yaconelli said. “It’s a time where we’re all becoming more and more disconnected from one another. And so we need spaces where we can feel the pleasure of one another, where we can feel connected to one another, where we can feel good about our humanity.”

Participants came for a few days of intensive training in March and left with ideas for homework — create a project involving community storytelling. They received online tutoring all summer and returned to Ashland to finish their training at the end of October.

Attendees leave the training with a storytelling project to implement in their community.

As it turns out, humans are starved for story and connection, Yaconelli said. In this digital age, we are self-reliant and closed off to human connection. We don’t see each other.

Historically, humans have lived in close contact with each other in community. But we’ve stepped outside of that circle and into our own circles with our immediate family and friends. Everyone not in our circle doesn’t always matter.

Yaconelli said The Hearth isn’t about telling phenomenal stories or performing spectacular music, it’s about practicing community. For the last decade Yaconelli has been invited into communities all over the world to help teach people how to stitch their circles back together.

Helping to heal

A dozen people were killed around 11:20 p.m. Nov. 7, 2018, at Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, by a 28-year-old shooter. By noon the next day, two wildfires flanked the town causing mass evacuation and burning several homes.

Shannon Savage-Howie, a spiritual director in the Lutheran Church of Thousand Oaks, had signed up for the Hearth training a month before her town was battered with trauma.

“The center that was used for the shooting had to be evacuated and was turned into a fire refuge when they were able to return,” Savage-Howie said. “It was really profound because they happened so close together nobody got to settle and process either one of them.”

She said the evacuation lasted for 3 to 4 days, and the fires took three lives. Buildings that weren’t burned by the fires had extensive smoke damage. Schools were shut down. Everything paused for a while.

“It was so unsettling,” Savage-Howie said. “On any given day, you could ask someone whose funeral it was and if they were evacuated from their homes within the same conversation.”

As the town of 130,000 people began to piece itself back together, Savage-Howie flew to Ashland for the training.

During those first few days it clicked that she needed to help gather the stories of the survivors and archive them.

“It wasn’t on my radar to use the storytelling as a way to heal until I got there in March,” Savage-Howie said. “This storytelling project is a hope that there would be space for people to process some of what they experienced, to hear from some of the others and maybe in the midst of that find some healing.”

She said Yaconelli’s description of the work he did on the Umpqua Community College campus after a mass shooting there in 2015 inspired her.

She created the storytelling project with the help of other volunteers. The project includes collecting oral and written stories in a variety of ways, such as drop boxes placed around town where people can drop off stories.

The stories are archived on the project website at thousandoaksremembers.com. Some folks are being interviewed for a podcast. A live storytelling event is planned for the one-year anniversary, and listening groups are periodically scheduled to help facilitate the grieving process.

Savage-Howie said the whole project is being archived by the county museum.

“I think we all want to be seen and heard and feel connected,” Savage-Howie said. “I think when we provide space for this community storytelling, that’s at the root of what’s happening, and they’re connecting with one another on the most basic of human levels — finding these commonalities that transcend whatever the divisions are that we tend to create, and take us back to our roots of what it means to be human.”

An officer was killed in the shooting, and many people at the scene had also been at the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas.

She said a giant lemonade fundraiser stand raised more than $50,000, and survivors of both tragedies have supported each other.

“It’s just endless the ways this community has come together,” Savage-Howie said. “All the stories kind of end naturally with where the hope was for them out of the experience, and I think that of itself is hope. What they do at The Hearth was kind of the catalyst for all of this. They do powerful work, and we’ve been able to mold and shape that into a powerful force into this community.”

Emphasis in empathy

Imagine you’re a pregnant 16-year-old girl and you don’t have anywhere to go because you’re homeless. You go into labor as you walk the streets of downtown Denver and you know that you can’t afford a hospital bill. But nature doesn’t mind financials, and you give birth on the sidewalk in front of Coors Field.

“It happened to one of our friends,” said Robbie Goldman, director of Dry Bones Denver, a nonprofit organization that works with homeless youth in Denver.

Every year the organization has a gala fundraiser where it normally shows a video of some of the youth sharing their experiences during a dinner, but this November the event will be much larger as Goldman’s project for The Hearth training.

Volunteers and staff have collected stories from street kids they work with using the same four prompts.

When was:

- A time a stranger helped you?

- A time a friendship made a big impact on your life?

- A time that you were proud of yourself?

- A time you were given something special?

“These are questions we can all answer,” Goldman said.

The event this year will be at Coors Field, and the young woman who gave birth on the steps will share her story along with other “friends” of the organization.

