Two senior communities from opposite sides of the city unite in virtual writing workshop

CHICAGO-In response to nationwide upheaval stemming from George Floyd's murder and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, two organizations serving seniors from opposite sides of the city thought it was a good time to unite their senior communities and empower them to share their stories of resilience.

CJE SeniorLife serves a mostly white, Jewish population from the North Shore to Rogers Park. By contrast, the Roseland Village Interdependent Collaborative serves a predominantly Black population on Chicago's South Side. With a $30,000 Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services, both organizations brought together 32 seniors for a four-week virtual storytelling and writing workshop led by Northlight Theatre teaching artists.

"When we saw this Healing Illinois grant, the first thing we thought of was 'We can participate in this. We can use the strength of our seniors to add something positive to this negative space,'" said Catherine Samatas, manager of Community Engagement at CJE SeniorLife.

The weekly workshops were held in February 2021 via Zoom sessions that lasted about 90 minutes each. The seniors, ranging in age from their sixties to their eighties, were divided into small cohorts for the duration of the training. "They shared their life experiences and discovered what they had in common," Samatas said.

Interestingly, instead of sharing stories about their experiences with racism, the seniors mostly decided to share stories about positive life experiences.

"Even though we were in a stressful time, they wanted to focus on the good," Samatas said.

For example, one senior wrote about his experience attending a White Sox game. And another senior wrote about how her relationship with cats helped her endure the isolation of the pandemic. Maria Fowler, 73, of the Roseland neighborhood, was the only Black person in her writing cohort. A retired trust administrator for Continental Bank, Fowler wrote about her positive experience growing up in the Lowden Homes public housing project with diverse neighbors. She also shared her experience being called the N-word by a group of white boys while she was traveling to Cook County Hospital at age 18. "They were very empathetic, and they were sorry that that happened to me," said Fowler, about her cohort.

Overall, Fowler said she enjoyed hearing about the life experiences of her cohort members, some of which had already written published works. "They all had different experiences. I didn't know when I joined the group that I would be with people who were writers. It was interesting to hear what they had to say."

One of the benefits of senior writing workshops was creating a community for them. "Quarantine was a very isolating time, and we know that this demographic is already very vulnerable to isolation," said Casey Shipman, CJE SeniorLife virtual programs coordinator. "So it was really powerful and inspiring for everyone who participated in this to be able to build a sense of community together, even if it was virtually."

At the completion of the workshops, the seniors had written a total of 10 stories and poems. Those stories are being produced into a digital book, which is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.

"A common theme that arose from the storytelling was resilience," Samatas said. "Our hope was that their stories of hope and resilience could be a pathway for others to have conversations."

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