Students Spend Their Co-op Collecting Memories From Strangers
Three Drexel students on co-op at the Spaces Between Your Fingers (SBYF) nonprofit have gained more than something to put on their resumes. Kat Kapetenakis, Michelle Johnson and Victoria Durand are getting the experience of a lifetime — and the experience of someone else’s lifetime too — by talking with senior citizens to write about their most meaningful memories or life lessons for SBYF’s Junior Memory Collectors Program.
“The people we talk to are sometimes four times my age and they’re so much wiser than I am, as I believe that comes with age,” Johnson, a pre-junior English major with a minor in philosophy, said. “I pay a lot of attention to things that they regret in life and lessons that they’ve learned through experiences. It helps me put things into perspective and make different decisions in my life.”
The co-op students often visit senior living homes or Alzheimer’s Association meetings to meet with senior citizens. Depending on the number of participants, the co-op students can do four or five interviews in one trip or focus on a single participant with a long interview. After the interviewer and interviewee have gotten to know each other and discussed general questions, one particular memory or lesson is examined more closely.
“We write it in front of them so we can ask for more details and make sure we’re including everything. And then we read it back to them to make sure we did a good enough job,” Kat Kapetenakis, a sophomore business administration major, said.
The idea of writing about an important moment of a stranger’s life — while they’re watching you write it — could be intimidating or stressful. But that isn’t the case for the Drexel students in Junior Memory Collectors, which was specifically created to mentor young writers.
“The best feeling is from that smile they give you when you've written it down exactly how it happened like you were right there with them,” Johnson said.
Capturing memories is one of the organization’s most crucial goals, along with connecting strangers and generations through the power of storytelling and writing. The stories can range from the humorous to the heartbreaking and from everyday life to life-changing experiences.
“I spoke to a woman yesterday who got pregnant at a very young age and gave the baby away for adoption. It took them 37 years but she finally reunited with her child,” Kapetenakis recalled. “The way she told it, it was just incredible that they found each other.”
That woman’s story is one of over 10,000 that have been written since Matthew Smith, an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ English and philosophy program, founded the community arts organization in 2009. Each memory goes onto a postcard, which can also be decorated with drawings or personal photographs. The card is sent to the person’s family, and the story is archived in a vault at The Free Library of Philadelphia and in SBYF’s online Memory Library.
When they’re not writing, the SBYF volunteer biographers schedule meetings and visit schools to work with young students to teach the fundamentals of writing and have them create their own postcard. The broad range of ages, races and backgrounds among the people they’ve met have exposed the Drexel students to stories they might not have heard or imagined—and perspectives they might not have considered.
One 3-year-old wanted to make sure others knew not to lick sand, and one 105-year-old man reflected on his grandfather’s reaction to the Civil War. Just like the people who relate the memories, no two are alike.
“I can’t imagine going through some of the things that they’ve been through. It’s both humbling and inspiring,” Johnson said.