In November 2007, under the leadership of Founder Nadia Campbell, the Victorian Hands Foundation launched Life Stories, an intergenerational literacy program engaging students (middle through high school) and seniors in order to document the historical and cultural aspects of the seniors’ lives. Through activities that meet state standards for language arts, social studies and art, such as interviews and essaying, youth document the experiences that have shaped the lives of their senior partners and develop oral, written and visual communication skills. Seniors exercise their cognitive and social skills by remembering and telling stories from their past. Participants present their experiences and insights through a variety of creative means including writing, photography, video and music, documenting a deeper understanding of the social, historical and cultural forces that have shaped their partners’ lives.
Life Stories is an innovative and vital program designed to combat the growing distrust and formation of stereotypes between older and younger generations through the provision of meaningful interactions between generations. Seniors benefit from the companionship and socialization, exercising their cognitive and social skills through remembering and telling stories from their past, combating loneliness and depression in knowing that they have not been abandoned by the communities that they served for so many years. Most importantly, in its dual focus on documentation and dialogue, Life Stories’ design builds mutual support and heightens self-esteem, increasing awareness and understanding between youth and elders, so that both youthful and elder partners have the opportunity to give and be needed in an atmosphere of fun, trust and learning.
The program builds on the benefits derived from intergenerational oral history programs such as the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University. Youth, typically recruited from schools, are paired with elders from senior centers. After one or two orientation sessions conducted by a trained Life Stories Coordinator in partnership with staff from the school and senior center, seniors and youth meet for one hour per week for up to 10 weeks to share themed, structured conversations and activities focusing on topics such as:
1. Music and Dance, Then and Now
2. What’s Fun to You?
3. What Do (Did) You Want from Life, Exploration of Expectations
4. Getting Paid: Looking at Work
5. What I’m Good At: Skill Swap
6. Overcoming Hardships Then and Now
7. How Do I Look? Frank Talk on Fashion
8. Best and Worst Advice Then and Now —Talk About Peer Pressure
9. Family Life: What’s Different, What’s the Same?
10. Who Am I and Where Do I Come From?: Diaspora and Culture
11. Who’s Cooking? Culture and Food
Life Stories Coordinators work with partner staff to prepare participants for weekly sessions, using the above activity guide to help prepare open-ended questions, record responses according to agreed upon protocol and guide participants towards the culminating project which could be an event, a presentation, an extended essay, a collage, a video or a play (format to be determined in the orientation sessions).