Senior Story Initiative
Preserving Stories, Sharing Stories, and Connecting People Through Stories
Stories are a critical part of connecting communities and cultivating an ongoing sense of identity within a group of people. Due to the increasing dependence on technology, it is even more important to maintain the oral tradition of passing on stories from one generation to the next. The act of sharing a story actively benefits both the storyteller and the listener by bringing them together and fostering a deeper understanding of one another. Stories are a powerful tool for combating social isolation, capturing history, and transmitting values and cultural norms across generations. That is why Leah Gump created The Senior Story Initiative: a project which preserves stories, shares stories, and connects people through stories.
Stories have always been an important part of who Leah is and, over the past years, she has grown to appreciate the value of personal stories even more. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Leah witnessed the positive impact of sharing stories. Her grandfather, living alone for the first time after the death of her grandmother, gleaned incredible joy from sharing his memories of his life with her over Zoom calls. Not only were stories a means of connecting Leah with her grandfather, but they were also an opportunity for her to learn about his and her grandmother’s lives. She never knew that they had met at a University of North Carolina basketball game, that he had hiked part of Mount Everest and been in the Navy, or that she had taught American Sign Language. Now that Leah’s grandfather has also passed away, she cherishes these stories even more and wants to share the gift of stories with other seniors, and their families.
Leah’s grandfather was not the only senior to experience loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, social isolation is estimated to impact 40% of adults aged 60 years and older in the United States (MacLeod et al). Quarantine reduced meaningful human connection and stymied the tradition of oral storytelling. There is a risk of losing precious generational knowledge when seniors are deprived of the opportunity to tell their stories. This inspired Leah to take action to save this source of history in her community.
“Stories weave a beautiful, complex fabric that connects us all.” – Leah Gump
Implementation of Project
Implementation of the Senior Story Initiative occurred in three stages: one-on-one interviews, community outreach, and a culminating storytelling event. First, Leah set up one-on-one interviews with seniors in her community. She provided a space where the seniors could share stories that were meaningful to them and she recorded the interviews to preserve the stories for future generations. Afterwards, Leah sent the recordings to the seniors she interviewed and, if the seniors wanted, their families so that these stories could be passed on. This was a very positive experience because storytelling brought the interviewees joy and Leah connected with them as she learned more about their lives.
“I thought it might be interesting for my grandchildren and other people to know a little bit about what our life was like when we lived in an old schoolhouse.” – Mary Ann Cadwallader (Interviewee)
Although these interviews captured many valuable stories, Leah could only reach a limited number of seniors using this method. In order to increase the impact of this project on the community, Leah knew that the next step was to share her project with the community and encourage people to seek out stories in their lives. Leah planned an informational booth which she set up at a local festival in her town with the help of her action team and festival organizers. Leah made and handed out brochures about the power of storytelling and strategies for capturing and sharing stories. The brochure included prompts that people could use to ask other people to tell stories, or to inspire their own stories and additional information about recording stories using video, audio recordings, or notes. At the information booth, Leah and her action team enjoyed hearing more about other people’s experiences with storytelling and preserving family history. They left visitors with the challenge to ask more people in their lives to share stories and to record those stories for future generations.
The Senior Story Initiative culminated in a storytelling event hosted at the local town historical society on the afternoon of the festival. Leah worked with Conway Historical Society members to advertise the storytelling event with flyers around town and at her information booth during the festival. She invited seniors who had lived in Conway for many years to tell stories about their memories of living in the town. The idea of this event was to provide a forum for those interested to come hear a story and then tell a story of their own. After one fourth-generation Conway resident, who had grown up in Conway during the 1940s, told a story about how the Conway community had supported her family after their barn burned down when she was a child, other participants chimed in with their own stories. All of the stories build on each other and the event evolved into a popcorn-style conversation as participants fondly reminisced about their experiences living in Conway. This event was full of laughter and animated stories. Leah and the audience learned a lot about the way the town used to be, and how much it has changed over the years. She recorded the entire event and donated the recording to the Conway Historical Society.
“I was inspired by the rich history of the town and the people who live in it.” – Leah Gump
Results of Project
In the end, Leah interviewed six seniors, talked to numerous people at the Conway festival, and hosted a storytelling event at the Conway Historical Society with eight storytellers and many more audience members. By hosting in-person interviews and storytelling events, real human connections were formed throughout the duration of this project and important history was preserved. After the interviews and storytelling event, Leah received overwhelmingly positive feedback because people enjoyed reflecting on important parts of their lives and sharing them with others. There was also enormous excitement from people who visited the information booth or spectated the storytelling event about seeking out stories in their own lives. With the brochure, people left with the tools to perform their own micro story collection project. The beauty of the Senior Story Initiative is that it can inspire more people to tell, listen, and record stories. Because the Senior Story Initiative focused on involving the community and teaching them about the importance of stories and how to preserve them, the impact of this project continues to grow as more people participate by sharing their stories, and encourage others to do the same.
“The Senior Story Initiative benefitted everybody involved. Seniors genuinely enjoyed sharing their stories, I learned so much from the people I interviewed, and the town community was excited to celebrate its history through storytelling.” – Leah Gump
Moving forward, The Senior Story Initiative would like to continue hosting storytelling events to capture history and bring the community together. Furthermore, Leah and her action team would like to reach more young people by hosting events in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools because the responsibility of preserving the practice of storytelling and passing on oral history is in this generation’s hands. Leah would like to stay involved in the Senior Story Initiative as she finishes off her senior year and then, as she goes off to college next year, pass off the project to other excited community members. Leah will carry her passion for stories with her as she joins new communities and hopes to continue encouraging people to tell their stories as she does.
“I am so thankful for all of the amazing stories that I got to hear during this project and I am inspired to continue practicing the leadership skills that I learned in all aspects of my life” – Leah Gump
- MacLeod, Stephanie, et al. “COVID-19 Era Social Isolation among Older Adults.” Edited by James S. Powers. Geriatrics (Basel), vol. 6, no. 2, 2021, p. 52. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8162327/. Accessed 5 December 2023.
- StoryCorps – Stories from people of all backgrounds and beliefs, https://storycorps.org/.