Mementos from the stories — items that hold meaning to the kids, such as a T-shirt, a comb, a Denny’s menu — will line the Rockies Memorial Hall with blown-up versions of the youth’s story, creating a story museum.

After guests pass through the museum, they come to an area where they’re invited to sit down with three or four people and answer those same questions.

“They see the distance between a homeless young person and their own life, and we’re hoping to kind of narrow that divide a little bit and make it to where they can relate to one another through stories,” Goldman said. “As people, we’ve separated ourselves from each other in a way that isn’t true. We have a lot in common.”

He said the goal of the fundraiser is to create an understanding.

“There’s the community building part of it so that in the future when people are driving through Denver and see a young person, they’ll see more than just someone standing on the side of the road flying a sign; they’ll see another story and themselves,” Goldman said.

“So many people come to the stadium and leave without understanding how many people are connected there. I want them (attendees) to leave feeling different about Denver.”

He said the event is called “Storytime” in honor of the flashing “StoryTime” on the big screen when Rockies player Trevor Story hits a home run.

“I think it gives not just that image of a person across the street, but it kind of rehumanizes us all,” Goldman said. “It takes us from being objects and makes it real and relevant in our world. The stories slow us down and help us to see the human that is there and the depth of who they are.”

Fostering forgiveness

In the United States in 2017, 70,237 people died of drug overdoses, according to the CDC, and 344 of those deaths occurred in Oregon.

On Overdose Awareness Day in September in Medford, Lily Kaplan, director of the Spirit of Resh Foundation, and volunteers talked to attendees about loved ones who have died from an overdose. Kaplan said the goal of collecting those stories was to take away the stigma of overdose and addiction and focus on the human.

“We asked them to tell us a memory or story, and then we invited them to hang them up, so then together we would read it and engage about the person and their story,” Kaplan said. “There was this powerful and palpable sense of appreciation for people no matter how they died or what happened to them.”

Kaplan said participants could write down their story and hang it up on a clotheslines strung along the outside of the “story tent.” Then, a line or two from each of the 50 hanging stories was compiled and read aloud at the event.

The event was sponsored by Max’s Mission, a local nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about addiction, and free distribution of Naloxone, an opioid antidote.

The event brought together several resources and organizations that advocate for action.

“There was something about people being able to write down their own traumatic story and then hanging it on a clothesline that is a little organic,” Kaplan said. “People heal through the act of being seen and witnessed without anybody trying to heal or fix anything.”

She said there is a stigma associated with addiction that makes people feel ashamed to talk about it.

“This is a dad who happened to get addicted to opioids through a back injury,” Kaplan said. “The stories help take away some of that stigma, helps the people who are grieving and helps the culture understand that this could easily happen to anyone.”

The stories were compiled into a digital book called “The Book of Life and Legacy,” which is available on her organization’s website at reshfoundation.org/books-of-life-legacy.

“It was a beautiful conflagration of inspiration,” Kaplan said. “I don’t know if I would have thought to do anything like that had I not been in the certificate program.”

Her organization, the Spirit of Resh Foundation, seeks to help people embrace their mortality, honor their loved ones and live life more fully.

She said story is instrumental in healing because it reminds us all of our shared humanity.

“Somebody tells a story and somebody else says, ‘Oh, I can relate to that,’ then we are connected, and connection always heals,” Kaplan said. “We’re all human. We all have a heart. We all have a longing. Story helps us see that we are not alone.”

Yaconelli said we live in an age of polarization, disparity and disagreement, but coming together to practice community and finding ways to relate to each other can help to melt the coldness of this separation. He said it’s the heart of The Hearth teaching — not necessarily to tell the story well, but just to tell it.

“What people long for most is human touch, the feeling of the spirit of another person in the room, and sometimes that happens when a story is told well, but often it happens informally, through the vulnerability of one person willing to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve lived, here’s what I’ve suffered, here’s what I’ve overcome,’ and we feel that in the presence of another person even when they tell the story badly,” Yaconelli said.

Registration is open for the 2020 Certificate in Community Storytelling program, which will be structured differently from this year.

Registration and more information can be found at thehearthcommunity.com/event/2020-certificate-in-community-storytelling.

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

Founder of The Hearth Mark Yaconelli leading the final days of the Certificate in Community Storytelling training in Ashland, Oregon.{ }Ashland Tidings / Caitlin Fowlkes
A friend of the Dry Bones Denver organization eating dinner at its weekly Thursday night dinner in downtown Denver. Photo courtesy of Dry Bones Denver.{ }
Julia Thompson from Portland telling a story during an exercise at the Certificate in Community Storytelling workshop.{ }Ashland Tidings / Caitlin Fowlkes