“I’ve often thought about writing my life story, so when this project came up I jumped at it,” said Fish Creek resident Gordon Schnell. Gordon, along with his wife Jeanne were partnered with two students from St. Mary’s University in a year-long life writing project called Weaving Words of Wisdom: Intergenerational Life Writing.
“This project has brought up memories that I’d forgotten about. I think something like this changes the way we see each other. It strengthens our community,” said Gordon.
The project was a collaboration between St. Mary’s and United’s Fish Creek community. It brought together about a dozen residents who were paired with students, who, together, wrote some of the residents’ most memorable experiences. As well, a student, Jenna Leong, painted artworks that reflected some of the stories, and student Daniel Melvill Jones shot portrait photos of the residents. The paintings and portrait photos are hanging in the Fish Creek art gallery. A book collecting the stories, photos and paintings is in production.
Jeanne recalled an early memory of living on a farm and being close to nature. She was curious about the world around her. She and other students wrote letters to soldiers serving overseas in the Second World War. The contrast between her serene life on the farm and the chaotic world of the war helped frame her later life and how she viewed her place in it. “What do you leave for the world?” she asked. “Society needs to be kinder and more compassionate. We should lead by example.”
“My father came to Canada from the Ukraine and understood the difficulty in being accepted into a new community,” recalls Jeanne. “My family went out of its way to make friends with those who couldn’t speak English well, or who were disabled. That support for the underdog stayed with me my whole life.”
While the memories were specific – meeting a future spouse, favourite holidays, living on the farm – each story also reflected the wisdom that came from those experiences that residents have carried with them decades later. One resident, Jack Boyd recalled narrowly escaping death several times while working. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said. Another resident recalled teaching at a time when refugees came to Canada during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. While difficult because of a lack of resources and the language barrier, she learned that each person should enjoy each moment and make the most of every situation. And another resident had a curious mind and loved to travel. Despite the differences in language and culture, those experiences taught her to keep a positive attitude.
The residents and the students have formed a close bond through their storytelling experiences. Tara Hoban, who was paired with Gordon Schnell said, “Gordon has helped me to appreciate the passage of time, and he has shown me that time can bring happiness.”
Mikayla Ravenda, who was paired with Jeanne Schnell said, “Working with Jeanne was an eye-opening experience. She is one of the most caring and compassionate people I know. I appreciated seeing how her core values growing up shaped her life.”
In an interesting twist, the project was opened to older adults from the greater community who provided some of their stories.
“I got involved because of my granddaughter Sarah,” said Charles Jalsoviczky. Sarah is a student at St. Mary’s. “It sounded like a very interesting project, so Sarah and I contributed some of my experiences.”
“I give a lot of credit to the students who listened to my stories and captured them on paper,” said Gordon. “I was pretty excited to take part. Now I’m going to print out those stories and include them in my will. It’s a good way of preserving our history that might otherwise be forgotten.”
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To learn more about life at United’s Fish Creek community, watch this short video.